“So bye-bye, Jenny. They sendin’ me to Vietnam. It’s this whole other country.”
—Forrest Gump; Source: IMSDb.com
She turned then to the bench where her boys sat,
Hrethric and Hrothmund, with other nobles’ sons,
all the youth together; and that good man,
Beowulf the Geat, sat between the brothers.
—Beowulf, ll. 1187-90; Heaney trans.
“Maybe both is happening at the same time.”
Although I have written a bit more generally about pedagogy in the past, I want to devote my time in this post to discussing a teaching and learning question that is very particular to my field of medieval literature in the hopes that, at its core, it may be generalizable to other fields as well. The question, which I wrestle with nearly every semester, is this: how do we effectively teach the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf in general education literature surveys? Because I teach many iterations of such a course, because–for better or worse–Beowulf is one of the few pieces of Old English literature that is regularly anthologized in any meaningful kind of way, and because it is the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem in the canon, this is a question I spend a lot of time trying to answer.
First, a bit of context: I love Beowulf. I think it is one of the most brilliant, sophisticated, courageous, and beautiful poems in the English language.* I first read it in high school, where it was taught as an allegory. I no longer believe that the poem is any kind of allegory, but I remember being excited by the intricate ways symbols could work together to create a larger meaning. I read it a few more times at Gettysburg College, most of which occurred under the tutelage of Christopher Fee (still the single best teacher with whom I have ever had the privilege of studying). In Fee’s hands, the poem became a Tolkienian monument to a world now lost, an elegy to a time gone by. Once in graduate school at the University of Connecticut, I had the pleasure of spending an entire semester reading the poem in its original Anglo-Saxon with Fred Biggs, Beowulf scholar extraordinaire. It was under Fred’s guidance that I saw the true complexities of the poem, that it was–in a sense–a literary puzzle filled with history, digressions, and competing narratives that the reader attempts to solve but never fully succeeds in doing so. Since then, I have read and taught the poem dozens of times and have even published an article on it. My goal is always to allow my students to experience the many facets of the work and to help them as they begin the thorny process of interpreting it. As much as I truly enjoy teaching Beowulf, though, it is one of the most difficult parts of my semester.
There are really two reasons for this: the timing of the semester and the perceptions of the poem that students bring with them. First of all, there is simply not enough time in the semester to do the poem justice. Sure, in upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses, the situation is a bit different because you can spend a few weeks on the poem, hashing out the major questions, parsing the more difficult passages. In a general education “from the beginning of time until the 18th century” kind of survey, though, you have a week at best. Generally, this means that you have to squeeze in as much background as possible while racing through the major plot points and asking a few of the more important interpretive questions. The digressions, where some of the most significant parts of the poem reside, often have to be completely glossed over.
Secondly, though, students tend to bring with them firmly cemented ideas about the poem either from previous encounters with the text or from popular culture. Often, many of my students have read brief excerpts in high school, usually from the first half of the poem where Beowulf battles Grendel and Grendel’s mother. I find that the second half of the poem gets short shrift in high school, even though it contains–by far–the most powerful commentary and the most pointed satire. I’m sympathetic, though. High school teachers get even less time with the poem than I do. A more recent phenomenon has been the effect of Robert Zemeckis’s animated film adaptation of the poem that came out a few years ago. Colleagues, students, and friends are well aware that my animosity for this movie knows no bounds, because it takes my beloved poem and turns it into mindless drivel. I would argue that there has never been a very successful film adaptation of the poem, but this one garnered a lot of publicity, and so it looms large in the minds of many students as they set out to read the text again or for the first time. Happily, they are equally dismayed by the film after they read and discuss the poem. I suppose it is possible, though, that some of this is caused by me projecting my rancor for the film as I discuss the differences between the two. I think I’m okay with that.
Given these factors, I needed to find a way to teach the poem so that students could see, in a very short amount of time, the narrative intricacy of the text. They are aware that the poem has all the trimmings of an epic, but I want them to unpack the other elements as well: the nearly pitch-perfect classical tragedy at work, complete with hubris or ofermod, to use the Old English word for it (my friend Andy Pfrenger at Kent State University-Salem has taught me much about viewing the poem as a tragedy); the biting satire; the powerful, gut-wrenching socio-political commentary.
A few years ago it finally hit me–Forrest Gump was a good model to use for unlocking the interwoven meanings of Beowulf. Whether this epiphany hit me due to desperation or sleep deprivation or the inspiration of the gods (all three?), it has been working ever since. Almost every student has either seen or is aware of the plot of the 1994 film (also by Robert Zemeckis, so I won’t hold his other cinematic infelicities against him). I don’t actually show the movie in class or even any clips of the movie, though I certainly could incorporate some; we simply talk about the structure of the film–how Forrest is placed into so many major historical events of the latter part of the 20th century in order for the filmmakers to construct a particular satirical commentary about these events. Forrest is there for the desegregation of the University of Alabama, for the famous ping-pong matches between the U.S. and China in the 1970s, and for the Watergate scandal, among many others. In each case, his presence is not only meant to highlight the historical significance of the event but to convey a message about each situation as well. In the case of the U. of Alabama, for example, he picks up a book that falls out of the hands of one of the young African American women walking into the building. Forrest hands it to her, stops, looks around at the crowd, waves in that delightfully naive way, and then follows her into the building. Clearly, this is an attempt to show how emotionally charged this moment was in American history as well as to demonstrate the inherent absurdity of racism.
