Beowulf Meets Crazy Horse

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Students will be able to evaluate heroic qualities on display in the epic poem Beowulf as well as Native American stories; comparing and contrasting heroes as they work to identify universal traits. They will apply a variety of strategies toward interpretation and analysis

Big Idea

What constitutes literature? Why are some stories written down? Why do cultures create epics?


This lesson can be used independently or as part of a larger unit on Beowulf. The main goals/objectives in this lesson focus on cultural, heroic ideals and how culture shapes these ideals. 


What is a 21st Century Hero?

5 minutes

For this section of the lesson I had started talking to students about what made someone a hero in the 21st century. Students had no trouble coming up with ideas like "willing to risk life" "willing to stand up for beliefs" "strong" "smart" "brave", etc.  I usually fill half of my white board with these words and descriptions. 

What Makes a Hero in Beowulf?

25 minutes

After we've charted a list of heroic qualities, I direct students to re-read the first 50 lines of Beowulf. This is often called the prologue, because it describes the past; the founding of the Spear-Danes tribe.  Then we skip ahead to lines 195-228 which describe Beowulf when he first hears about Grendel's destruction of Heorot.   

After we read those lines,I had the students write down words, in a different color, that they thought identified Beowulf's heroic qualities and we put them on the board next to the list of 21st century words. There are fewer words, but the board is pretty much full now. 

Then I had two students go up to the board and circle the words that were similar. 

We then discuss why there were so few words that were similar, but why the words that were similar were so important (part of it had to do with some of their earlier choices like "good-looking" "rich").


Crazy Horse: A Sioux Hero

45 minutes

Students have now read lines 1-228 of Beowulf  from a PDF I posted on-line and new books are on their way. I also assign them a section from Indians of North America  by Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa) called "Crazy Horse/Tashunkewitko" this reading is about seven pages long and should be read out of class with instructions for students to underline the descriptions of Crazy Horse that seem heroic. 

If students haven't read the Crazy Horse stories when they come to class pair them with students who have, making sure that each person in a group has read either the sections of Beowulf  or the sections from Crazy Horse

I assigned too large a reading so only a few students read both, although most had read Beowulf and a few only the Crazy Horse reading. So I put the students into groups of five and had them compare and contrast Crazy Horse and Beowulf. I ask them to look at the different actions each hero performs, and the way those actions are described by the author.  I instruct them to make a list of the various adjectives and verbs used to depicted each hero and then to write a brief summary comparing and contrasting the two men.  I point out that while Crazy Horse is an historical figure, the representation of him here is specifically that of a hero.  So while the actions of Crazy Horse are real, the author has embellished them or focused on them to specifically tell his audience something about the leader.  Similarly, Beowulf is a completely fictitious character who is created specifically to teach an audience of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons how to live. While each of these texts are different, the purposes are similar.

Then I have the students come back together and we compare all three cultures, 21st Century American, Turn-of-the-Century Siouxan, and Beowulf. Students then have an better understanding of the range of cultural traits. 

Reading Assignment

5 minutes

For reading that night, I assign lines 371-500, which describes Beowulf's first audience with Hrothgar.