Beowulf is difficult for students to read on their own. Since the story of Beowulf was, long before an 8th century monk transcribed it into print, orally shared around the campfire by the scops who kept alive the culture’s history and legends, I divide the class into small groups. Each member takes a turn reading aloud the epic poem. Students are allowed to choose how much each member reads at a given time.
I divide the poem into three sections, easily divisible by the three fights which are the foci of the story. At the end of each section, I ask groups to pool their comprehension of the plot—“What’s going on?” and to consider some thematic implications. In this way, students actually read the poem, (rather than frustrating them by assigning it for homework), and the more heads that can construct a plot, the better all students seem to understand it.
Once the students read the poem, there is a wealth of themes to explore and a host of activities to engage higher level thinking. Some approaches involve:
1) Tolkien, a Beowulf scholar, used the poem as a basis for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Telling students this before reading the poem sets up a schemata. Ask them to look for similarities.
2) Beowulf as allegory
3) What goes into the making of a good role playing video game (see material, human and superhuman forces below)
4) Examine the poem as a treatise in heroism. Sapientia and Fortitudo.
5) Use Beowulf as a literary work that helps us examine what we mean by “style” in fiction.