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Assuring the Efficacy of Beowulf for Undergraduate Students


Jennifer M. Santos, Arizona State University

The future of Beowulf studies … will not belong to those who just read the text, in the narrow sense of interpreting it. It will lie with those who also use and take pleasure in it, adapting it to their own purposes in the world in which they live, as the poet's own listeners and readers surely did.

      — John D. Niles, "Beowulf, Truth, and Meaning"

In "Beowulf, Truth, and Meaning," Niles envisions a future for Beowulf studies that rests on enjoyment of the poem, an encouraging and yet a troubling claim given that Beowulf has, according to Bruce Murphy, fallen "into the same hole that, for Americans, Moby Dick occupies: being a book that everyone 'has' to read" (211). [1] This stasis provides some security, but the increasing number of university English Departments moving away from specific Medieval literature requirements problematizes Beowulf's place in the canon and culture. Beowulf relies on its readership, and its longevity is contingent upon the continuation of readers' engagement with — and enjoyment of — the text. To ensure a position for Beowulf within a dynamically evolving canon, it seems wise to solicit and evaluate responses to Beowulf from undergraduates (the upcoming generation of scholars and most stable cohort of new Beowulf readers), probing their reasons for enjoyment and emphasizing these reasons in teaching the poem, while mitigating the confusion that impedes that enjoyment. [2] My study contributes to the task of compiling and analyzing undergraduate responses to Beowulf in order to point to strategies for securing a wider readership for the poem. To keep Beowulf in existence as a "live" text, encouraging its enjoyment remains an integral, though sometimes neglected, aspect of Beowulf scholarship. [3]



To gather the requisite information, I created and distributed a survey in the Spring 2004 and Spring 2005 "Survey of British Literature I" (ENG 221) classes at Arizona State University (taught by the same professor both semesters). 134 of 151 enrolled students responded. [4] To help ensure honest feedback rather than a perceived "acceptable" intellectual perspective, participation in the survey was voluntary and anonymous. The greater part of the survey consisted of free-response questions that encouraged students to voice their thoughts and opinions. However, to ensure that subjects of particular interest were addressed, I included a section in which students were asked to rank aspects of the poem in relation to their enjoyment. Ultimately, the responses garnered from this section served to reinforce the validity of initial student responses.


Student reactions: mixed messages

Gender, ethnicity, and age played minimal roles in determining different expectations for and responses to Beowulf. Instead, the majority of the participants who enjoyed their reading experience (78%) of the poem cited its heroism, action, and glory as primary reasons for their positive experience. One respondent enthusiastically explained that he likes Beowulf because of "the action. It reminds me of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings." The repetition of similar responses suggests that student enjoyment of Anglo Saxon literature emerges from fulfilled expectations for heroic, plot-oriented excitement. [5]

This initial positive response, however, masks deeper and more troubling issues related to sustained student interest. Although only 19% of the participants claimed that their reading experience lacked enjoyment (3% remained undecided), a larger portion of the students found certain aspects of the text to be distasteful and confusing. Students expect to find "beautiful language" in canonical texts, and, while 29% found the best features of the poem to be those associated with its language (alliteration emerged as a favorite), an even larger number (49%) asserted that the poetic features of Beowulf — identified, by respondents, as alliteration, rhythm, structure, language, syntax, and punctuation — were their least favorite aspects of it. The students' frustration is revealed by their attempts to express the crux of their problem: many comments complain of "working hard to understand it" and "trying to figure it out" on a sentence level. Herein may lie the greatest threat to the continued position of Beowulf as a valued part of the canon: the next generation of scholars struggle with the poem's linguistic structure. In fact, this was the most often-cited reason for not recommending Beowulf to their friends and a major factor in reasons for not liking Beowulf.

A focal point for additional contention was the number of "digressions" in Beowulf. Although one respondent enjoyed "the interlacing stories," a greater number of students expressed sentiments such as "I would often get lost" and "it [Beowulf] jumps around a lot and can be confusing." This type of comment suggests that these students approach the episodes in the same manner as early Beowulf scholars: according to Robert E. Bjork, N. F. S. Grundtvig and Henry Bradley characterized the episodes as "tasteless intrusions" and "disruptive additions" (193, 194). [6]

Such comments by early scholars, like those of the participants of this study, reveal an expectation of Aristotelian unity. They echo Seamus Heaney's observation that "[t]he poem abounds in passages which will leave an unprepared audience bewildered. Just when the narrative seems ready to take another step ahead into the main Beowulf story, it sidesteps. For a moment it is as if we have been channel-surfed into another poem" (xiii). [7] Yet the concepts of "channel-surfing" and side-stepping may in fact provide a metaphor to which most undergraduate students can relate, due to the rapidly expanding influence of the Internet. Arguably, the rhyzomatic nature of websites has some parallels to the seemingly digressive structure of Beowulf. [8] Students expect non-linearity in their web-surfing experiences; the confusion, then, may lie in the fact that such expectations are not applied to their reading of Beowulf. Students expect "classic" literature to have linear unity and are frustrated when they do not find it.

