Beowulf is a really fun poem to teach because there are so many monsters in it. There are also, apparently, allusions to the poem in comic books and video games. Many of my students--often my male students--really enjoy learning about the "original" poem that they have only encountered obliquely in pop culture. I actually think it's a great idea to incorporate pop culture into your approach to the poem!
I recommend spending a minimum of three days on the poem, one per monster. The best edition to use is Seamus Heaney's translation in the bilingual edition with facing pages of Anglo-Saxon and modern English. I have a wonderful essay prompt that asks students to investigate the Anglo-Saxon through Heaney's bilingual translation along with the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.
I also recommend that you send students to this site, where they can listen to Professor Michael C. Drout read the opening 11 lines of the poem out loud in Anglo-Saxon so that they have an idea of what "Old English" sounds like (because many people seem to think that Shakespeare "wrote in that Old English.") It's good to disabuse your students of this fallacy immediately.
Prof. Drout has a marvelous voice, and it's fun to peruse through the other poems from the Anglo-Saxon poetic record on his site, Anglo Saxon Aloud... it's definitely a site worth investigating!
Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaðena þrēatum,
monegum mǣgðum meodo-setla oftēah.
Egsode eorl, syððan ǣrest wearð
fēa-sceaft funden: hē þæs frōfre gebād,
wēox under wolcnum, weorð-myndum ðāh,
oðþæt him ǣghwylc þāra ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-rāde hȳran scolde,
gomban gyldan: þæt wæs gōd cyning!
I approach the poem by talking about the ethos of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture filtered through the lens of Kristeva's notion of abjection. I ask my students to think about the poem as presenting evidence (through the various monsters that it presents to us) for what might have counted as "abject" in that society.
The abject confronts us, on the one hand, with those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal. Thus, by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism, which were imagined as representative of sex and murder.
--Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horrors: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 12-13, emphasis in the original.
- The horror that the abject person provokes comes from a mixed sense of connection and distance. There is a sense of “this is what I came from” (love, or sense of connection) that coexists with “this is what I am no longer” (hate, or sense of distance) that creates horror, repulsion, and disgust because there is always a threat that this abject thing is what “I” could return to.
- For Kristeva, this process of rejection is something that happens at both the individual level and the collective level. The individual connects these feelings to the natural rejection of the mother (i.e. the process of growing up). The collective uses these feelings of rejection to establish boundaries between “good” and “bad”: the sacred and the profane, culture and chaos, us and them, etc. Society tries to delineate the boundary between “us” and “them” to create a sense of coherent identity in the group. Abject people get pushed to the margins or the boundaries because they create a sense of horror that the dominant group has more in common with the marginalized group than they would like to think.
- While twentieth-century French thought does not necessarily apply to tenth-century Anglo-Saxon culture (i.e., the psychoanalytic part about mothers and infants), the basic concept about an outcast group being reviled because of its similarities to the dominate group seems like it could be applicable to groups from many different cultures and time periods.
As we consider each individual monster, I ask my students: why would this monster be threatening to this society? If monsters are a sign of abjection, something to be shunned or outcast because they are a horrifying reminder of something a society would like to forget, then what is it about this particular monster that the members of Heorot don't want to have to see?
In order to talk about warrior culture, specifically in what is (probably) a tenth-century poem written by a Christian Anglo-Saxon poet, but looking back at the pagan past of seventh or eighth century Scandinavia, I turn to JRR Tolkien's famous essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics":
The monsters were the foes of the Gods, and the monsters would win; and in the heroic siege and the last defeat alike men and Gods were in the same host… the monsters remained – indeed they do remain; and a Christian [of Anglo-Saxon culture] was no less hemmed in by the world that is not man than the pagan [of Norse culture]...
We are in fact just in time to get a poem from a man who knew enough of the old heroic tales … to perceive their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and to feel it perhaps more poignantly because he was a little removed from the direct pressure of its despair [through his Christianity]; who yet could view it with a width and depth only possible in a period which has in Christianity a justification of what had hitherto been a dogma not so much of faith as of instinct – a huge pessimism as to the event, combined with an obstinate belief in the value of the doomed effort.
-- J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf and the Critics, ed. Michael D.C. Drout (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002), 65-67.
After the jump, I've included a set of discussion questions, some of which I have written myself and some of which I have culled from Fran Dolan and Margie Ferguson, professors at UC Davis who have shared their pedagogical strategies for the poem with me.
Beowulf Discussion Questions
- Why does the poem start with Shield Sheafson (called Scyld Scefing in other editions)? How would the poem be different if we just started with Hrothgar and Beowulf? What tone does the opening story set?
