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15.12.07, Chickering, Frantzen, and Yeager, eds., Teaching Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century

The Medieval Review

15.12.07, Chickering, Frantzen, and Yeager, eds., Teaching Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century

I have had the good fortune to teach Beowulf in a variety of contexts: in Old English in a graduate seminar, and in translation in a large lecture for the British Literature survey, in an introduction to medieval literature, in thematic upper-level undergraduate seminars, and in a global literature course. It goes without saying that each of these contexts demands a different pedagogical approach, and the different Beowulfs that emerge from such courses present fascinating comparisons. Time and again, the poem, like its eponymous hero, demonstrates resilience and flexibility in the face of various challenges. It confronts students who struggle to comprehend a new language as well as those who struggle to find familiar points of reference in a historically-distant literary tradition, but it ultimately wins them over. (Mostly.) It is therefore not only useful, but exciting, to see the sheer range of teaching possibilities showcased in Teaching Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century, and it is equally thrilling to see that Beowulf is alive and well at colleges and universities all over the world.

As the editors note, it has been more three decades since the publication of Approaches to Teaching Beowulf (Modern Language Association, 1984), and this volume addresses teachers of Beowulf at all levels of higher education, with the goal of offering resources that bring readers up to date on the most current scholarship and also look forward to future trends and developments. The book is intended for medievalists and non-specialists alike; as Yeager points out, many a transatlantic modernist may find herself assigned the Brit Lit survey, and the twenty-six contributions present a range of approaches, models, and even lesson plans to aid both seasoned and neophyte teachers. It begins with a brief introduction by the editors before proceeding to essays grouped into two broad sections: Materials and Approaches. Each essay, easily digestible at around ten pages in length, draws from the experience of an individual teacher in a particular educational setting; contributors teach graduate students and undergraduates, majors and non-majors, at large research universities, small liberal arts colleges, regional campuses, and educational outreach programs. As a result, Teaching Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century offers a series of best practices culled from the collective experiences of scholars and teachers across the profession over the last thirty years.

The first section, "Materials," introduces us to the basic pedagogical tools for teaching Beowulf in both Old English and translation. The first choice any teacher must make is what text to use. As Roy Liuzza acknowledges, there is really only one edition--Klaeber's Beowulf--for the most serious study of the poem, but a variety of less-intimidating, not to mention less-expensive, editions offer tempting alternatives for more flexible contexts, such as mixed graduate/undergraduate courses. There is no such consensus on translations, however, and Howell Chickering delves into the inherent difficulties in teaching a translation with a balanced analysis of the most popular and widely-available texts. Supplementing the primary texts are a wide range of handbooks and companions, ably evaluated for their pros and cons by Andrew Scheil. In addition to these basic texts, some teachers may want to broach modern adapations of the poem; Paul Acker offers his analysis of "Beowulf at the Movies," and Martha Driver explores the possibilities of teaching with new media, including transatlantic team-teaching. Finally, Kevin Kiernan rounds up the most useful and relevant online resources, from bibliographies and dictionaries to search engines and databases, highlighting the Electronic Beowulf, now in its fourth edition and available free online through a partnership between the University of Kentucky and the British Library.

Having decided upon the basic tools for the course, the next step for teachers is to decide on the best format for their particular students' needs. The second section, "Approaches," offers course models and lesson plans for teaching Beowulf to a wide range of students in a variety of settings, as well as cultural approaches to help teachers frame the poem for students. Nicole Guenther Discenza combines the poem with a introductory Old English course, and the details of her course planning and implementation could easily serve as a model for other teachers. Some scholars focus on making cultural connections: Daniel Donoghue describes teaching the poem both in English and in Seamus Heaney's translation to extension students, while Jana Shulman pairs it with Old Norse analogues for her graduate students. Some offer novel assignment ideas to enliven the experience of the poem for students, such as Mike Drout's memorization and recitation requirements or Andrew Troup's grammatical exercises in identifying and analyzing the aesthetic function of relative clauses. Still others set out basic principles for teaching Beowulf in different classroom contexts: Robert Yeager in the British Literature survey, Jerome Denno in a variety of small seminars, Brian Gastle in argumentative writing, and William Quinn in poetry courses. Some of these contributions strike me as inherently more interesting or productive than others, and I am sure that some will resonate more strongly with other readers, depending on their own needs and interests. In any case, each one offers concrete suggestions and tools for helping students to a deeper appreciation of the poem.

With text selection and course planning out of the way, teachers must finally decide how they want to structure students' experience of the poem. "Cultural Models" offers overviews of the many different ways in which scholars have understood Beowulf over the years. Grouped together as "Traditional Contexts," we find treatments of the poem's social and political contexts, versions of the debate over Christian and pagan influences, and the requisite discussion of its manuscript context. John Hill offers a series of compelling close readings that model how the poem's celebrated monster fights really serve to illuminate social tensions within the narrative. Lawrence Besserman and Philip Purser explore the poem's Christian and pagan influences, respectively, focusing on reading individual moments in the text rather than simply rehashing old debates. And Mark Faulkner writes persuasively of the power the poem's manuscript context has on students in the classroom. In "Interdisciplinary Contexts," Maren Hyer and Marijane Osborn use the material culture of Anglo-Saxon England to enrich the poem's meaning; artifacts from the Bayeux Tapestry and manuscript leaves to swords, byrnies, and harps help to recreate the daily life of the Anglo-Saxons as well as the world of Beowulf and its characters. Martin Chase closes out this section with an essay on using Jungian archetypes to teach the poem. Finally, the volume offers a series of "Contemporary Contexts" that survey recent critical approaches, with essays on gender (by Allen Frantzen), psychological approaches, including cognitive studies (by Jim Earl), and postcolonial readings (by Andrew Johnston), as well as Sheila Nayar's essay on orality.

Teaching Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century is by no means a perfect book. Its organization is at times perplexing; why, for example, does Nayar's essay on orality fall under "Contemporary Contexts" when it addresses one of the most traditional and, some might say, timeworn aspects of Beowulf criticism? Recasting orality through the medium of film does not substantially change the approach. Similarly, one might question "Interdisciplinary Contexts," as it consists solely of two essays on material culture and one on folklore studies. It would have been nice to see a broader range of disciplinary approaches represented in this section to make it truly "interdisciplinary." Perhaps that would be asking the volume to do more than it set out to do, and these minor criticisms do not outweigh the value and interest I found in the work as a whole. After all, it clearly does not intend to replicate the work of the many critical handbooks currently available, nor should it. Instead, it accomplishes the admirable goal of providing a treasure trove of tried-and-true teaching techniques that many of us will eagerly adopt the next time we teach the poem, prompting exploration and experimentation in teachers at all kinds of institutions. In the end, our ability to be creative and engaging as we share our enthusiasm for Beowulf with our students is what will keep the poem alive into the twenty-first century and beyond.