Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how much I love wonder tales. And, apparently, I’m not alone. Game of Thrones, Outlander, and Bridgerton are just a few of the many famous book series turned television series that are/were wildly popular. So, when it came time to teach a unit on Beowulf to my high school students, I knew this wonder tale of old has power in it, if I could figure out a way to unlock its magic.
Speaking of tales in an opinion piece for the New York Times, Salman Rushdie writes,
their power endures; and it does so, I believe, because for all their cargo of monsters and magic, these stories are entirely truthful about human nature (even when in the form of anthropomorphic animals). All human life is here, brave and cowardly, honorable and dishonorable, straight-talking and conniving, and the stories ask the greatest and most enduring question of literature: How do ordinary people respond to the arrival in their lives of the extraordinary? And they answer: Sometimes we don’t do so well, but at other times we find resources within ourselves we did not know we possessed, and so we rise to the challenge, we overcome the monster, Beowulf kills Grendel and Grendel’s more fearsome mother as well, Red Riding Hood kills the wolf, or Beauty finds the love within the beast and then he is beastly no more. And that is ordinary magic, human magic, the true wonder of the wonder tale.
There we have it! As you can see, the power of Beowulf, like many other wonder tales, endures because these stories reveal and reflect human nature. To make a unit on Beowulf truly meaningful, we must reveal the human elements in the text that answer how ordinary people deal with the extraordinary.
Therefore, in this post, I’m sharing four ways to reveal these human elements and engage your high school students when reading Beowulf.
1. Make Connections to Modern-Day
In this great epic poem, Beowulf solves a challenging conflict, stands up to a jealous peer, fights off several fiendish foes, and accepts his own mortality to name a few. Written as such (without the “monsters and magic”), all of these situations present the reader with real-world situations. Though they likely won’t be battling with swords and knives, high school students absolutely deal with these types of broad-life challenges.
My favorite way to reveal these connections is through a reader response lens. A reader response lens encourages students to connect personally to their reading. We can help by prompting them with questions about these situations. Specifically, topics like leadership, problem management, and heroism work well for these connections. I personally like crafting reader response prompts that students can answer as journals or in discussion groups:
- For journals, give students the prompt and have them answer individually. Then, discuss it as a group. These prompts work well given throughout the unit as bell ringers or exit tickets.
- For discussion groups, I give students several discussion questions for the group to review together. One way to add an accountability piece is to ask students to record an insight from their discussion.
You could also pair these discussion topics with articles on the topic of leadership. This article looks at Beowulf using the Conger-Kanungo model of charismatic leadership, and this article loosely connects Beowulf to Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. These articles make for great close reading practice and discussion starters.
2. Study Archetypes
Another valuable lesson is making connections between character tropes in Beowulf and modern-day film and television. There are some obvious pairings, like Beowulf and Game of Thrones, that you might offer to start. Jon Snow as Beowulf; the Night King as Grendel. In addition, this is a great activity to ask students to create their own comparisons. The key is asking them to provide rationale in their comparisons.
This is a great introduction to archetypes, a universal or typical pattern found in works across time and culture. The hero and villain archetypes are two of the obvious ones. What other archetypes can students come up with?
3. Create an Epitaph
Beowulf the story and Beowulf the character have enduring legacies. One way that you can connect the power of this legacy to the plot is by asking students to create an epitaph to honor Beowulf’s life.
I always start by showing students some examples first. Here’s my example:
A man who slew his demons without his faithful sword
And faced the mighty dragon even when he roared
He was a hero for all ages and his men all know it’s true
As he is laid to rest in a crown of virtue
This is a great culminating activity because students can then share their epitaphs in a gallery walk or digitally in a Padlet. I love using Padlet for sharing because students can post anonymously and vote on their favorites! It makes the activity into a low-stakes, fun competition.
4. Deconstruct the Demon
In literary terms, deconstruct means to take apart a text to its basic elements in order to expose alternative interpretations, contradictions, and otherwise reconstruct the meaning with a new lens. This task requires higher-order thinking skills to reimagine elements and reinterpret in new ways. Thankfully, with Beowulf, we have a spin-off novel, Grendel by John Gardner that establishes a new lens for analysis.
This novel retells the beginning of the epic poem to Grendel’s death from the perspective of Grendel, the monster. Grendel’s voice in this work is unique, introspective, self-loathing, and complex. In other words, nothing that you would expect from Grendel after having read Beowulf. This novel asks the question: what makes someone a monster? This is the question I like to pose at the beginning of this lesson.
Because Grendel is portrayed as an outcast, students are able to identify motives and maybe even some blame for Grendel’s behaviors. This is when we complete our Monster Behind the Mask activity where students reimagine a scene from Beowulf from Grendel’s perspective. This is a great creative writing activity because they have to establish voice through tone. After students share their writing, we read several passages from the Grendel text, and it’s always interesting to see how the characterizations show a new interpretation for the text.
Here are some other interesting retellings of Beowulf that you may want to share with your students:
- The novel Grendel inspired an opera about the same topic. There is a great overview from NPR that you share with your students here (8-minute listen).
- Beowulf was turned into a kid-friendly animation by a BYU animation student. Check out an overview here.
- The article, “Bro, This Is Not the Beowulf You Know,” is an article that reviews the highly regarded new adaptation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley.
Putting It All Together
If you like these ideas (and you want to save a lot of time creating the activities to go along with this unit), check out my complete unit for Beowulf. It includes the activities described here, plus a teacher’s guide and assessments.