Show Beowulf’s relevance with these short texts
During the first week of September, when I first mentioned the poem Beowulf to my senior British Literature classes, most of the students said that yes, they had heard of the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. They understood or at least had a notion of it being an important, seminal text. “Wasn’t there a movie not too long ago?” someone also asked.
Beyond that, however, that was about as much as they knew. In the eyes of most, it was just a really, really old poem.
And we all know how most students feel about really old poems. (Yawn.)
That’s why during our Beowulf study (which by the way, we would be done with by now if I hadn’t contracted Covid), I especially sought out recently published articles pertaining to the ancient text. My goal? To let students figure out on their own that Beowulf is still a force in contemporary society.
In other words, I wanted to stop telling students that Beowulf is relevant and instead, let them come to that realization on their own.
In addition to conveying relevance, locating contemporary articles about Beowulf published by active writers and bloggers would do two more things: 1) increase my students’ knowledge base about the great Geat warrior himself and Anglo-Saxon literature in general, and 2) form the foundation for the medieval era literature that follows in our textbook. And, in the end, my students did connect with the story.
The violence, the dragons, the mead hall scenes, the boasting. It’s all engaging. Students get it.
After all, the Burton Raffel translation in our textbook does a fantastic job of forming a solid introduction to Beowulf. Beyond the narrative pull of the poem, however, I’m confident the three articles summarized below played a role in helping contribute to my students’ connection with the poem.
Here are the three new articles I found during some weekend Internet sleuthing:
By the way, I assigned these articles as AOWs, my version of Kelly Gallagher‘s Article of the Week assignments. I also came up with some writing prompts for each one and pulled new vocabulary to use in my mini-lesson every Thursday. Those prompts and vocab words can be found at the end of each summary below.
This 2,800-word article by Ruth Franklin introduces the newest translation of Beowulf… one written by young adult author Maria Dahvana Headley and released on August 25. The article analyzes the Headley’s treatment of the ancient poem, noticing how her translation grew out of her 2018 novel, The Mere Wife, which according to Franklin, “reimagines the Beowulf story, setting it in modern times and placing the female characters at its center.”
The article also discusses Headley’s intriguing word choices that sprinkles the ancient text “with feminism and social-media slang.” (Example: The first word of the poem, “Hwaet!” is now “Bro!” in Headley’s version.)
Some die-hard Beowulf lovers may understandably take offense, but for the sake of students reading this ancient poem today (and in my case, during the snooze-inducing class period about an hour after lunch), these jarring language adjustments are warranted and, I’ll just say it, welcomed.
Take a peek at this article and pencil it into your plans for the next time you teach Beowulf. This article shows students the power of the Beowulf tale and that the themes of the story are indeed universal and timeless. It’s amazing to me to think that contemporary authors are still interpreting and re-interpreting this age-old text. It definitely helps you make the case that Beowulf is a tale of the ages with relevance even today.
The written response I created for this text: Write a 1+ page response where you discuss the significance of Headley’s new translation and what yet another new translation means for the original Beowulf text. What does a new translation say about Beowulf the poem? What does this new translation reveal about contemporary society and archaic literature?
Some key vocabulary found in this text: eponymous, dichotomy, caustic, polemical, sublime, belligerent, recrudesce, emended, fratricide, preternatural
This 2,550-word article by Sam Wright takes readers to the present-day site of the historic discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial site in Woodbridge. It’s a 255-acre estate that contained the ship burial of King Raedwold and his possessions spread across eighteen burial mounds. The estate is now managed by the Sutton Hoo Society, which supports the Sutton Hoo Research Project. The estate was gifted to the UK’s National Trust in 1998, Wright notes. Today, anyone can tour the estate and its historic grounds. According to the National Trust/Sutton Hoo website:
“The Sutton Hoo Society aims to promote our Anglo-Saxon heritage, making it relevant and accessible to all. As both National Trust volunteers and members of the Sutton Hoo Society, our guides lead daily tours of the Royal Burial Ground throughout the year. All our guides are fully trained, bringing Sutton Hoo to life by sharing some of the many stories of this internationally important site.”Bryony Abbott, Chair of the Sutton Hoo Society
The article also offers some history of the site’s earliest discoveries and excavations, which were made in 1937 and halted shortly thereafter by World War Two.
