During the first third of the Beowulf course, students learn the basics of Old English grammar while reading Old English elegies. During the second third of the course, students read Beowulf: A Student Edition, ed. George Jack. For each session, students read a passage of Beowulf, write a one-page response paper, and consult a work of criticism. This prepares students for robust and meaningful class discussions grounded in the poem’s language.
Primary readings, at first, consist of brief passages (e.g. 70 lines). Then, students gradually read longer portions (up to 1000 lines) as their facility with Old English increases. Most students elect to undertake these readings together during a voluntary, weekly reading group facilitated by the instructor.
Secondary readings begin with Tolkein’s seminal article, useful not only for its argument but for its place in the critical discourse. (As students read later criticism on the poem, they note that Tolkein becomes a key interlocutor for other scholars, and the conversational nature of scholarly writing becomes a subject for class discussion.) Secondary readings draw students’ attention to formal and structural issues; provide students with background in Old English metrics; and consider textual-critical questions. Students read formalist, historicizing, and post-modernist critiques of Beowulf, so that this sequence of assignments teaches students to think from various critical perspectives.
Prompts for response papers guide students toward close-readings of the poem, in order to facilitate greater attention to the language. Prompts also direct students to make connections between Beowulf and the other poems previously read. And the prompts develop students’ ability to engage secondary works by asking students to apply insights borrowed from critical sources. As the sequence progresses, prompts become more open-ended and move toward helping students think about their final papers.
By the end of the sequence, students become able to read portions of Beowulf from a facsimile and to make arguments both about the poem and its material context.
Schedule of Assignments
- Session #1
- Primary Reading: 1-188;
- Response Paper (1 pg): Discuss Grendel’s first appearance, perhaps by considering one of the following questions:
- Note the vocabulary of line 126 (“Ða wæs on ūhtan mid ǣrdæge”). In what other poems have we read this word “uht?” How could one account for the word’s various uses across poems?
- Note the vocabulary of lines 129-133 (particularly the words “morgen-sweg,” “þeoden,” “æþeling,” “ge•fremede”). Where in Beowulf have we read these words before? How does the context change the meaning of their reappearance? How does repetition charge them with meaning?
- Note the frequency of the construction “ða wæs.” What is the effect of this repeated structure?
- Session #2
- Primary Reading: 189-455
- Response Paper (1 pg): Discuss Beowulf’s first appearance, perhaps by considering one of the following questions:
- How does the poet describe the ship’s journey? Are there any particular literary strategies (alliterative, syntactical, rhetorical, etc.) that are employed to narrativize movement?
- In the watchmen’s identification of Beowulf (ll. 244-251), how would you classify his rhetorical mode? What is the effect of this mode?
- Secondary Reading: Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics”
- Session #3
- Primary Reading: HW: 456-790
- Response Paper (1 pg): Robinson argues that the style of the poem is “appositive” in multiple ways and at many levels (grammatical, verbal syntactical, structural, etc.). Identify an example of apposition and write about its poetic effects.
- Secondary Reading: Robinson, Beowulf and the Appositive Style (excerpt). This chapter is elegant and inspiring—a model for how to do literary criticism. But if you’re pressed for time, just read enough of it to make sense of the overall argument.
- Session #4
- Primary Reading: 791-1191
- Response Paper (1 pg): Robinson suggests that kennings are a kind of apposition: they juxtapose two elements without necessarily explaining the connections between those elements, thus creating a kind of “fruitful ambiguity.” Locate a kenning (try to find a particularly interesting one) and use the Bosworth-Toller OE Dictionary (http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/) to find the meaning of its roots. Write about the various ways that one might interpret the compound. Check the Beowulf Concordance (https://archive.org/details/concordancetobeo00cookuoft) to see if the kenning is used more than once in the poem, and perhaps you could discuss how repetition changes its meaning.
- Secondary Reading: Mitchell & Robinson, “Metre”
- Session #5
- Primary Reading: 1192-1650
- Response Paper: Using the scansion system discussed last class, scan lines 1408-21. What is the effect of the meter in this passage? How would you give a dramatic performance or reading of the passage that emphasizes the meter?
- Secondary Reading: Niles, “Ring Composition and the Structure of Beowulf”
- Session #6
- Primary Reading: 1651-2220
- Response Paper (1 pg): On any topic of your choosing.
- Secondary Reading: Taylor, “Old Norse Magic and Old English Verse”
- Session #7
- Primary Reading: 2221-END
- Response Paper (1-2 pg): Free-write about Beowulf. What has interested you so far, and what kinds of topics might you like to explore in a panel paper?
- Session #8
- Secondary Reading: Kiernan, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (excerpt)
- Response Paper (1 pg): On any topic of your choosing. (You might consider the contents of the Nowell Codex and what they might indicate about the audience of Beowulf.)
- Session # 9
- Secondary Reading: Waterhouse, “Beowulf as Palimpsest,” and Earl, “Beowulf & the Origins of Civilization”
- Response Paper (1 pg): Identify and critique the argument of one of the articles.