By DANA HUFF
W. GEIGER ELLIS, ED.D.,
UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA, EMERITUS
ARTHEA J. S. REED, PH.D.,
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA, RETIRED
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of Beowulf
Beowulf ’s origins are mysterious. While we do not know the identity of the author, and we are unsure of its precise date of composition, most scholars believe it was composed by a single Christian author for a Christian audience in AngloSaxon England anywhere from the eighth to eleventh century. Beowulf was composed in the oral poetic tradition. Whether it was originally written or oral is not known. The poem, filled with biblical allusions to the Old Testament, is also influenced by Germanic oral tradition and Old Norse myth and legend. Beowulf is well suited for upper-grade high school students of all abilities. Adolescent readers will enjoy its action and adventure. Television shows, such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules, and movies like The 13th Warrior (based on Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead), have helped pique student interest in stories of feudal heroes. Most upper-grade high school students previously have been introduced to epic poetry and its related concept of the epic hero in such works as The Odyssey. Lower-ability students should be able to read and understand Beowulf with the help of plot summaries and class discussions. All students will benefit from learning about Anglo-Saxon customs and values through the study of this early poem in a modern European language. This teaching guide is organized in three sections presenting suggestions to be used before Beowulf is read, while it is being read, and after the reading is completed. Following these sections are a Bibliography and a Webliography for pursuing further study. BEFORE READING
Before reading Beowulf students should review the definitions of epic poetry (a long, narrative poem written in an elevated style which celebrates the deeds of a legendary hero or god) and epic hero (superhuman hero or god of an epic). It may be helpful to discuss epics that the students have previously read, such as The Odyssey. Beowulf is noted especially for two literary devices — alliteration and kenning. Upper-grade high school students should be familiar with alliteration, or the repetition of similar sounds, especially the initial consonant sound of a word or of a stressed syllable, such as “Shild’s strong son” (23, line 19). Alliteration is a literary device that was used frequently by Anglo-Saxons, and Burton Raffel, the translator of the Signet Classic edition, has preserved as much of the alliteration as possible. Students should also be introduced to the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon literary device of kenning. Kenning is usually a two-word metaphorical name for something, such as “sea-road” for ocean (30, line 239). When neither element of the compound is a true name of the object, it is a true kenning; when one element is not a true name, it is a half-kenning. It also may be helpful for students to be introduced to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the scop. This will aid students in understanding some of the literary devices and other stylistic techniques that appear in Beowulf. Scops were both composers and storytellers who traveled from court to court — the entertainers of Anglo-Saxon times. Scops were expected to know a broad repertoire of tales and no doubt be able to compose tales in tribute to the patrons who financed them, a possible explanation for the segment about Offa, a historical king of Mercia from 757-796 (83-84). Students will benefit from learning about the comitatus, or Germanic code of loyalty. Thanes, or warriors, swore loyalty to their king, for whom they fought and whom they protected. In return the king was expected to be generous with gifts of treasure and land. The king also protected his thanes. Kings were highly...