Many teachers, scholars, literary critics, and even students have argued and continue to argue that there is no merit in studying the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. However, there are three key reasons why Beowulf is a valid unit of study in high school English today. Thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,“ in which he champions the merits of the Anglo-Saxon poem, many people began to reconsider the epic poem’s worth. He acknowledged the opposing criticisms of the poem and recognized that it lacks in overall sophistication but still saw valid reasons for not dismissing it as a piece of serious, literary work.
As a high school English teacher of British Literature, I always begin the year with a unit on Beowulf. Here are my top three reasons for why I agree with Tolkien and believe that the poem is worth students’ time and attention.
1. The Great Debate.
The very FACT that Beowulf has received so much back-and-forth debate among literary critics, writers, teachers, and scholars PROVES that it is an excellent work for students to study. It offers students the chance to debate the merits of the poem all the while practicing their argumentation and rhetoric skills through speaking and writing. Why hand students an assured classic such as a Shakespearean tragedy when you can hand them Beowulf and let them decide for themselves if it should be taken seriously as a literary work? Allow students to agree or disagree with Tolkien, and I assure you, they will be interested in not only reading the poem but interacting with the text as well!
2. Historical Importance.
Being the oldest surviving English poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, Beowulf gives the reader insight into the history of England and what eventually became British Literature. The influences of British Literature on the rest of the world are numerous and enormous, and being able to compare/contrast modern journeys with one dating back approximately 1,000 years enables students to see the arc of how story has changed. From an archetypal standpoint, Beowulf presents several common story motifs and literary elements that have influenced how story is shaped today. Again, this provides an excellent basis for class debate: "Why is the Beowulf poem historically significant?” I assure you that students will respond in kind.
3. It’s NOT SO SIMPLE!
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard English teachers say that they would never teach Beowulf because it is just too “simple” and does not have enough “substance” to be worth the time, energy, and effort. At first glance, yes, Beowulf seems very straightforward: a hero fights evil and succeeds. However, upon closer reading, I would argue that the poem is not so simple as that. For one thing, the hero DIES at the end of the story after being warned about pride from Hrothgar. AND the hero dies while looking at his treasure, a mark of greed, power, and selfishness. So, what is the Beowulf poet really up to? The poem may not be just a “monster story” after all. Perhaps, there is something deeper beyond the surface. Again, this provides students with ample discussion and debate on whether the hero, Beowulf, dies heroically or shamefully, whether he is a successful hero or a failed one. I don’t know about you, but I prefer giving my students something a bit “gray” when it comes to merit and letting them decide for themselves where they stand. This is an effective way to tap into the ELA Common Core Standards and give students power to have a voice in discussing literature.
MEGA BEOWULF BUNDLE
I have compiled my teaching resources for the Beowulf unit into a mega bundle that includes 25 lessons and activities with answer keys! So, if you are interested in trying out Beowulf in your classroom, check out my bundle to help get you started!!
Do you teach Beowulf in your English classes? Why or why not? I'd love to hear from you! Please leave a comment.