I have a confession: I never read Beowulf in high school. Or college. I read Canterbury Tales more times than I can count (yet only remember a handful of the stories). I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ad nauseum – and I like that story. But no Beowulf. How did I miss it?
I’ll tell you how, we tried to cram so much into such a short amount of time. We spent hours and hours in school, but spent very little time actually studying. Somewhere along the way, Beowulf was lost to me. I’m not sure if I was ever really exposed to it or not. It might have been something I breezed through in a Norton Anthology and regurgitated the next day for a pop quiz, only to be quickly forgotten. I couldn’t tell you. I only know that I had a vague idea that it was an epic poem involving something named Grendel when I began working at a bookstore as an adult. Even then, I couldn’t tell you if Grendel was the monster or the man.
As we began our Middle Ages/ Early Ren. (450 AD to 1600 AD) year while classically homeschooling, it dawned on me that this was the year for Beowulf. I had already read the picture book by Eric A. Kimmel to kiddo when she was a wee one, but I’m sure she was so tiny she had fallen asleep; now was the time to embrace the story.
And we did. I read her the picture book shortly before my trip to Atlanta. It fit right in with all the Celtic and Norse mythology we’ve been reading to bridge the gap between the ancient times and our exciting year ahead. “What a guy! He tore off the monster’s arm! I can’t even do that,” she exclaimed. She was very pleased that this particular picture book could give the story in “one-sitting, all today” as opposed to the stories of Odysseus and Troy which all took weeks of chapter by chapter to finish. I foresee reading this again and again over the coming months, she loved the story so much; I have to admit, I did too.
I liked it even more when I discovered there was a cartoon made in 1998 starring Joseph Fiennes as the voice of Beowulf – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA. We got to watch that and call it school. It was a lot of fun. (There’s one for Don Quixote we’ll be watching next year when we make it into the 1700s.)
Naturally, I was curious as to the accuracy of these versions. I won’t ever truly know, because everything is a translation, but I thought I’d give an adult version a go. There’s so many versions out there, I think I’ll just try a different one every Middle Ages cycle. So I took the Constance B. Hieatt version with me to Atlanta and enjoyed it immensely, especially the little extras at the end.
The kiddo, of course, keeps asking me why we are using “fake stories as lesson books, they aren’t real stories mother!” I keep telling her, very ineloquently, that these stories help us understand the people who told them. Read them to her as bedtime stories and naturally she’s thrilled at the excitement of them.
We’ll collect more versions over the years and by the time she is grown she will know the story well – and remember it. Next go around we’ll even tackle it in poem form, and eventually we’ll read Gardner’s Grendel.
Do you have any favorite versions of Beowulf? Or, more importantly, do you know any great stories of the time period that should not be missed?
As everyone else heads back to school, I looked over the last month and realized we really did treat the hottest months of the year like a summer vacation this year… mostly lolling around the house between events, taking extra naps after our dance parties in the living room, and mostly hiding our pasty skin from the hot, Texas sun. So I tackled cleaning out the closets, while everyone else was out buying school supplies, and organized our life the way it has always been organized in my brain… in unit studies. Of course, that got me in the mood to really tackle “school time” with more vigor and this last week or so we jumped back into the swing of things with Ancient Greece and Rome and then The Vikings and the Celts.
Viking Ships at Sunrise by Mary Pope Osborne was next in our Magic Tree House Adventures. We have not acquired the Viking research guide yet, but I believe there is one. We also re-read DK’s Eye Wonder Viking book, we had read it once before while perusing the exciting world of piracy, and a little repetition is good for a kiddo.
But the really exciting book for this particular unit study was The Hero Beowulf.
Eric A. Kimmel’s retelling of Beowulf is a pretty neat picture book add on for little people. It’s illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher and is complete with an author’s note about the original poem in the back. Beowulf, after all, isn’t just a monster myth, it’s the “oldest surviving epic poem in English literature,” all the way from the sixth century, to your hands now.
I can’t reiterate enough how much the classical education style appeals to me by teaching so much history through the other subjects… or rather teaching all the other subjects by tackling history so thoroughly. I love that there are so many resources, like Kimmel’s picture book, to make the tales and the culture more real and the epic poem more accessible when the time comes to tackle the original work; because in classical education everything repeats at a higher level over and over again.
After reading The Hero Beowulf, kiddo ran to grab other books with Viking ships on them and said, “Look mommy, more Beowulfs!” So she doesn’t entirely get it yet, but hey, she’s two.