We can assume that these students have, to a certain extent, been schooled in what one expects from a work of literature; their expectations arise from their previous experiences. This may also explain their confusion over the poem's unfamiliar poetic style. These complaints are likewise not new: issues of syntax, diction and punctuation have troubled scholars for decades. However, the scholars who study these issues are already familiar with the recursive and appositive nature of Old English poetry, and their questions are usually directed to the original text of the poem. Focusing on the "gist" of the story in translation, undergraduates have no background in these issues; they bring to the poem a different relationship to popular literary culture, with a strong emphasis on symbolism, character, setting, and "meaning." As such, undergraduate students and Old English scholars bring very different sets of "cultural competencies" to their respective reading experiences. [9]

Participating in different discursive fields, undergraduates and seasoned medievalists experience two different Beowulfs. These varying cultural competencies allow readers to take on various "mock reader" positions. Walker Gibson defines the mock reader as "the mask and costume the individual takes on in order to experience the language" (2); [10] in other words, the mock reader is the vehicle by which the real reader engages the world presented by the text, which belongs exclusively neither to the text nor the reader. The mock reader's engagement with the text necessarily involves (and is influenced by) values contemporary to the real reader. The reader engages with (or disengages from) the text to the degree that the mock reader position can integrate the multiple worlds associated with the text, the real reader, and the mock reader.


Evaluation of student-oriented translations

Students, not having the scholarly training to read the poem in its original language, must be encouraged to create acceptable mock reader positions through appropriate translations and editions. To explore some of the ways in which such mock reader positions are made possible when approaching Beowulf, I will compare three popular verse translations: R. M. Liuzza's (Broadview, 2000), Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy's (Longman, 2004), and Seamus Heaney's (Norton, 2000). [11] Liuzza's translation has been selected for its reputation for literal accuracy; Heaney and Sullivan/Murphy both translate "sense for sense rather than word for word" (162). [12] To compare the translations with an emphasis on areas of student interest and struggle, I will discuss brief excerpts from an action scene (including a "monster") and from a scene often labeled a "digression."

For the latter, I have chosen an excerpt from the Unferth episode. While students tend to struggle with the digressions, they tend to enjoy heroism and battle sequences; these aspects combine with issues of language in the Unferth episode, since scholars argue that "the Beowulf-Unferth exchange is an example of Germanic flyting, a verbal battle traditional in heroic verse" (Bjork 207-208). [13] The combination of these elements in the Unferth episode coalesces with student interests and difficulties, making it particularly relevant for study. Below are brief excerpts in Old English (from the edition of Mitchell and Robinson) [14] and three translations of the passage:

Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgþeowes:

'Hwæt, þu worn fela, wine min Unferð,

beore druncen ymb Brecan spræce,

sægdest from his siðe. Soð ic talige … ' (529-532)

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

"What a great deal, Unferth my friend,

drunk with beer, you have said about Breca,

told his adventures! I will tell the truth —" (Liuzza)

Beowulf, Ecgtheow's son, replied:

"Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say

about Breca and me but it was mostly beer

that was doing the talking. The truth is this:" (Heaney)

Then Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

"Listen, Unferth, my fuddled friend

brimful of beer, you blabber too much

about Breca's venture. I tell you the truth:" (Sullivan/Murphy)

Comparison to the Old English shows that only Liuzza has preserved in its entirety the structure common to speech introductions in Beowulf: identifying speaker and paternal lineage in the clause "[character] spoke, son of [father of character]." Found throughout the poem, this formulaic textual element "allow[s] the poet to express his meaning unerringly in the given metrical form," which Niles argues is "the primary function of the formulaic system" (124). [15] This function is important not only for the text but also for the reader. Since undergraduates experience difficulties with the structure and express delight with the story, preserving such a structure may allow them to grasp more fully that with which they struggle (the structure of language) through that which they enjoy (plot and meaning). Although the repetitive nature of the structure may be uncomfortable for students, the formulaic introduction may encourage students to appreciate Old English syntax by virtue of the heroic characteristics, which students enjoy and which are often found in speeches following the formulaic structure.