I like that reporter Sam Knight’s story introduces us to landowner Edith Pretty and her first inkling that something was down in the ground:
“Pretty had always been curious about a strange set of mounds that was visible from the house. The hillocks were marked on maps as Roman tumuli—burial mounds—and a guest who stayed with Pretty once claimed to see a ghostly warrior on horseback, riding through the grounds.”Sam Wright, “Revisiting Sutton Hoo”
Including the story of Basil Brown, Pretty’s acquaintance and freelance archaeologist, Knight adds an interesting human element to the ancient Anglo-Saxon history. And then there’s discussion about that awesome Sutton Hoo helmet once worn by King Raedwald of East Anglia.
Don’t pass up this article. It gives students a tour of the excavated grounds and, like many pieces from The New Yorker, the reporting is excellent (despite the anti-Brexit bias near the end). Also, Wright’s mix of story-telling and exposition is to be revered. In fact, I also had my students make a retroactive outline of this article to notice its blending of genres.
The written response I created for this text: Based on your reading of this article, discuss the notion of Britain’s Dark Ages. When were they? Why are they considered “dark?” What do we know about Britain’s Dark Ages, according to the article? How does this connect to class? Use any of your own existing knowledge, obviously, and cite your sources when necessary, but I do need to see evidence that you read the article.
Some key vocabulary found in this text: hoo, ethereal, abyss, autodidact, tumuli, necropolis, banal. Yes, some of these are definitely Tier 3/domain-specific words, but understanding (or being familiar with) them will be essential to understand Wright’s article.
This 1,200-word essay by author Amber Sparks is a personal narrative where Sparks reveals that reading literature from or about the Middle Ages is her go-to antidote for the difficulties of modern life, including the current COVID pandemic. She writes:
“Medieval people—they’re just like us! Or recognizable, anyway. Their lives were so much shorter, and so much more violent and uncertain; they lived through turbulent times, and yet the survivors quietly picked up the pieces afterward and carried on. In our own unsteady era, this picture of the resilience of the human race is reassuring. If we came back from the Black Plague—a disease that killed 50 million people in the 14th century—it seems like we could come back from anything.”Amber Sparks, “Escaping into Books About the Middle Ages is My Self-Therapy”
I plan to assign this one in the next week or two. I’m saving it for when we’ll switch from Anglo-Saxon literature (with a Hero’s Journey extension–more on that in another post!) to literature of the medieval era.
Sparks alludes to a handful of non-fiction texts and novels in this article to explain how immersing herself in medieval literature has helped her cope with the death of her mother, infertility, and social unrest, and other difficulties.
This reliance on the medieval era, in fact, is a noticeable characteristic of many readers and writers, according to Sparks, who cites Clair Wills of the New York Review of Books: “There is a small but highly respectable tradition of…novelists turning to medieval and quasi-medieval worlds in times of crisis.” One example: Tolkien’s The Hobbit was written in 1937 during the first rumblings of World War Two.
With Sparks’ essay, it’s my hope that my students will understand that these very old texts we read in British literature have application for themselves in the year 2020. If professional writers find relevance in these texts, perhaps they’re worth looking into.
The written response I created for this text: In addition to a general reflection on this essay, I plan to have them emulate it by writing about their own form of self-therapy using Sparks’ essay as a mentor. What is their form of self-therapy? What do they find solace in when the going gets tough? I’m hoping they can explore their own ways of coping, taking inspiration for the structure of the article from Sparks. It sounds like another retroactive outline will be in order when that time comes.
Some key vocabulary found in this text: Plantagenet, fetishize, pogroms, quasi-, respite, solace, crux. Yes, some of these are definitely Tier 3/domain-specific words, but understanding (or being familiar with) them will be essential to understand the points Sparks makes in her essay.
What are your go-to texts to pair with Beowulf?
Please leave a comment to let me know! I’ve only taught Beowulf twice and I’m totally open to new ideas, like these from Ashley Bible and Zach Hamby. In fact, become a follower to catch my upcoming post about the interesting Beowulf essay my students wrote based on an idea from Bible’s Building Book Love website.
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