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Teaching Guide

Teaching Beowulf

Gnomes have never been less lawn ornamenty.

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Like what you see? We've also got a complete Online Course about Beowulf, with three weeks worth of readings, activities, assignments, and quizzes.

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Beowulf isn't a "meh" kind of story. You either love it or you hate it.

And frankly, it's easy to see why many people hate it. It's a big ol' wall of impenetrable text, translated or not. But chip away at that wall and you'll have a rousing tale of heroism and one of the most epic epics of all time.

We're going to help you tip the scales into the "love it" category.

In this guide you will find

  • pop culture connections starring Lucy Lawless (hello, Xena!), Angelina Jolie, video games, and comic books.
  • activities to help students break down gnomic verse like a boss.
  • reading quizzes with monsters, mothers, and dragons—oh my!

Remember: Beowulf is legendary (literally) and deserves to be treated as such.

What's Inside Shmoop's Literature Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring literature to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Although it may not be totes obvi to your students, languages can change pretty fast. After all, "gnarly" has come and gone, and "totes obvi" will be passe before you can say LOL. But it's not just slang that shifts from generation to generation: pronunciations, connotations, and even parts of speech can change over time. (Google wasn't always a verb, people, let alone a word, and now we see the Oxford dictionaries are including "googleable" as an adjective.)

In this activity, your students will have the opportunity to briefly study the original language of Beowulf. They'll research descriptive words and phrases in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online and attempt to express each Anglo-Saxon phrase in modern English. They'll also learn to identify kennings (worth going over a second—or third—time even if you've already talked about them) and to understand them as a type of metaphor that was typical in Old English texts. Finally, they'll create their own modern kennings for people, places, or things that are important to them.

Length of Lesson: 1–2 class periods

Materials Needed:

Step 1: Begin by reading through Shmoop's discussion oBeowulf's genre with your students. The main points we want them to take away from this part are:

  • Beowulf is an epic poem, like The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid.
  • Beowulf, like many other epic poems, was likely performed aloud (by a scop, which they'll know if you already did our "Shop Till You Drop" activity)
  • Two of the primary literary devices used in Anglo-Saxon poetry are alliteration and caesura

Once you're sure they've got that info, you can add to their knowledge of Anglo Saxon poetry by sharing this excerpt from the British Library's Beowulf page:

"Beowulf is much admired for the richness of its poetry—for the beautiful sounds of the words and the imaginative quality of the description. About a third of the words in Beowulf are words known as kennings. Kennings are words that are in themselves metaphorical descriptions, and were a typical feature of AS poetry. Kennings combine two words to create an evocative and imaginative alternative word. By linking words in this way, the poets were able to experiment with the rhythm, sounds and imagery of the poetry. Beowulf contains over a thousand kennings."

Step 2: Did someone say kennings? Yep. In fact, someone said "over a thousand kennings." Time for your students to work with a few of them. 

Provide your students with copies of Shmoop's "Are You Sure This is English?" handout (one per student or group, and don't forget to get yourself a copy of the Answer Key). The directions are on the sheet, but in brief what they'll need to do first is look up each Old English kenning in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary and write down modern translations for them. 

NOTE: Students may work independently on this task, or they can work in small groups of two or three, depending on the availability of computers and time constraints.

Step 3: Next, after the students have deciphered the literal meanings of their kennings, ask them to guess what or who each kenning describes. In some instances, the dictionary will already have come right out and told them, but for some of the kennings they'll have to use their imaginations to piece the meaning together. 

When everyone has made their guesses, go through the list of kennings and have students take turns giving both the literal definitions (i.e., "bone house," "whale road") and the figurative meaning of these metaphors (i.e., "chest or body," "the sea"). 

Step 4: To make sure your students really understand the way these metaphors work, share a few more kennings from Beowulf with them and see if they can guess their meanings:

  • battle-sweat (blood)
  • sleep of the sword (death)
  • feeder of ravens (warrior)
  • bane of wood (fire)
  • body warden (chain mail)

How'd they do? Just for fun, go ahead and share the next five with them. (They all refer to Grendel.)

  • bone crusher
  • blood gusher
  • midnight stalker
  • human killer
  • dread of the land

Interesting, eh? The kennings never use the word monster, but we understand that Grendel is one, nonetheless.

Step 5: Your students should have a pretty good handle on how kennings work at this point, but to help them really get it down, have them create a few of their own. Here's a prompt:

Are you starting to get a handle on this kenning thing? Good, because it's time for you to create a few of your own. Try your hand at coming up with kennings for some of the people, places, or things that are important to you. Obviously, the sea was important to the Anglo-Saxons, which is why several kennings for the sea appear in Beowulf (whale road, swan road, seal's bath). But what's important to you? Can you come up with a kenning for your best friend? Your cell phone? Your parents or your teacher? (Be nice. You're teacher is probably not the "dread of the land.") 

Choose 3–5 people, places, or things that have significance in your life and come up with a kenning for each of them. The key to the kenning? It has to name the thing (or person or place) using other words, riddle-style, but these words can't just be random. They should say something about the essential nature of the thing (or person or place). 

