A Better Beowulf Unit Begins with Sutton Hoo

The Dark Ages discovery builds Beowulf engagement

Need an awesome nonfiction text to enhance your Beowulf unit? Look no further! I have a resource for you that you really must check out. It’s titled “Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Ship Burial.” Written by Sam Knight and published in The New Yorker (August 9, 2019), this article is one of my all-time favorite contemporary texts to include in my Beowulf unit.

I recently uploaded my assignment sheet (cover sheet shown at left) to my Site Shop. Check it out here.

The article focuses on Sutton Hoo, the monumental 1939 discovery in Suffolk, England of treasure and the remains of a buried Anglo-Saxon ship, in effect a grave for King Raedwald of East Anglia.

Knight’s article is a genre-blending dream!

Weaving seamlessly from narrative to expository and then back again, this article clearly illustrates for students the type of multi-discourse writing that they are expected to read and write on standardized tests, whether in high school or at the college level.

Sam Knight article on Sutton Hoo in The New Yorker

But more importantly, the article is a joy to read. And yes, much of the reason why it’s so enjoyable is due to Knight’s skillful pacing that he achieves through the blending of the story of excavator Basil Brown and landowner Edith Pretty, alongside Anglo-Saxon history and literature (namely, Beowulf), plus still other connections to contemporary English life, including Brexit.

In short, this article, which you can read here, portrays Beowulf as a text for the ages and a text for today. Thank you, Mr. Knight, for this article.

I’ve created an AOW-styled close-reading assignment that uses this article should you choose to assign it to your British Literature students. You can find it here on my Site Shop and on TpT here.

The assignment asks students to find new vocabulary, outline the article in a way of their choosing, notice Knight’s interweaving of narrative and expository writing, discuss the changing notion of Britain’s Dark Ages, and comment on Knight’s connections to contemporary British life.

Sutton Hoo article handout
I created this AOW-styled assignment based on the article, “Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Ship Burial.”

Three other resources you should know about if you teach Beowulf:

1. The Dig on Netflix

Netflix’s 2021 film, The Dig, stars Carrie Mulligan (The Great Gatsby, Suffragette) and Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient). While it’s a fantastic film, I showed only the first sixty-six minutes to my seniors last week. Read why in my review here. For a viewing guide to this portion of the movie, visit my resource on TpT.

And here’s a photo (below) of the viewing guide I created for the first sixty-six minutes of Netflix’s The Dig. The guide includes a few objective questions, but also critical thinking questions you may need to discuss and think through with students after viewing the film. The viewing guide is also on my Site Shop and on TpT here.

The Dig viewing guide on Sutton Hoo discoveries
I created this viewing guide for The Dig.

2. The Dig by John Preston

The Dig by John Preston If you’re interested in reading the book upon which the movie is based, here’s a link to that as well. In the meantime, do read the Sam Knight article.

The Dig by John Preston
Use this text to supplement the movie, The Dig.

3. In Search of Beowulf by Michael Wood

This documentary, hosted by English historian and broadcaster Michael Wood, is the most thorough and comprehensive one I’ve found yet to use while introducing Beowulf to my classes. Wood includes a healthy dose of Sutton Hoo background and intrigue, as well as interesting connections to our current day English language. Students also hear famed actor Julian Glover read Beowulf to a live-action mead hall brimming with enraptured listeners. It’s a fascinating glimpse into how Beowulf would have been “performed” in its day.

I return to this BBC documentary year after year.

Beowulf is always fun!

Marilyn Yung of ELA Brave and True

I really don’t think it takes much on my part to build excitement for Beowulf. I usually tell my students that Beowulf is the story that makes us afraid of things that go bump in the night.

Those instinctive primal fears have been passed down to us through the ages via this classic Anglo-Saxon tale… along with, of course, our ideas about justice, loyalty, and heroism.


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Published by Marilyn Yung

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