In School in Germany: Teaching Beowulf and Old English- Introduction

Viking Ship at the Museum in Oslo. Source: Wikipedia (Hifi0006)

Old English: one of the main origins of our language. Consisting of the languages of the Anglo-Saxons, Old English was first spoken by the Germanic tribes and consisted of words most commonly found in today’s German, English and some Scandanavian language. With the Norman Conquest of 1066, Old English transformed itself into Middle English while adopting words and phrases from the Norman language. Eventually all of the historic elements, as seen in the clip below, made up today’s language, which has its common, fixed structure in terms of grammar and sentence construction, but is constantly evolving because of the language’s adaptation to the changing environments, including the development of technology which is influencing the way English is being used.

And this takes us to the story of Beowulf. Written between the 10th and 11th Century, before the Norman Conquest, Beowulf is the oldest known literary work that was conceived in Old English. Although the work has been translated into today’s English, with the most recent work written and edited by Seamus Heaney, it is unknown who wrote the folklore, consisting of a poem with 3182 lines. The work has however been adapted into film, TV series and even children’s stories.

But who is Beowulf and why is it important to teach that in class?

To summarize, Beowulf was a warrior of Scandanavian descent who ruled the Geat kingdom. His strength is equal to 30 men, and he can battle with sword and hand-to-hand combat. He helps the king of Danes, Hrothgar, in defeating a monster named Grendel, who had invaded the dining hall, killing some Danish soldiers. Grendel loses his arm in the battle with Beowulf, runs home to the mother and dies at the end. The mother becomes angry and invades the hall again. Beowulf chases her down and kills her in the end as well. The warrior receives many rewards and eventually expanded his kingdom in the end. Fifty years have passed, and Beowulf, in his 70s, faces another challenge in a form of a dragon. Accompanied by his nephew, he battles the dragon and defeats it, but not before he is mortally wounded. He is honored in his funeral, where as a custom, he is burned on a boat but others give him something as a sacrifice to remember.  Many adaptations exist but a couple shorter animations shows how the story takes place:

Because the poem was written in Old English, Beowulf presents an insight of how English was used during that time, especially as some of the words originated from that period. Furthermore it is important to learn about history after the Fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, especially as far as the creation of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandanavian regions are concerned. Much of that is taught in history classes in schools in Germany, especially in the sixth and seventh grades, but some elements are even being presented in English classes, including the culture of the kingdoms in the regions during that time. While some elements of European history is introduced in American schools, it is important to learn about this, for the Vikings, who explored North America in the 9th Century, the time of the release of Beowulf, came from the regions in Scandanavia, including Denmark, and had been known for invading the Anglo-Saxon kingdom (especially in present-day England) several times before the Conquest of 1066.

The question is how to teach Beowulf to students in school without having to bore them. As mentioned before, over 3200 lines were written and translated, yet the time limit is a factor, as well as determining how it fits in the curriculum for either English or history. One can reduce the content to the most important aspects, but doing so creates a risk of leaving out some elements that may become important later on. Reading it straight out would be as brutally difficult as reading Chaucer, even on the high school level.

But one can create their own adaption of Beowulf. This includes adapting Beowulf to a modern version, such as Beowulf 2.0, Beowulf on Twitter, etc. It also includes activities to fill in the lost years, video games, and the like. It is a matter of presenting a summary of the story, while introducing the details, including Beowulf’s family, childhood, kingdom and even the culture of the Geats, Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Scandanavian regions, which one may need a two sessions for, pending on the time alloted per session. After that, students have a chance to create their own versions of Beowulf.

In July, some examples of how Beowulf can be taught will be presented to give teachers and students some ideas for their own project as well as possibilities to teach it in class. These were done by fellow college students at a university in central Germany. More on that will come then. In the meantime, what are some ideas you would have to teach students the importance of Beowulf? What projects did you try doing? Place your stories in the comment section below.

Stay tuned! More on Beowulf will come in July. 🙂