NOTE: If anyone needs a nudge, you can give a few examples. A best friend could be referred to by the kenning "secret keeper," a parent could be called "life giver," a student might be "knowledge seeker," a cloud could be "sky mist." You get the idea.   

Step 6: When students have completed their kennings (possibly for homework or during a second class period), give them a chance to share them and have others guess their meanings. 

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: Grades 9 & 10 Reading 2.5, 2.6, 3.7, 3.8, 3.12; Listening & Speaking 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, 2.4, 2.5. Grades 11 & 12 Reading 1.2, 1.3, 3.1, 3.4, 3.7; Speaking 2.1, 2.3.)

Instructions for Your Students

It's totes obvi that language changes fast, right? "Gnarly" has come and gone, and "totes obvi" will be passe before you can say LOL. But it's not just slang that shifts from generation to generation: pronunciations, connotations, and even parts of speech can change over time. (Google wasn't always a verb, people.)

In this activity, you'll have the opportunity to briefly study the original language of Beowulf. (That would be Old English, which is nothing like modern English. It's hard to believe it's even the same language at times.)

You'll translate a few Old English phrases into Modern English attempt to name the person or thing described in the Anglo-Saxon phrase. You'll also learn, once and for all, to identify kennings and to discuss them as a particular type of metaphor typical to Old English texts. In short, it'll be totally bitchin'. (What do you mean no one says that anymore?)

Step 1: Begin by reading through Shmoop's discussion of Beowulf's genre with your classmates. There are a few main points we want you to take away from this reading. If you can answer the questions below, you got them:

  1. What is Beowulf's genre? Hint: It's the same as the genre for The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and The Iliad
  2. How, historically, did people typically learn the story of Beowulf? Did they read it? Did they watch it on televsion? Or did they hear it performed orally by, oh, someone like a scop? (If you don't know what a scop is, you may want to check out our "Shop Till You Drop" activity.
  3. Name two of the primary literary devices used in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Hint: they rhyme with "consideration" and "manure-a." Sort of.

Once you've got that info, you can add to your knowledge of Anglo Saxon poetry by reading this excerpt from the British Library's Beowulf page:

"Beowulf is much admired for the richness of its poetry—for the beautiful sounds of the words and the imaginative quality of the description. About a third of the words in Beowulf are words known as kennings. Kennings are words that are in themselves metaphorical descriptions, and were a typical feature of AS poetry. Kennings combine two words to create an evocative and imaginative alternative word. By linking words in this way, the poets were able to experiment with the rhythm, sounds and imagery of the poetry. Beowulf contains over a thousand kennings."

Step 2: Did someone say kennings? Mm hm. In fact someone said "over a thousand kennings." Time for you to work with a few of them. 

Check out the list of kennings on Shmoop's "Are You Sure This is English?" handout. Quick word of warning: they're going to look strange. Why? Because they're in Old English. Yes, technically, Old English is still English, but the language has changed so much over the years that it might as well be a foreign one. 

In order to decipher these kennings, you'll need to look up the definitions of each word in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online. In some cases, you may find the whole kenning, but in others you'll need to look up each part of the kenning individually in order to get the meaning. 

Ready? Go ahead and get started by looking up the Old English kennings and filling in the second column with your modern translations. 

Step 3: Once you've deciphered the literal meanings of the kennings, get to work on column three, "What it Means." See if you can guess what or who the kenning describes. In some instances, the dictionary will already have come right out and told you, but for some of the kennings you'll have to use your imagination to piece the meaning together. 

When everyone is ready, you'll go through the list of kennings with the rest of your class, taking turns giving both the literal definitions and the figurative meanings of these metaphors. 

Step 4: To make sure you students really understand the way these kennings work, your teacher is going to share a few more kennings from Beowulf with you (in modern English this time) and see if you can guess their meanings. Here they are:

  • battle-sweat
  • sleep of the sword
  • feeder of ravens
  • bane of wood
  • body warden

How'd you do? We'll put the answers at the end of the instructions so you can find them later if you need to. Just for fun, check out the next five, all of which refer to Grendel:

  • bone crusher
  • blood gusher
  • midnight stalker
  • human killer
  • dread of the land

Step 5: Are you starting to get a handle on this kenning thing? Good, because it's time for you to create a few of your own. Try your hand at coming up with kennings for some of the people, places, or things that are important to you. Obviously, the sea was important to the Anglo-Saxons, which is why several kennings for the sea appear in Beowulf (whale road, swan road, seal's bath), but what's important to you? Can you come up with a kenning for your best friend? your cell phone? your parents or your teacher? (Come on, it'll make them really happy.) 

Choose 3–5 people, places, or things that have significance in your life and come up with a kenning for each of them. The key to the kenning? It has to name the thing (or person or place) using other words, riddle-style, but these words can't just be random. They should say something about the essential nature of the thing (or person or place). 

Step 6: When everyone has completed their kennings (possibly in a second period), you can take turns sharing them in class and having others guess their meanings. 

As Promised...

Here are the answers for the extra kennings in Step 4:

  • battle-sweat (blood)
  • sleep of the sword (death)
  • feeder of ravens (warrior)
  • bane of wood (fire)
  • body warden (chain mail)

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WANT MORE HELP TEACHING BEOWULF?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Photos    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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