Unraveling the Epic: Students Dive into Beowulf

Emerald Connection, March 12, 2024

By: Jen Roderick

In preparation for their spring production, middle school students have been studying the heroic epic poem, Beowulf. Beowulf is a story of a Scandinavian hero, his support of the Danes through the destruction of monsters, and his inevitable rise to become king of the Geats. Beowulf is considered one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon epics. There is only one surviving copy of the poem, written in Anglo-Saxon, that was actually bound to the back of another codex. It is dated to the year 1000 but the stories events date to the early 6th century. It is thought that the story of Beowulf was recited in the oral traditions of the Anglo-Saxon people far before it was preserved in writing. Poets and harpists, historians of the time, would sing or recite the poems. In following this tradition of Anglo-Saxon oral storytelling, the 8th grade students have been preparing to recite the first 25 lines (the prologue) of Beowulf, in its original language. 

Over the past 3 weeks, students have studied English translations of the poem and the storyline in depth. On Tuesday, the 8th grade students were given a linguistic challenge that filled the room with attempts at speaking an ancient language. They discovered guttural and palatal vowel sounds, unique consonant blends and digraphs and the classroom was alight with humor, discovery, and challenge. Students were partnered up and each group was assigned 4-5 lines of the prologue. The students were given an Anlgo-Saxon linguistics packet that supported the students in comparing the Anglo-Saxon Alphabet and Sound System to that of Modern English. It was like handing the students a cipher with a key. 

After grappling through their initial translations, the students viewed a thespian, Jefferson Reardon, reciting the prologue. Then, more decoding, practicing, translating continued (apparently all through study hall time as well). 

Through this hands-on exploration of Beowulf, the students are not only gaining a deeper appreciation for the art of storytelling but also uncovering the intricate layers of language and culture that are part of the epic. They’re discovering the power of alliteration and intonation in oral tradition, as well as the complexities of Anglo-Saxon grammar and spelling. Moreover, they’re witnessing firsthand the convergence of the Latin alphabet with the ancient Anglo-Saxon tongue, tracing the roots of modern English back to its primordial beginnings.

Beyond the academic realm, it has been a joy to watch the middle schoolers breathe new life into the age-old saga of Beowulf, they’re not just reciting lines; they’re keeping alive a tradition while embodying the heroic spirit of Beowulf himself as they embark on their own epic quest for knowledge and understanding.

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