How to Teach Beowulf

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ften cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature, Beowulf is a great way to introduce students to epic poetry. There are many translations of Beowulf to choose from. Prose translations may work best if you have limited time to dedicate to lessons, but more advanced high schoolers can study poetic translations, which will better demonstrate the rhythm of the original piece.

Before starting Beowulf, you can show students how the English language has changed over the centuries by reading passages from Old, Middle, and early Modern English. They will be surprised by how much the language has changed since Beowulf was written! A lesson on Germanic and Scandinavian history, Scandinavian legends, and Christian elements in Beowulf will help students contextualize the poem.

Your class can also discuss what it means to be a hero or good leader and what makes someone a monster. They can relate these qualities to contemporary heroes, leaders, and monsters from both popular culture and real life. This discussion will show students that, even though the culture in Beowulf seems far removed from modern times, the poem explores universal themes.

Summary

Beowulf, a heroic warrior of the Geats, helps the Danish king Hrothgar, whose great hall is frequently attacked by a monster called Grendel. Beowulf slays Grendel with his bare hands, but, the following night, Grendel's mother comes to have her revenge. Hrothgar, Beowulf, and their men track Grendel's mother to a pond, and Beowulf dives into the underwater lair and kills Grendel's mother with a sword. The hero returns home and becomes king of the Geats. Fifty years later, a dragon terrorizes the Geats; Beowulf tells his warriors that he must fight the beast alone. He defeats the monster but is mortally wounded. His people hold a funeral and mourn him.

Beowulf - Literary Touchstone Classic

Beowulf

Paperback

This enthralling new prose edition of Beowulf combines the clearest, best elements of two different classic translations, so readers will get both a feel for the language and an appreciation of the action of the story.

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Content Warning

Beowulf contains some violence and drinking.

Objectives for Teaching Beowulf

  • Explain the elements that make Beowulf an epic poem.
  • Cite examples of pagan and Christian values.
  • Discuss the relevance of women's roles in Germanic culture.
  • Identify characteristics of Germanic culture as depicted in Beowulf, including the commonality of feuds, the importance of weapons, and the attitudes toward life, death, and material possessions.
  • Identify the relevance of the interjected anecdotes with the main story.
  • Recognize the values of the Germanic heroic code, and explain how those values differ between warrior and king.
  • Identify the characteristics that make Beowulf an epic hero.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Alliteration
  • Deus ex Machina
  • Foreshadowing
  • Kenning
  • Symbol

Beowulf - Complete Teacher's Kit

Package

Are you looking for ways to differentiate instruction in your classroom? Complete Teacher’s Kits make it easy to teach each student in the way that he or she learns best. Whether students thrive on direct instruction, giving personal responses, or by participating in exciting activities, there’s a solution in each Complete Teacher’s Kit for everyone.

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Themes and Motifs

  • Good vs. Evil— The primary conflict in Beowulf is the fight between a courageous, strong, loyal warrior and evil monsters.
  • Family and Tribe— Ancestry and tribal relations determine people's identities; those without tribes are seen as incomplete.
  • Good Warriors and Good Kings— While warriors and kings share values of loyalty, courage, and selflessness, a good king has a greater duty to his people while warriors pursue personal glory. While Beowulf is a great warrior, his impulse to take on the dragon alone puts the people in his kingdom at risk.

Key Facts

  • Length: 112 pages (prose)
  • Publication Date: ca. 1000 CE
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Beowulf - Teaching Unit

Downloadable PDF File / Reproducible

The Teaching Unit for Beowulf gives you a comprehensive academic framework that saves you hours of prep work. You can rely on this well-researched unit as a strong base for your lesson plan — it was written by one of our seasoned educators with your needs in mind.

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Movies

A number of films are based loosely on Beowulf. Perhaps the best-known film is the 2007 adaptation starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, and Angelina Jolie. However, this movie deviates significantly from the original epic poem, most notably by having Beowulf be seduced by Grendel's mother, who gives birth to the dragon he battles at the end.

Your students will love:

  • The adventure of Beowulf slaying monsters
  • Exploring the elements of Germanic culture, Christianity, and Scandinavian legend

Students may have problems with:

  • The format of an epic poem with verse
  • The Old English translation

Available from Prestwick House:

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Literary Touchstone Classic
Complete Teacher's Kit
AP Teaching Unit
Multiple Critical Perspectives
Response Journal

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