This lesson is part of series of lessons on Beowulf. In this lesson students will read a review of J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf and discuss the impact Beowulf has had on later works as well as the evolution of form from the epic poems of Beowulf to the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. We also discuss the climatic fight between Beowulf and the dragon and what this means for his legacy and people.
We read lines 2286-2354 pertaining to the awakening of the dragon and its subsequent terror over over villages. I ask students what other famous dragon guarded a hoard and terrorized villages. One student quickly identifies Smaug from The Hobbit. I explain that Tolkien was responsible for reviving the study of Beowulf as a text and for showing its literary merits.
"We know that Beowulf was originally written in Old English, which is essentially unreadable for modern English speakers. Tolkein was a professor of Old English at the University of Leeds, and he translated the poem but never published it.
"But it's clear to anyone who's read Tolkien that he was heavily influenced by Beowulf. What are some of the common elements between the two stories?"
We discuss some of the common plot points, including the magic, heroes, dragons and guarded treasure.
I then introduce students to the idea of form, by asking them "What style is Beowulf written in?" Students respond that it is a poem, a few include epic poem.
"When we talk about the way a work of literature is written we are referring to form. So poems have different forms like sonnets, epic poems, villanelles, and free verse. Novels take different forms, like epistolary, dystopian, etc.
"Beowulf's form representing the culture it was created in. It's part of the bard tradition while incorporating elements of Christianity and Viking folklore.
"But what kind of impact has Beowulf had on literature?"
I then direct students to read this essay by Joan Acocella about Tolkien's newly published translation of Beowulf, answering the guiding questions after they've read the essay.
Now that students have some background information on the history of Beowulf criticisms and translations we discuss their thoughts on the poem. I ask students to consider why there seem to be new translations of Beowulf every few years, and how different translations could change the meaning of the poem. "Could you read the Tolkien translation and have a completely different experience with the poem than the one you had reading the Heaney translation we just read?"
Finally we return to the poem to discuss Beowulf's reign and his characteristics as a king. The students immediately pick upon the fact that Beowulf hasn't completely followed Hrothgar's advice. Instead he has focused on being a good leader and maintaining a stable country. He hasn't had children, and there is nothing about his demeanor that suggests that he is concerned about his own mortality.
Now that students are done reading I have a final set of questions for them to answer.