What good is Beowulf?
High school students can follow the English language's evolution in Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, and they can focus on words and their meaning as they compare translations.
"Language is the most perfect work of art in the world. The chisel of a thousand years retouches it."
— Henry David Thoreau
In North Carolina, the 2004 Standard Course of Study for English IV (twelfth grade) focuses on British literature. Textbooks begin with the Anglo-Saxon period, most prominently Beowulf, and move through the Middle Ages to The Canterbury Tales. Each textbook provides commentary about the oral tradition and Chaucer; each textbook explains the role of the epic hero and the structure of the frame story; each textbook tells us that these are great works of enduring literature. An epic and a pilgrimage — what more does a teacher need to enthrall seventeen-year-olds with two such esteemed works of art? The most famous pop culture line quoted about Beowulf is Woody Allen’s, "Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf," from Annie Hall. Since most students are not familiar with Annie Hall, I have to feed them the line and then pose the question, "Why?" It is not a question we can answer to everyone’s satisfaction.
The year that I gave up English 10 and took on English 12, I struggled with justifying the study of such old literature as Beowulf (I saw Annie Hall) and The Canterbury Tales to modern teenagers. Many young people do not have heroes and are, "not interested in an old man fighting a dragon." (A student said this to me recently, providing the elusive "teachable moment"). In some ways The Canterbury Tales is even more remote from our students. The occupations of the characters are not job titles they recognize; the path and destination are not places they have seen. I want to give my students a viable reason for studying these pieces of literature, then sneak in the back door with the innate charm of the stories.
In most textbooks, a paragraph at the beginning of Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales tells us that two other English languages have existed before the English we use today. Sometimes there is a graphic reprint of Old English in the section called "The Anglo-Saxon Period" and Middle English in the "Medieval Times" unit. At least one publisher provides a tape of twelve to eighteen lines of the texts in their original languages. Continuity in the evolution of English as a language is missing, however. The study of the development of the language would provide my "excuse" for asking students to read Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales.
I would not have thought of language as the purpose of study if I had not participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities institute called "Literature and Writing in a Manuscript Culture." The summer before I began teaching English 12, I spent a month at Illinois State University in the NEH Institute under the direction of Drs. Ron Fortune and Rodger Tarr. Twenty-five language arts teachers from all over the United States participated in the seminar. The emphasis of the study was on the evolution of an author’s writing from the original manuscript to the published text. One of the participants was a student of foreign language, and her presentation project focused on comparing translations from one language to another. I decided to use her model and the brief information from our textbooks about Old and Middle English as a starting point for a study of the development of the English language, using Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales as examples.
Before beginning Beowulf, I give students some dates in English history to provide landmarks of British culture that we will be discussing and milestones for the developing language. Most important to Beowulf is the Anglo-Saxon invasion, bringing German to the old Celtic language, resulting in Old English. We listen to a few lines of Beowulf in Old English to hear the guttural sound of it; most students can hear the German in it. I pass out an information sheet of our common words and phrases (taken from the Internet) translated into Old English and we talk about the few we can recognize. When we turn to the text of Beowulf, we note that there is no author, but only a translator. We explore the possibility that literature written in another language may have several translations. Then we look at the first three lines of Beowulf by five different translators. (See "Beowulf: The Case of the First Three Lines," page 1 of the attached handout.) I ask students to compare the translations, to focus on word choices and to determine which is most appealing to them. The chart I ask them to use (page 2 of the attached handout) provides space to list "unfamiliar words" and "good phrasing" for each of the translations.
After we have read and studied the story of Beowulf, students make a text-specific comparison of three translations. We use twenty-five/six lines of Burton Raffel’s and Seamus Heaney’s translations and one paragraph of E.Talbot Donaldson’s. This also provides opportunity to compare poetic and prose forms. Students are again directed to use a chart to make the comparison. This time, they are given a list of words or phrases from one of the translations, and asked to find the corresponding words or phrases from the other two versions. (The translations and the chart are available on pages 3–6 of the handout.)
Using this chart requires students to focus on words, their meanings, their similarities and differences, their impact on syntax, and their placement within context. Language becomes a driving force in the study of the old epic, and judgements can be made about the use of language. Is one translation right and one wrong? No. Is one translation better than another? Probably not. Is one translation more appealing than another? Very likely. As Thoreau says, "The chisel of a thousand years retouches it."
The next major stage in the evolution of English came when William the Conqueror of Normandy invaded Britain in 1066. French then became the language of the aristocracy. Its influence filtered down through the social classes to create a new language, Middle English. It is the language of Chaucer, and so in The Canterbury Tales we have an opportunity to compare Old, Middle and modern English.
Our class listens again to the section of Beowulf in Old English and then immediately to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. We compare the phonics of each passage; we try to determine in which passage we can recognize words that we hear and use. Then we listen to the Middle English again with written text before us. Now we recognize several words as we see and hear them. We are able to see patterns in spelling and hear them in pronunciation.
When we have studied the characters and some of the stories, we make a text-specific comparison of Middle and modern English by looking at three texts side by side: the original in poetic form (Chaucer), one in modern language, poetic form (Coghill), and one in prose form (Lumiansky). Once again, I ask students use a chart to make the comparison; as before, they find the translated versions of selected words or phrases from the three versions of the story. (See pages 7–9 of the handout for the translations and the chart.)
These activities center on the history of our language. Beowulf provides the text for Old English, The Canterbury Tales furnishes Middle English writing. These texts are widely available in books and on the Internet. Original versions are found at various websites. In book form, Heaney’s Beowulf, for example, is published with the Old English on the left page facing his translation on the opposite page. Similar arrangements are available for The Canterbury Tales.
These student-oriented learning activities reflect the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for English IV. Competency goal 1.02 is met by students’ responding to texts as they recognize/observe the authors’ (in this case translators’) use of language. Discerning significant differences and similarities among texts and translations addresses competency goal 2.01. The texts and charting tasks involve two authors and a total of seven translators. Competency goal 3.01 calls for students’ use of a variety of resources: textbooks, original versions, seven translations, and the Internet. The lessons ask students to explore and relate cultural and historical contexts to literature, competency goal 5.01. Goal 5.02 extends engagement with literature in various genres, in this case by comparing prose and poetic translations of original texts.
"Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf," but do take a course in which you can learn some of the history of your language. It is one aspect of English culture that binds all of us together. If we have to study Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales to observe our language’s evolution, then we do. Through the language, we can find what is valuable within the stories. Thankfully, language changes; it loses some of its outdated characteristics and adds new ones. If "language is the most perfect work of art," as Thoreau says, then let us observe how "the chisel of a thousand years," has retouched it.