Sullivan/Murphy likewise preserve the majority of this repeated structure, but add the word "then" at the outset, contributing to the sense of "flow"—defined by one participant as smooth "transitions in thought and story" — valued by a significant portion of survey participants. [16] Likewise, Sullivan/Murphy achieve stronger alliteration, another contribution to "flow" as identified by the respondents. However, the word choice used to achieve this alliteration ("fuddled," "brimful," "blabber," and so on) strays far from the Old English "secgan." The term "blabber," although admittedly alliterative, reduces Unferth to the level of a drunken dolt and places Beowulf in the role of swashbuckling hero simply by virtue of his obvious superiority to Unferth. The Old English merely implies that Unferth's words are misguided, whereas Sullivan/Murphy's translation makes explicit certain possible connotations of beore druncen (literally 'drunk with beer'); in this case, the translation makes Unferth comically simple rather than multifaceted. Doing so may present too clear-cut a perspective on the characters' social and heroic roles: scholarship shows that Beowulf and Unferth share a highly complex and even somewhat formal relationship. By stressing Unferth's negative role, the translators minimize the ambiguity of his position and detract from the force of the flyting's climax in lines 581b–594. While these issues may seem too intricately detailed for an undergraduate audience, removing the option to see the relationship between language and battle minimizes the student reader's opportunities for critical thinking linked to topics of enjoyment.

Heaney provides an acceptable alternative. Rather than imbuing Beowulf's speech with an abrasive, brash tone, Heaney refuses to rush Beowulf's ascendance in the flyting. Heaney also omits the accusatory "you" and the derogatory "blabber." In doing so, he presents Beowulf as a more credible and respectable hero. [17] The value of heroism to the undergraduate respondents is quite clear and likely grows clearer when faced with a more nuanced depiction of the hero. Heaney likewise imputes a sense of "flow" or continuity to his interpretation by including "replied" in line 529. Clearly connecting Beowulf's speech to Unferth's previous accusations, a syntactic link like "replied" not only enhances continuity but also helps to mitigate the repetition that students dislike. Additionally, Heaney clarifies the meaning of the sentence by rearranging its syntax, giving the lines a familiar look and feel, which allows his reader to engage with the poem without becoming alienated by the language. Heaney's approach gives his readers an advantage over Liuzza and Sullivan/Murphy, who deal with syntactical problems via clauses and punctuation — a strategy that preserves the complexity of the language but gives the text a less contemporary feel, which contributes to the confusion of undergraduate respondents. Straightening the syntax, in combination with a word choice that emphasizes Beowulf's heroism, makes Heaney's translation the most likely to create an appropriate mock reader position capable of encouraging student enjoyment.

Chickering and other reviewers have observed that "[t]he finest passages in Heaney's rendering are the dramatic speeches" (162). [18] To test his success in those portions of the poem, I turn to a short excerpt from Beowulf's final battle with the dragon:

Æfter ðam wordum wyrm yrre cwom,

atol inwitgæst oðre siðe

fyrwylmum fah fionda niosian

laðra manna. (2669-2672a)

After these words the worm came angrily,

terrible vicious creature, a second time,

scorched with surging flames, seeking out his enemies,

the hated men. (Liuzza)

After those words, a wildness rose

in the dragon again and drove it to attack,

heaving up fire, hunting for enemies,

the humans it loathed. (Heaney)

After these words the worm was enraged.

For a second time the spiteful specter

flew at his foe, and he wreathed in flames

the hated human he hungered to harm. (Sullivan/Murphy)

In Heaney's translation, the diction obscures the meaning of the original text. Heaney distances the dragon's cognitive reaction by attributing its actions to a "wildness" — a term and connotation located nowhere in the Old English texts. The Old English clearly places the dragon in the subject position and connects it with a strong verb—the dragon itself cwom ('came forward') to attack; such action is not instigated by a "wildness." Liuzza's rendering more closely aligns with the literal meaning of the original Old English: "[a]fter these words the worm came angrily." By reducing the wyrm's agency, Heaney drifts too far from the original text. Chickering observes such tendencies in other passages, particularly noting that at Grendel's death "Heaney's exuberant performance is more in evidence here than the passage itself" (167). [19] The fact that Heaney changes the impetus for attack in a battle scene — an aspect of the text that my participants enjoy — alters an element to which most students relate positively; it minimizes mock reader positions by reducing opportunities for reader identification with the text. While, as Alfred David argues, "one doesn't need an exact denotation … to catch the spirit" of Beowulf, undergraduate students do value the tension of battle inherent in the clear attribution of agency to the combatants (4). [20]

