HS English B

Thursday, August 18

We are kicking off the year with about eight weeks of poetry. We’re starting with the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf and will work our way through various eras and styles leading up to fall break.

In general, poetry can be categorized by pattern or by purpose. I gave you examples of both today, so be sure you keep those notes handy for your end-of-the-semester test. (Tests are open notes!) There are dozens of types of poetry, but we won’t get to all of them. There’s no time or energy for that. Instead, we’ll explore examples of well-known poets and you’ll do your own exploration in a few weeks.

Beowulf is one of those works that feels overwhelming, like it’s not a story you’re going to understand or even like. If you feel that way, no sweat. My main goal is to help you understand the plot so you can appreciate the poem for its prominent place in literature.

As I told you in class, critics largely agree that the author of the poem was a Northumbrian scop (storyteller) and that he was likely a monk since they were tasked with transcribing and keeping ahold of important documents. Somehow the text survived all of King Henry VIII’s church burnings because the document surfaced in 1563 under the first recorded owner – Laurence Nowell. He studied Old English and actually wrote his name on the top of the document.

Beowulf then entered the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton (who also owned a copy of the Magna Carta). Sir Robert Cotton passed down Beowulf to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton, who then passed it down to his son, Sir John Cotton, who died in 1702 and left the document to the nation. The Cotton Library helped form the early collections of the British Museum in the mid-1700s. Beowulf was transferred to the British Library, where it currently lives, in 1973.

A few other tidbits:

  • The first printed translation is dated 1815 by GJ Thorkelin, who was from Iceland and was researching Denmark at the time.
  • In 1845, the British Museum began the preservation process to repair the damaged document. (It was nearly burned in a fire while still in the Cotton family’s possession.)
  • JRR Tolkien can take the credit for putting Beowulf on everyone’s radar. He worked on a translation of the poem and published a noteworthy essay in 1926 called “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”.
  • Beowulf was digitized in 1993.
  • You’ll be reading Seamus Haney’s translation from 2001, so the modern language should be approachable.

Beowulf isn’t meant to be read. It was an oral tale, which will be noticeable with certain sections because it will feel like you’re reading a lot of speeches. We’ll get into the Anglo-Saxon way of life next week.

Homework

Read lines 1-1631 in Beowulf. Take your time. Refer to the pronunciation guide when necessary!

When you’re finished, answer the following questions substantively in a Google Document and share it with me by Wednesday night.

  1. The first 63 lines of prologue tell a few stories about former Dane warriors/heroes, essentially the lineage of how the Danes wound up with Hrothgar as their king. Why do you think the author of Beowulf set up the story this way? Does the lineage matter? 
  2. Grendel is introduced early in the story as a descendant of “Cain’s clan” (line 106). Why do you think the author chose to connect the monster to a Biblical character (i.e., the first murderer)?
  3. Though Beowulf enters the story around line 194, we don’t get his name until line 343. Why all the build-up and drama? How does this build-up match the boasting and drinking that goes on in the mead hall until line 661? 
  4. So Grendel goes to the mead hall like usual to grab a snack, not expecting Beowulf at all. In the end, while all the Geats are fighting unsuccessfully with their swords, how does Beowulf defeat the monster? (lines 781-836, 962-973)  What does this tell you about the warrior AND the monster?
  5. We are introduced to Grendel’s mother, whose descriptions are worse than her son’s! (line 1258-1263) Based on her quiet approach and revenge, what’s the image you have of her in your mind? 
  6. Lines 1345-1382 offer a better picture of Grendel and his mother’s history, where they come from (mostly unknown) and where they live (too scary to explore). Of course, Beowulf takes this as a challenge with encouraging words to Hrothgar (lines 1383-1396). Compare and contrast Beowulf and King Hrothgar in this scene. How are they similar, how are they different?
  7. Beowulf finds Grendel’s lifeless body in the cave and decides to chop off his head as a trophy. Why do you think he does this? 

Introduction

This course is all about exposure to diverse works and will be structured around the three primary genres of literature: poetry, prose, and drama.

Students will read a wide range of award-winning classic and contemporary works. We’ll discuss plot, character, literary elements, and methods, and they’ll write a couple of essays and complete one research project in the spring. Students will be expected to participate in class discussions by contributing their own thoughts, ideas, and questions. Since we’ll be acting out scenes from the plays we read, it will be necessary to have a handful of brave students willing to participate!

This class is designed for upper-level high school students who are capable of critical thought, participating in discussions, and writing academic essays in MLA format. Students must have a gmail account with Google Drive, as this is how most work will be submitted and graded. Some works have more mature concepts in them, so, as always, I recommend parents read these works alongside their students (or preview them beforehand).

There are five primary elements to this class:       

  • Assigned reading: Students will have something to read almost weekly, so it’s imperative to keep up. Since everything overlaps, falling behind on reading leads to falling behind on everything else. 
  • Response questions: I’ll post critical thinking questions each week related to whatever we’re reading. Answers need to be substantive, meaning they need to have some substance to them. Short answers won’t be given as much credit as longer, thoughtful answers. Response questions need to be turned in by the Wednesday evening prior to class to receive full credit.           
  • Two biographical essays           
  • Semester Tests
  • Spring Research Project

Tests are open notes, so your ability to pay attention, take notes, and keep organized is always rewarded. Bring a writing utensil and your notebook to class every week.

Fall Required Reading: Beowulf (translation by Seamus Haney), Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier, Kindred by Octavia Butler; poetry and short stories will be provided

Spring Required Reading: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Julius Caesar (No Fear Shakespeare), Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides (ISBN-13: 978-0195077094) , The Crucible by Arthur Miller; short stories will be provided