Approaches to Teaching Beowulf - Lord of the Rings and Role Playing

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Approaches to Teaching Beowulf
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The Lord of the Rings and the elements of a role playing game.

Beowulf is comprised of 3 fights.  There are three kinds of forces both in the poem and in most role playing games.  In Beowulf, those forces are subdivided into Christian forces and pagan forces.  Superhuman forces are exactly what they sound like—in the poem, they are God, evil, and fate.  In games, the superhuman force is fate or luck or the roll of the dice.  Human forces are, in the poem, Beowulf and his men.  In gaming, it is the human player.  Material forces are the things used by the human force or the goals of the human force: ships, horses, weapons, treasure.

With those forces in mind, consider the forces in Beowulf.


Superhuman Forces

Human Forces

Material Forces



God, evil, wyrd

Beowulf alone

None—Beowulf fights for honor and uses his bare hands.

Beowulf trusts in God/fate and represents good in the fight against evil.

Grendel’s mother

Grendel’s mother, less God

Beowulf and fellow thanes but Beowulf fights alone.

Hrothgar promises Beowulf treasure to kill Grendel’s mother and Beowulf uses a sword and dagger.

Beowulf fights for money and uses weapons.  God is less apparent in this fight.



Beowulf is originally accompanied by 12 followers, but they abandon him save one.

Beowulf fights to keep treasure and protect his people.  He wants the treasure made into a mound so he can watch it as he dies.  Uses a sword.

Virtually no God in this fight, and Beowulf is fighting to defend a nation of “Goblet stealers.”

One theme can be extracted by examining how the forces change throughout the three fights.  Beowulf originally trusts in God, uses no material forces(Fortitudo), and fights for glory.  In the second fight, there are fewer superhuman forces, more material forces, and more human forces.  In the third fight, Beowulf relies more on wisdom (Sapientia), uses more material forces, fewer superhuman forces, and needs a followed to help him slay the dragon.

Notice also that there is more empathy for the monsters as the fights progress.  Grendel’s motivation for attacking Hrothgar’s men is pure evil.  In the second fight we understand Grendel’s mother’s avenging her son’s death.  In the third fight, the dragon is simply doing his job, protecting the treasure, when one of Beowulf’s people steals a goblet from him.


“Man should not trust in things of this world" for they (like Beowulf's sword) will fail him.

All men die.  The wages of heroism are death.  Men should trust in God rather than in things, because the trust Beowulf places in weapons rather than in God fails him.

Ask students to choose a role playing game and to examine the superhuman, human, and material forces in them.



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