- What kind of king is Hrothgar? What kind of hero is Beowulf? What kind of monster is Grendel? What do Beowulf and Grendel have in common? Beowulf is not a modern character that has a kind of complex psychology wherein he is both good and bad; but his heroic goodness as a warrior in the first two parts of the poem is slightly different from the goodness of King Hrothgar. How would characterize goodness in this poem?
- Who is Cain and why does it matter that Grendel is a descendant of Cain? What other fratricides occur in the poem? Is Beowulf a new version of Abel? (For the biblical story, see Genesis 4:1-8).
- The narrator tells us that, as a child, Beowulf was “launched alone out over the waves.” We also learn that Grendel is “the Lord’s outcast.” Beowulf and Grendel are both identified by their lineage, by the men from whom they spring and by their history. Do Beowulf and Grendel have anything else in common? Are they simply antagonists or are they also parallels or doubles?
- What is Grendel? How is he described? What do you think he looks like? What makes him monstrous? What is the significance of the fact that Beowulf does not use weapons in his fight with Grendel?
- Is Beowulf's idea of a "just God" different from his idea of "fate" (wyrd) in l. 455? Why does the narrator say that the people terrorized by Grendel sometimes made offerings to pagan "idols" (l. 175) but "deep in their hearts they remembered hell"? Are there other passages where one might remark on enigmas in the characters' religious views and gaps between the narrator's perspective and that of his heroic speakers? Does the "God" Beowulf and Hrothgar sometimes mention (see for instance Hrothgar's view of Beowulf as a saviour of Heorot sent by God (the word is exactly the same in the Old English l. 478) have any hint in it of the New Testament deity who says (in Paul's letter to the Romans 12:19): "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord"?
- Who is scarier, Grendel or Grendel’s mother? Although Grendel kills more people during the course of the poem, Beowulf makes more extensive preparations to fight with Grendel’s mother than with Grendel. Why?
- Compare and contrast the poem’s presentation of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother to the fight as it’s presented in the 2007 film adaptation of the poem. What’s Beowulf fighting against in each scene? How does the movie touch on themes we’ve been discussing in class such as horror of the outsider, lineage and maternity, and the warrior-culture ethos?
- What do the narrative "digressions" do in the poem? How do they comment on the action happening in Denmark? How do they comment on the poet's role as a relayer—and shaper—of multiple histories (diachronies)?
- For Seamus Heaney's views on the digressions (which he doesn't think should be named in that way: the passages which he sets off in italic type are for him more like poems within the poem, giving the main plot in another key, as it were), see http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/beowulf/introbeowulf.htm
- Why do these digressions so often focus attention on female figures? Focus especially on the Finnsburg episode.
- This is a poem about warriors and kings. But female characters make some important appearances and Grendel’s mother draws our attention to them. What women appear in the first third of the poem? Can you make generalizations about women in the poem’s world? How would you connect Grendel’s mother to other queens, mothers, wives, and daughters? Why make this second monster a mother?
- When does the narrator draw our attention to his/her role in telling the story and to the story’s status as a narrative (“the story goes”)? What is the effect of such moments on your reading experience? Can you identify digressions in the narrative? What is their effect? That is, what do they add to or take away from the main plot?
- When Beowulf returns home, he tells the story of his battles, the story we’ve just read. Does he add anything new? What’s the effect of retelling the story within the story?
- How is the dragon similar to and different from Grendel and Grendel's mother? How does Beowulf's heroism change with each encounter with a monster? How would you compare this last battle to the first two?
- Throughout the poem, good kings are praised as generous “ring-givers.” Heroism earns piles of treasure. This final third of the poem revolves around a huge, cursed treasure hoard and the dragon that guards it. What are the relationships among accumulation, distribution, decay, waste, and loss in the poem?
- Power and property appear to pass from fathers to sons in this world. Yet Beowulf has no son. And he achieves kingship when a direct heir dies. Is that important? Why does the poem place so much emphasis on the role of Wiglaf in the final sequence of events?
- The poem’s first action is “hall-building” and its last is the construction of Beowulf’s funeral mound. How might we think about the relationship between building and destroying in the epic?
- At Beowulf’s funeral, a Geat woman “unburdened herself / of her worst fears” (3151-2). What is the effect of including her “wild litany” in the closing movement of the poem?
- By the end of the poem, do you sense any shift in the dominant emotions? Or have they been reasonably consistent throughout?
- We divided this into three sections—each focusing on Beowulf’s battle with a different monster. How else might we divide up the poem? Does that change the way that we interpret the poem?