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Teaching Beowulf

I quite clearly remember studying for my Medieval Comprehensive exam with a keen awareness that I would inevitably have to write about Beowulf. Over the years, it is a text that has become my dearest frenemy. It is the anguish of the sonnet that I love, the nobility of tragedy, the artifice of the masque. Beowulf? Not so much. Once upon a time, I flirted with becoming a Medievalist, and I’ll have to say it was the knowledge that I was the only person in my 500-level Medieval survey course that was not excited about Beowulf that finally gave me the shove I needed towards the Renaissance. Nevertheless, I teach this poem nearly every semester.

Maybe it was my lack of any working knowledge of Old English (rendering the tried and true formal analysis useless), or the fact that Hrothgar and his retainers appeared so boorish next to the dashing Petrarchan lover and the misguided yet heroic knights of Spenser’s epic-romance, but I struggled for years to find a window into this poem. It wasn’t until I stumbled across Tolkein’s famous lecture “The Monsters and the Critics” that it seemed I had finally been given a lifeline: Monsters.

At the time I had begun my vivid fascination with the complexities of the allegorical mode that remains such a large part of my work today, and I was in the midst of dissecting every peculiar composite creature in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Perhaps my concern with allegory was the reason I latched on to the monstrous body as something I could work with, but let’s face it – monsters are just cool.The challenge in teaching Beowulf is not only forcing myself to see the text with fresh eyes, but making it accessible to students. Here, it seemed, was the key.

One need only to look around at the success of films like Harry Potter and the gruesome 21st century revision of the gothic in cinema to discover evidence that there is something about monsters that resonates throughout history. Perhaps they provide us with a much-needed reminder of humanity’s persistent capacity for evil, or maybe we just like the adrenaline rush of confrontation with the grotesque. Whatever the case, as I continually strive to make Old English literature interesting to young adults who are far more concerned with social pursuits and the proper selection of a financially lucrative career path than the nuances of a text written over twelve centuries ago, I can at least manage to get them interested in monsters.

I have Dr. Roy Liuzza to thank for suggesting Tolkien’s essay and to this day I prefer his translation to that of Seamus Heaney. His approach was to encourage us to think of Hrothgar and his retainers as Sicilian mafia-like gangsters. Certainly it is a fitting analogy. He has put together a number of useful online resources concerning Old English literature, and Beowulf in particular. I find the following study guide a useful pedagogical tool:

Here is a list of additional resources as well:

Baker, Peter S, ed. The Beowulf Reader. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Crawford, Sally. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. Westport, CT: Greenwood World Pub., 2009.

Fulk, R. D. and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Is Beowulf a struggle for you? How do you teach the text and what is your methodological focus? Is the poem more important to you as a cultural artifact or an aesthetic piece? If the latter, how do you study it as an aesthetic piece in translation?