This lesson can be taught as part of a larger unit on Beowulf, or as a separate lesson. Use this lesson to help students understand how different cultures look at women differently and how there are cultural markers in literature. I've used the poems "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood, "Missions" by Heather Cahoon, and an excerpt from Beowulf.
For many reasons this year, Wealhtheow is a tantalizing a popular character. I think the students equate her with the 2007 movie counterpart played by Robin Wright Penn, or perhaps they are boggled by the idea that women have no more than a pour-the-mead role in this poem.
We closely read the lines 1167- 1232, noting the order of events. The students zero in on the fact that Wealhtheow is suspicious of Beowulf, wondering if he could possibly usurp Hrothulf's place at court, and what position that might put her sons in. Some of the students think she makes her first speech with sincerity and her speech after Beowulf is presented with the torque in an ironic or biting tone. Either way, it's her only major scene.
The point here is to help students see what'smissing from the text as much as what is present.
Divide the students into groups of three, have students divide up the task of notetaker, timekeeper and reporter. Then randomly give each group a copy of ONE of the following:
"Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood
"Missions" by Heather Cahoon (a Montana Pend d'Oreille poet)
Lines 1158-1232 from Beowulf, the Seamus Heaney translation
Have the students read the poems through once out loud and then have them read them through silently. Then instruct the students to make note of the following:
Explain to the students that other groups have the same poem as they do and that it's okay to share ideas but each group will present separately. Each group has three minutes to present, and they have twenty-five minutes to read and discuss the poems and make note of the poems.
Students give their presentation of the poem and if time allows discuss the cultural differences in the poems. Which of the women's voices sounds stronger? Which of the women seems the least powerful?
Discuss the role of the trickster in Native American tales. Mention that some of the trickster characters in Native American tales are women, like Grandmother Spider from the Hopi and Navajo traditions. Ask students if there are any trickster traits in the speaker from "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood.
At this point in the reading the students are aware of the narrator's voice, intruding in on the action, stopping to explain how certain characters are related, and overall acting as a nuisance.
After the fight with Grendel is over I usually stop to explain who this narrator might be, I rely heavily on Seamus Heaney's introductory notes, particularly xix to xxii, which examine some of the Christian references and why they are likely present.
Additionally, we discuss the fact that a reading of Beowulf without the Christian elements, removes the concept of evil. Instead of the spawn of Cain, Grendel is simply greedy and lonely. The curmudgeon next door who doesn't want anyone to have any fun and who is perhaps a little too close to his mother.
Beowulf, too, is a hero, not because he is chosen by God, but because he is strong and smart.
A Beowulf without a didactic narrator bringing it all back around to God's plan, is a story about strength and might.
For their reading assignment I assign lines 2669-3180