In the scene from the movie that I quote in the first epigraph to this post, Forrest tells Jenny that he is being sent to Vietnam in the midst of the war. He and his “best good friend” Bubba are quickly shipped off and are placed in a platoon led by Lieutenant Dan Taylor (portrayed masterfully by Gary Sinise, in my opinion). The battle scenes in Vietnam are harrowing, particularly the one where Forrest is carrying Bubba out of the jungle and makes it to safety just as a load of napalm ignites behind him. Forrest is not there merely to highlight the viciousness of war in general, though. He is there so that we can see the atrocities of that particular war at that time in that place. This is made very apparent when Forrest alludes to the fact that many of America’s young men were there fighting alongside him, and then Bubba poignantly dies in his arms. The message is underscored later when we see, through Lieutenant Dan, the challenges faced by Vietnam veterans once they returned.
It is in scenes like those I have discussed above where we can see the connections to Beowulf. I would suggest that the poet uses the character of Beowulf in the exact same way as the filmmakers use Forrest. He is placed in the middle of many different circumstances in order to reveal various problems in Anglo-Saxon society. When the poet wants to comment on the violence inherent to the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly from entities emerging from outside the comfortable walls of an individual tribe’s meadhall, he introduces a monster (Grendel) and a warrior to defeat this monster (ll. 86 ff.); when he wants to show the disastrous consequences of Anglo-Saxon codes of vengeance, he gives us Grendel’s mother, who kills one man as revenge for the death of her son–something that would have been justified given the legal codes of the time–and has Beowulf enter back into the fray to kill her for this act of vengeance (ll. 1251 ff.); when he wants to reveal what happens when kings care more about themselves than their people, he has a very old Beowulf run out to fight a deadly dragon by himself for “the glory of winning” (l. 2514).
Perhaps the most visually striking of the poet’s uses of Beowulf as a character who reveals societal problems is in the part of the text I have quoted in my second epigraph. Beowulf has just defeated Grendel, and Hrothgar has “adopted” him as a son and given him ancestral treasure.** The issue here is that Hrothgar already has two sons, a point about which his wife Wealhtheow adamantly reminds him, so the king has now extended the pool of possible successors. Fred Biggs has done a lot of work on issues of succession in Anglo-Saxon England (see especially “The Politics of Succession in Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon England” in Speculum 80.3 : 709-41), but suffice it to say that whole kingdoms could be thrown into turmoil without clear lines established for who would inherit the throne after the current king’s death. Not only does the poet imply this through Wealhtheow’s plea, but–just to be sure we don’t miss the point–he has the tall, brawny Beowulf sitting uncomfortably right in the middle of the two boys as a visual reminder that this is a very dangerous situation.
There are many more instances where we could see the benefits of using the Forrest Gump model to understand Beowulf. In order for it to work, of course, I have had to set aside some time to discuss historical context, but once I do this students begin to see how all of the disparate narratives are woven together. Using this technique, students get less hung up on the question of whether or not Beowulf is a hero (a major red herring, in my opinion) and start to see him as a device by which the poet makes his most profound commentary. By moving the character from scenario to scenario, just as Forrest does in the movie,*** the poet allows Beowulf to serve a much larger purpose. He helps us to read and understand the urgent societal commentary that reaches from an Anglo-Saxon poet to a 21st-century audience. Students seem to have really latched on to this approach, and–given the short amount of time I have to study the poem with them–it allows me to share the poem’s beauty and power, even if only briefly.
* I like the movie Annie Hall a lot, but I take exception to the often-quoted maxim from the film that no one should ever take a college class where he or she has to read Beowulf.
** I am putting quotation marks around the word adopted, because there has been much ink spilled as to whether or not Beowulf is actually being brought into the line of succession here or if this is just a symbolic gesture on Hrothgar’s part. Either way, the poet is drawing our attention to the problems kings could create by widening the pool of succession too much. I don’t have a horse in this particular race, so I’m leaving it up for grabs.
*** There are other similarities between the two characters as well. For example, both are storytellers. Beowulf is always telling stories, like the one about his swimming match with Breca where he fought nine sea monsters (ll. 529-81) or the somewhat spotty narrative he relates to Hygelac about his adventures in Hrothgar’s court (ll. 2000 ff.). We also learn important information about the boyhoods of both characters that poignantly help to explain their actions later in life. Young Forrest, of course, famously has scoliosis, which requires him to wear leg braces and which later allows him to become a successful college football player and runner due to the increased leg strength caused by the braces. He is also teased mercilessly as a child. Although we don’t find out much about Beowulf’s past, the poet does provide us with a moving glimpse of his early life:
He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth; and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed. (ll. 2183-89)
My students have rightly pointed out over the years that this description provides some important context for Beowulf’s later quests for personal glory at all costs. While I think it is dangerous to be too psychoanalytical about this, I do think the poet has set up a complex psychological motivation for Beowulf. The reason I have not gone further with these connections between the two characters in the main body of the post is that I’m much less interested in the comparative aspects of the two texts than I am in how the structure of the film helps to open up the poem in important ways.