Home School Life Journal

Home School Life Journal
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales
painting by Katie Bergenholtz

Medieval Literature Study for Middle School Students: Beowulf

Hwæt! We have been enjoying studying Beowulf. We began our study by using a lesson from Charlotte Mason, which resulted in drawings by the boys to narrate and illustrate the story. They have previously heard Michael Morpurgo's version of the story and so with this familiarity of the story behind them, it was now time that we took a look at Seamus Heaney's translation for it is much easier to study the poetic devices and such with this version. This is a dual language edition, so we can look at the two and therefore are able to pick out a phrase or two from the Old English.


History
We looked at the historical aspects of the story. Beowulf was originally written between 700 and 100 AD in Old English. In the poem is a historical king, King Hygleac, who died in 521 AD, was from Geatland, which is now southern Sweden.
Christian references and Pagan references (wyrd or the pagan term for fate, for example) are entwined in the story.


Vocabulary

The boys learned quite a bit new vocabulary. Some of it had to do with the history in the story and some of it had to do with the poetry of the story. The system of comitatus, in which the warriors, called thanes, would pledge themselves to a lord (ring-giver), protecting and avenging for him in exchange for room and board, weapons and gifts is present in the story. Thanes were both housed and entertained in mead-halls. The entertainment was often provided by a scop, or a singer of lays, a short narrative poem that discusses a particular incident in a hero's life. Meaningful sayings were put into the verses to aid the memory. This is called aphorisms or  gnomic sayings.


Poetic Devices

The boys particularly enjoyed learning about a couple of the poetic devices used in Beowulf. They enjoyed searching for kennings, a poetic phrase in which an adjective and noun or two nouns are put together to form one descriptive term, such as whale-path for the sea, or swimming-timber for a ship. They also found epithets, or a descriptive word or phrase that stands in place of the person's name such as Wielder of Wonder for God. The boys were assigned to make up a few kennings and a few epithets of their own.


One of the most important (and most fun) features of the poem is the use of alliteration rather than rhyming. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds, rather than letters, of words that are close to one another. The boys enjoyed picking out the alliteration, and in fact, had trouble stopping, it was so much fun. 
Not only does the poem have alliteration, but the alliteration becomes an important part of its structure. Each line of the poem consisted on two half-lines with a break, or caesura in the middle. Each half-line contained two stressed syllables. The amount of unstressed syllables vary. I encourage you to use Beowulf as a read-aloud because it is really meant to be heard. These features make it so much fun to read and fun to hear. We went over the mechanics of this only briefly, as I wanted them just to enjoy the poetry. We will get into more detail on the poetic devices this once they reach high school literature analysis.  

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6 comments:

  1. Ironically enough we just covered Beouwulf, very briefly, in our lessons last week. I just gave them a quick overview because I don't think my kids are quite ready for it. Also I was rather scarred by a high school teacher who felt the need to read Grendel as well and focus on rather disturbing aspects of it....

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    1. I have never read Grendel, but because of what I have heard about it, it seems too violent for me. Besides, how can you top the original?

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  2. Did you have them watch Star Trek Voyager - Season 1 Episode 11 - where they get trapped in a holonovel version of Beowulf?

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    1. No, I haven't. I have never cared for Voyager. Did you enjoy the episode?

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  3. Oh I've never heard of kennels (nor have ever read Beowulf...) but I just love the sound of them! Whale-path and swimming-timber - so clever. I know I'll be trying to come up with my own now and trying to get the girls to join in :)

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  4. We had great fun with Beowulf too. We also listened to it being read in its mother tongue which was fascinating. I love all you did!

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