The Beowulf Circle (Beowulf begins)

"Lo! We have listened to many a lay / Of the Spear-Danes fame"  

Lesson Overview (a lot of overview here - this is a crucial lesson for the year)

They have the historical background - they have worked in groups, we've talked about educational experiences - now we need to dive into the important stuff: "the words".  A rare day with no homework (including reading) due (unless they did the extra credit on "The Last Anglo-Saxon".  When the students come into the class - they find a faux campfire going in the center and the chairs arranged around it in a circle.  On each desk is a handout (the excerpt from Beowulf we will be looking at) - turned over so  just a blank sheet is showing (ah the metaphor...).   

The lights are out - the campfire going - and I usually have campfire sound effects going as well.  Then I kind of shout "Lo!" It gets their attention and I tell them the story of a professor and his grad student who camped out one summer doing geology field work.  After a few weeks of cramped quarters - they couldn't stand each other - until one night the teacher, inexplicably cooked a great pasta dinner - they shared a bottle of wine and the professor stood in front of the campfire and, from memory, told the story of "Beowulf".  I tell my students that the student in the story - who was my friend - said it was one of the most thrilling experiences of their life.  Now you have their attention AND they have been told in the best possible way - that "Beowulf" is an oral story (which they've read about that in their text books - but it becomes real).

In the past - depending on time - as my words are ending - I play an Old English version of the text we are about to go over....just for a minute.  The idea is the to take them back and forward in time - and to show them again what Old English was. 

We turn the sheet over - and they see the opening of "Beowulf" translated by Charles Kennedy (which is great because their text books have a different translator for the rest of the story).  We then talk about what we are going to do.  Students will read one line or so - that is - until they get to TERMINAL PUNCTUATION.  At that point, the next student in the circle picks up the reading.  While the text is being read - they are to circle every word or phrase that they don't know - or don't know in this context.   Students will always be shy about this - not wanting to look ignorant - so you must remind them to really really circle when in doubt - and I usually stop after the first few lines and tell them that in five lines I have circled  eight words.  I also usually threaten to test them on words they haven't circled.  Then we start again - this time you will really notice them circling! You may need to help them with what is or isn't terminal punctuation.

When we finish the last line in the excerpt.  You ask for what they circled - start at the beginning.  Did anyone circle anything in the first line?  Ah - "Lo!" - Get them to figure out what it means.  That is crucial.  In this entire exercise - there is only one word that I have had to "give them the meaning of": "bills and burneys".  The rest can be figured out by context - "What do you think "Lo! " means?  What kind of story is this? (Oral)  Why would you want to say that at the beginning?  etc. etc. etc.  By the time you go through all of the words - and again - I can't stress enough here - have them discover it - there are always a few  oooo's and aaaahhh's.   They love getting this for themselves.  For example - how the meaning of "standard" and "tribute" have changed over time...

Now you will  have them read it a second time - this time for MEANING.  Tell them "You will write down every comment,  every question, every idea that you can - based only on what is here is this one page of text.  Forget you read the intro - forget any  history you know about this period - what does the text itself tell  us?  Or make us ask about?  There are (stress this) no bad questions.  The only bad thing you can do is to NOT write."  Tell them they should be writing continuously (have them limber up their hands) from the Lo! until the last word - warn them you may stop and call on them if they're not.  (Believe me, they will).  The first circle go around warms them up to this.  So you go around again - and make sure they are all writing.

Now - go over their questions, comments, ideas.  Value every single idea from the students - start at the top of the text.  Make sure someone asks (someone will - they always do) why talk about stealing Mead Halls (they know what these are from the last go around) when you are trying to impress a bunch of listeners?  (Oh - right, they may be telling this in a Mead Hall) cool!  There are many cool moments in this excerpt.  The circular beauty of Scyld's life - arriving with nothing on a boat - being put on that boat laden with treasure HE EARNED (earning what you get will be a huge theme in this unit) when he died.  Make sure you try and get to every student with the questions and ideas they came up with - just from the reading.  When you are done and the time of the period is ending, ask a student to hold up their text - it will be literally covered with their notes (make sure they take notes on what other students came up with - when you are going around in a circle). 

Remind them of their reading (homework) - the students' reading schedule for Beowulf can be found in the handout from the last lesson.  Remind them of how much they were able to come up with on their own - they can and will do this.  

The Beowulf Circle Directions


Most Recent Handouts & Quizzes

Beowulf Text for students (Charles Kennedy):   PDF   This is the handout that is on the students' desks when they walk in (turned over - so blank side is showing - ah the metaphors!).  Notice it has plenty of room to take notes - and is slightly enlarged from the text book.

Audio Visual Content

Well - it  helps to have a campfire going during this lesson - here are some good sounds (and visuals) from The YouTube.  This is a link to the opening (prologue) of Beowulf being read in Old English - I often played a moment of it after my story.


Remote Enhancements 

 A Power Point presentation that can be used to help focus remote students (or in the class)
for this lesson.



Class Recordings (for registered members)



What's Next & Unit Home Page

Beowulf - Elem of Lit pgs 21-27 ("The Monster Grendel" up to Part 6):   They now should have the means and confidence to do the reading tonight.  I gave them during our Beowulf Circle - some fun things to look for (like what the monks might have changed) and there are always some students that find them.


  Intro to the Anglo-Saxons

Thoughts on the Lesson 

Wow!  So much comes from this one lesson.  IT'S ALL ABOUT THE TEXT.  Nothing shows this more than this lesson.  And they can figure it out themselves.  They need to try and they need to trust themselves.  That is a lot from one lesson.  And on top of that they get this beautiful translation of a beautiful text (and this part inexplicably is left out of their text book).  And because it has a different translator it also starts to give them an idea of where English is coming from.