Wednesday, August 27, 2014

For Friday: Finish Beowulf (or get as close as possible)

No questions for Friday, since I want to ruminate on a question in-class when you arrive (which will count for today's blog response).  You might think about why Beowulf has to die in the poem--and what the dragon, the treasure horde, and the ending of the poem might symbolize in this narrative (or to the poet's moral, if he has one).  

Instead of questions, then, I leave you with a piece of music which you can listen to or ignore.  The 20th century composer (of Swedish background) Howard Hanson wrote a 20-minute long piece for chorus and orchestra called A Lament for Beowulf (1925), capturing the mood of the very end of the poem.  It's a darkly beautiful piece and might offer the perfect reading music for this last third of the book.  Enjoy (if you like that sort of thing)!

Monday, August 25, 2014

For Wednesday: Beowulf, pp. 37-70 (Alexander translation)

Answer TWO of the following in a short paragraph each…

1. What general philosophy of life—or of man—does the poet seem to espouse?  Where in the text can you read or sense this?  Is it explicit (does the poet come out and say this), or is it more implicit, built into the story itself? 

2. On page 45, when everyone is celebrating the death of Grendel and the liberation of Hrothgar’s hall, the poet writes: “The men drank their wine: the weird they did not know,/destined from old, the doom that was to fall/on many of the earls there.”  Based on the logic/values of the poem, why does Weird continue to punish the hall if God wanted Beowulf to destroy Grendel?  Why are they doomed to face Grendel’s mother as well? 

3. The only real description we get of Grendel and his mother occurs on page 49, when Hrothgar says “[she] was in woman’s shape; but the shape of a man,/though twisted, trod also the tracks of exile/--save that he was more huge than any human being.”  Though the poet often claims that they are the spawn of Cain, evil incarnate, some critics suggest that the poet invests them with a subversive humanity.  Where might we see this in the poem?  How might the poet make us question a strict good/evil reading of the poem? 

4. Though Beowulf is quite a ‘manly’ poem, three women appear briefly in its pages: Wealhtheow (Hrothgar’s wife), Hygd (wife of Beowulf’s chief, Hygelac), and Modthryth (the ‘evil’ wife of Offa).  Assuming that Beowulf is somewhat culturally accurate, what view of women does the poem offer us?  What was their role in society?  Related to this, what role do they play in the poem?  Given their almost ‘walk-on’ roles, why include them at all?  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

For Monday: Beowulf, pages 3-36 (Alexander translation)

NOTE: These questions are not meant as busy work; rather, they are to be used as a guide to help you through the maze of difficult readings or to give you something specific to respond to.  I don’t want you to skim readings or just read for the plot.  A work of literature is made up of the small moments, powerful phrases, or sudden revelations that occur in the most unlikely places.  Read slowly and carefully, even if you don’t get to the exact end of the reading assignment.  Better to read well than finish poorly.

Answer TWO of the following...

1. In Wednesday’s class we discussed the uneasy truce between the pagan world and Christianity, and in many ways, this truce is embodied in Beowulf.  Where do you see the poet trying to reconcile these two worlds in the poem?  Does it seem natural or forced; half-hearted or valedictory?  Discuss a specific passage or two in your response. 

2. In a famous passage of the poem (page 20/line 500), Unferth, another warrior at Hrothgar’s court, attacks Beowulf’s claims of heroism.  Why is this passage important to the poem?  How is what he says—and how Beowulf responds to it—dramatically compelling?  You might also consider what this episode says about the culture of the Anglo-Saxons and its heroes.

3. On page 23, lines 572-573, Beowulf says, “Weird saves oft the man undoomed if he undaunted be!”  Weird or wyrd is the Old English word for fate, and the concept appears prominently throughout the poem.  How does “Weird” relate to the will of God in this poem—or is it something quite distinct?  Also, which seems to be more powerful: God or Weird? Discuss a passage that might help you examine this concept.

4. Beowulf  is a poem that evokes a world that is both familiar yet very distant for the poet’s audience: this is the world they knew only from stories and legends, not from first-hand experience.  How might the poem be trying to evoke a sort of “golden age” for his readers, and where do we see this?  What ideas, customs, and values does he want to preserve through the verse?  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For Friday: Reading Beowulf

Before Friday's class, I want you to listen to both of these performances of Beowulf: the first is a short, 2-minute recitation of the poem's opening in Old English.  The second is a modern English performance by a renowned English actor (it's 10 minutes long, so you don't necessarily have to watch the entire thing).  As you watch them, consider how the poem sounds orally: what sounds do you notice, how does each performer act out the piece, and what mood/emotion do they convey to the audience?  You might also consider how a poem reads differently when recited aloud: is this preferable, in some way, to the silent performance of reading?