Liuzza's translation "surging flames, seeking out his enemies" has a more clearly intuitive meaning; each verb in this passage is supported by the only nominatives in the sentence—those relating to the dragon. While the appropriate attribution of agency may encourage student enjoyment and understanding, the syntax, however, may be confusing. Many clauses reside between the various verbs and their object. Note how "a second time" and "with surging flames" separates the wyrm from its search for men. Such clauses, perceived as "interruptions" by students, create a mock reader position difficult for students to embrace because a greater emphasis is placed on understanding word order and sentence structure than on the meaning and values of the story. Sullivan/Murphy are more considerate of the modern reader; they break the sentence into two discrete portions, with less distance between the subject, verb, and object. In this way, they minimize difficulties associated with unfamiliar syntax. Furthermore, Sullivan/Murphy's diction provides an appropriate alliterative translation that also clearly conveys the action of the passage. Although, as Steven Mailloux aptly avers, "[t]ranslation is always an approximation, which is to say the interpretation is always directed," Sullivan/Murphy, in contrast to Heaney, leave more room for the student's own "direction" (40). [21]

A clear and precise battle scene that flows smoothly while remaining true to the text and emphasizing comprehensibility fits student conceptions of an enjoyable text. Yet the students surveyed read Sullivan/Murphy's version and reported mixed messages. So we are left with the quandary: which translation best addresses the needs of an undergraduate audience? Each translation has its advantages and disadvantages; each is, finally, its own piece in and of itself (Heaney himself spends pages discussing how his heritage informed his translation, clearly expressing a desire to make the text his own). For purposes of undergraduate enjoyment—to make the text palatable and to encourage them to revisit it — I suggest creating a hypertext edition of Beowulf. Doing so might allow undergraduates' affinity for the non-linear nature of the Internet to encourage their appreciation of similar structures in literature. To be successful, such a hypertext edition might present the poem in short portions that hyperlink both linearly and thematically to allow students to discover that "[e]very piece of the poem can be read alongside every other piece as an adumbration or refraction of some larger theme" (Liuzza 31). [22] Viewing the poem in this manner would help students see the relation of each episode to the heroic theme, thus combining a heightened sense of enjoyment with deeper understanding. Further, it may allow new Beowulf students to engage with the best aspects of several versions of the poem: Heaney's translation could be used for the speeches of the poem, Sullivan/Murphy's translation for other sections, and so on. While the difficulty of combining copyrighted texts from different publishers makes this version more a wish than a practical project, the end result might well cater to a wider variety of student (and teacher) needs.



As we have seen, undergraduates tend to enjoy Beowulf, but often struggle to access mock reader positions that encourage an even greater desire to embrace the poem. Providing such positions via careful preparation and choice of translation can only increase the durability of Beowulf in an ever-changing canon. Only a few of the issues regarding undergraduate reception have been explored here; a larger study of students' reading of various translations would undoubtedly produce additional information. As Jane Tompkins notes, "[r]eader-response critics would argue that a poem cannot be understood apart from its results. Its 'effects,' psychological and otherwise, are essential to any accurate description of its meaning, since that meaning has no effective existence outside of its realization in the mind of a reader" (ix). [23] Surely helping the next generation of Beowulf readers find their way into the poem is justification for further exploration.



[1] John D. Niles, "Introduction: Beowulf, Truth, and Meaning," in A Beowulf Handbook, eds. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 1-12; Bruce Murphy, "Seamus Heaney's Beowulf," review of Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, Poetry, 177.2 (2000): 211-16, Academic Search Premier, EBSCO Publishing, 3835777.

[2] One may question the choice to focus on undergraduate readers, considering the recent resurgence of popular interest in Beowulf associated with Seamus Heaney's 2000 translation (Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation [New York: W. W. Norton, 2000]). However, Heaney, himself, notes that "the poem is now generally read in translation and mostly in English courses at schools and universities" (ix).

[3] Given the possibility that a lay audience was meant to hear Beowulf for entertainment, as Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier suggest, the focus on undergraduate students gains additional credence, as undergraduate students might be considered the "laypersons" of academia. Also, the ultimate and overarching questions regarding the intended audience for Beowulf and the ramifications of the ambiguous conclusions about the intended audience remind us, as scholars, that we should take care not to ignore the various modern readerships of Beowulf. See Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier "Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences," in Bjork and Niles, eds., A Beowulf Handbook, 13-34.

[4] I am indebted to O.M. Brack for sharing his class time and his students for this project. I surveyed his 2004 class during the large lecture; in 2003, the surveys were distributed to two of the three discussion sections. A copy of the survey follows these notes.

