Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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6 thoughts on “Grendel’s Ima

  1. Yes, it is better for those who need structure. I teach with a co-teacher in three of my classes, so I think this would be perfect for her students (SWD).

  2. I just taught Beowulf for the second time (second year teacher!) and I fell in love with the side stories, which I no longer consider to be side stories, but central to the themes of the poem. My Beowulf unit is still coming together, but it focusses less on the heroic and more on the dangers of blood feud and reciprocal violence. I've never heard of anyone taking this tack with high school students, but with help understanding the complicated Swede/Geat feud and the Dane/Frisian/Heathobard narratives, they have made great comments in discussions and made connections back to Cain and Abel, greed and jealousy, heroism and reward, gold and violence, and on and on.

    I am assessing essays this weekend. I will find out how well they were able to access the parts of the poem I've focussed on. But I wonder what you think of the Hildeburh, Ingeld/Freawaru and Ongentheow/Ravenswood parts of the epic for teenage consumption?

    Ben

    • They usually cut those out of the textbook selections, which are the parts we read, but if students study the whole text, I think looking at those sections has merit. When I wrote the study guide (PDF), I had to think about what to do with those "digressions." Check it out and let me know what you think. I did write it about 10 years ago before I'd ever actually taught the poem.

      • Dana,

        Thanks so much for the link. There are at least several activity resources there that will help me in the future.

        I think the questions aimed at the Thrith/Hygd and Sigmund/Beowulf are good ways to explain and handle those sections, but I'm interested in the ones that are not mentioned.

        We have the Seamus Heaney translation and read the entire text, which I thought strange when I first started teachign at my school. Last year (my first time reading all the way through — I'd only studied the traditional parts before that) I found the "digressions" to be frustrating and confusing and I mostly ignored them, other than to tell my students that they reinforced the A-S importance of lineage.

        This year I had determined to just cut them out of my plans and not read them at all, but for the "Saga of Finn" (which I refer to as the "Hildeburh Story" as she is the central figure in the tragedy) as I spent a long time last year piecing the narrative together with students through a classroom performance. (I focused on it because we get so few female characters of note in the epic and I felt for my female students, some of whom were not into the heros and swords.) It seems poetic justice to me that a woman's plight in this macho culture turned me on to the the downsides of the A-S way of life — downsides the warring tribes seem to recognize yet are not able to get past.

        We get little narrative flesh in the Saga of Finn, but the bare details of the story made Hildeburh one of my favorite characters — a bride married to an enemy tribe gets caught between the warring clans and loses her brother, husband and son. The idea that the two warring factions become trapped together in a meadhall for the winter and have to live together peaceably made me think of so many of the reality television shows that have been popular of late.

        Moreover, it is what we don't know that makes the episode ripe for study. I have students use the piece for creative writing and performance pieces to show what they know about A-S culture and poetry. These will be unveiled next week!

        It was nearly impossible to get my students to construct the Swede/Geat narrative that is interwoven in the dragon episode as I was discovering its importance too late and my bag of English teacher tricks is still woefully small, but by putting the family trees up and drawing lines back and forth (and a hasty reenactment with the help of plastic swords, crowns and a tiara from my Hamlet bag!) my students were able to see that over three generations, almost every member of the two families has killed off a member of the other. Beowulf and Wiglaf are the surviving members of their house! Paired with the straightforward end the poem, the Geats waiting for every one of their neighbors to slaughter or enslave them and pillage their community, it wasn't too much of a leap for my students to see the epic in a way I'd never conceived it.

        It seems to me that the narrative complexity of the end of the poem is what makes Beowulf a brilliant work of art. The side-by-side scenes of Beowulf and Wiglaf fighting the dragon and Eofor and Wulf fighting the aging, mighty Swedish king Onentheow (a Beowulf archetype) now seem to me to go together like rice and beans. Hrethel's loss of his son, Hildeburh's loss of her family, the survivor's loss of his entire race (the source of the dragon's gold) Hrothgar's loss of Aschere (Esher), Grendel's mother's loss of her son, the Danes' inumerable losses to Grendel, etc, etc, etc; Beowulf is made a hero many times in the epic, but there are just as many examples of murder and loss.

        And the poem ends on a marvelously ambiguous note: we have the hero's funeral and the unamed Geat woman keening her fears of foreign invasion. Is this simply a heroic ending to a heroic epic? I hope I don't sound l too much ike a bleeding-heart liberal (though I probably am) but my thesis is that the epic poem is at least one half a warning about violence, greed and revenge. And this makes the poem, one I'd always thought was about a superhuman hero who fights monsters for glory, decidedly more satisfying to my mature tastes.

        Next year I will have a better answer for my students who don't care about swords or monsters who ask me why they must read Beowulf than "It is one of the earliest works of English literature and a beautiful piece of poetry" (to which, they respond as you'd expect!) Now I can say that it's about the human desire for glory and power and the attendant dangers of satisfying it that plague us to this day. (I'll work on simplifying that…)

        Ben

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