The Fight with Grendel

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SWBAT - understand the importance of kennings and alliteration when reading Old English and early Modern English poetry; understand the transformation of Beowulf's character from loyal guard to hero.

Big Idea

How does someone become a hero? How do heroes know which villains to fight? How do authors use sound techniques to make sense?


This lesson is part of a larger unit on Beowulf, and incorporates dramatic play into comprehension of the main action sequence in the poem, the fight with Grendel.  The main objectives in this lesson are to help students understand poetic syntax and to help them see how dramatic interpretation can aid in meaning. 


Becoming a Warrior

20 minutes

We start class by listening to Henry Real Bird reading his poem "Rivers of Horse".  I then ask students how, according to the poem, what made Crow youth a warrior?  The students respond by pointing out several lines from the poem.  That the warrior took care of his people, that he was fast and strong in battles, that he could steal from his enemies and not get caught, and that he had lots of horses which he gives away to his people. 

We discuss the many similarities between Beowulf and the warriors of this poem, which isn't so much about the warriors as it is about the importance and impact of the horse on Plains Indian culture. 

I have students contrast the importance of the horse with those materials which Beowulf's culture valued: gold and weaponry. 

Hero Meets Monster

30 minutes

This time when I asked students to re-write the fight with Grendel into a five minute or so long reenactment, they were ready. Four students volunteered to play the roles of Beowulf and Grendel, and the others grouped themselves up with those students.  I gave the students the line numbers they needed (ll. 662-835) and told them they needed to reenact those lines.  One group immediately started writing about the fight with Grendel, while the other group went back and gave the lines a closer read.  

I moved between the two groups answering questions about a particular line or encouraging students to go back and read a little closer.  The group that immediately started writing about the fight with Grendel, thought they were done, but when I reminded them to check the line numbers realized they weren't; they groaned a little and went back to add lines. It realistically took students about 15 minutes to finish writing the scene.

When we got outside the students asked if they could watch each other. One group was really enthusiastic about it, while another group had some members who weren't comfortable with the idea of performing in front of their classmates. I had one group back away so they were able to hear and see, but not so close as to make the other group uncomfortable.  I gave the cue to the group to start, but one girl started talking to another, and the aid started talking to a student, and I realized that they weren't ready, but  they weren't going to go back and start over, either.  I had two thoughts at this point: I could go into middle school teacher mode, and make everyone start over, essentially treating them like children, or I could let it go, and use their grade as a consequence, which seems a bit more like college.  

I let this group continue all they way through their reenactment, and then gave the whole group feedback at the end.  No one argued with my assessment, because they knew it was correct.  The girls who were talking understood that they weren't paying attention, and had a low grade because of it, and the students who had refused to start again knew they had a low grade because they didn't take the opportunity to start over. 

The next group did much better, perhaps because they listened to my feedback as well, but they forgot the last minute or so of their script. 

I can tell now that this lesson works better with a smaller group when everyone is participating at the same time. I've typically taught this lesson to class sizes of 8-10 students, and students are mostly excited and put a lot of character into the reenactment.  With a class size of seventeen, I am bound to have more reluctant participants, and diluted peer pressure to keep the shier kids from dropping out of the action. 


Kennings and Alliteration

15 minutes

Back inside I used the remainder of the time to talk to students about kennings and alliteration. I had already peppered my readings by pointing out kennings like "whale-road" and "bone-lappings", but now I formally defined them and asked students to find examples from the text. 

I did the same with alliteration, and as partners the students looked for examples. 

Reading Assignment

5 minutes

For their reading assignment I assign lines 1888-2366 and 2510-2602.