[5] Added to this positive response is the fact that 33% express interest in reading Beowulf in Old English.

[6] Robert E. Bjork, "Digressions and Episodes," in Bjork and Niles, eds., A Beowulf Handbook, 193-212.

[7] Seamus Heaney, introduction to Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, ix-xxx.

[8] Some aspects of the channel-surfing and web-surfing analogies deviate from the structure of Beowulf since, as Adrien Bonjour argues in The Digressions in Beowulf (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965), "behind all the episodes is found a definite artistic design, clear enough to allow us to say that each one plays a useful part—however minute or important—in the composition of the poem" (72). However, my channel-surfing analogy is presented here as a means of bridging the gap between student perceptions of non-linearity in Beowulf and student competencies.

[9] I borrow the notion of cultural competencies from Pierre Bourdieu's introduction to Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 1-7. Bourdieu explains that, "[a] work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded" (2).

[10] Walker Gibson, "Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers," in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane Tompkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 1-6.

[11] See R. M. Liuzza, ed. and trans., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000); Allan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, trans., Beowulf, ed. Sarah Anderson (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004); Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, Bilingual ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).

[12] Howell Chickering, "Beowulf and 'Heaneywulf'," review of Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, The Kenyon Review, 24:1 (2002): 160-178, Academic Search Premier, EBSCO Publishing, 5860559.

[13] Robert E. Bjork, "Digressions and Episodes," in Bjork and Niles, eds., A Beowulf Handbook, 193-212.

[14] Old English excerpts come from Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, eds., Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

[15] John D. Niles, "Formula and Formulaic System," in Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 121-137.

[16] Students often use the vague and problematic term "flow" to articulate their displeasure with the story. Their elaboration on this term returns to "interruptions" of the main story (lack of flow) as well as continuity and connectivity (flow).

[17] The alliterative emphasis on wine 'friend' in line 530 emphasizes perceived friendship that dovetails with Beowulf's willingness to deflect offense from Unferth's speech by blaming the beer (an interpretation alluded to in all three translations, although one might argue that each does so with different connotations).

[18] Howell Chickering, "Beowulf and 'Heaneywulf'."

[19] Ibid.

[20] Alfred David, "The Nationalities of Beowulf: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes," in Beowulf in Our Time: Teaching Beowulf in Translation, ed. Mary K. Ramsey (Old English Newsletter Subsidia 31. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Press, 2002), 3-21.

[21] Steven Mailloux, "Interpretation and Rhetorical Hermeneutics," in Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies, ed. James L. Machor and Philip Goldstein (New York: Routledge, 2001), 39-60.

[22] R. M. Liuzza, introduction to Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, 11-49.

[23] Jane Tompkins, "An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism," in Tompkins, ed., Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ix-xxvi.


Assuring the Efficacy of Beowulf: Undergraduate Survey

Age: ________ Ethnicity: _________________ Gender (circle one):    Male    Female

1) What is/are your Major(s)?

2) What is/are your Minor(s)?

3) What do you plan to do with your degree (circle one)?


Attend Graduate School

Work as an editor

Attend Law School

Work in the business world Other (please describe):

4) Have you ever read Beowulf before (circle one)?    Yes    No

5) What did you expect the poem to be like BEFORE you read it?

6) How did it differ from your expectations? Why do you think that is? If you've read Beowulf previously, how did your expectations change on this reading?

7) What did you like BEST about Beowulf? Why?

8) What did you like LEAST about Beowulf? Why?

9) In general, did you enjoy reading Beowulf? Why or Why not?

10) Do you think your non-English major/minor peers might enjoy Beowulf? Why or why not?

11) Based on your knowledge of recent books and movies (contemporary/popular culture), do you see any relationship between Beowulf and these books and/or movies?

12) Which of the following had the most influence on your enjoyment of Beowulf:

(1 = greatly increased enjoyment, 2 = somewhat increased enjoyment, 3 = did not influence enjoyment, 4 = somewhat detracted from enjoyment, 5 = greatly detracted from enjoyment)

Character     1     2     3     4     5

Plot     1     2     3     4     5

Language     1     2     3     4     5

Form (poetry)     1     2     3     4     5

Setting     1     2     3     4     5

Instructor Lectures     1     2     3     4     5

Instructor Handouts     1     2     3     4     5

Pictures/Maps from Text     1     2     3     4     5

Websites about Beowulf     1     2     3     4     5

13) Would you be interested in learning to read Beowulf in the original Old English? (circle one)    Yes    No

14) Have you had other classes in which you read Medieval Literature? If so, which one(s)?