The life of the mighty hero Beowulf is recounted, as he wins honor and fame by protecting his people and the neighboring nation from terrible monsters.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
The legend of Oedipus is a telling myth about the perils of testing fate.
Have students read “The Legend of Oedipus” after they have read Beowulf through line 687, in order to study theme. At this point in the poem, Beowulf announces he will not use weapons but will entrust battle in victory to God and to fate. Fate is a central idea in both Beowulf and “The Legend of Oedipus.” How does the way in which fate affects Oedipus differ from Beowulf’s response to the idea that the battle has been decided before it has been fought? In light of Beowulf’s attitude toward fate, what does the narrator of Beowulf suggest all men’s attitudes should be toward their fate?
In May 1962, General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) delivered this address to cadets at West point. A five-star general, MacArthur played a prominent role in the Pacific theater campaign during World War II, and from 1919-1922 served as the Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Introduce General Douglas MacArthur’s speech at West Point after students have read the battle scene in Beowulf, lines 710-835, in order to analyze rhetoric. In this speech, MacArthur skillfully argues that the sole mission of the cadets he is addressing is to fight fearlessly by prioritizing “Duty, Honor, Country” above everything else. One can think of the entire epic poem of Beowulf under the light of a similar rhetorical goal: to motivate young men to fearlessly fight for country by placing, as Beowulf does, their sense of duty and personal honor above all. What rhetorical strategies does the poem use to convince its audience that it is honorable to fight and even die for one’s country? How is this appeal similar to the appeal MacArthur makes to his audience?
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1697) was an English philosopher, best known for his political philosophy. In this famous work, Hobbes discusses the concept of the “social contract,” the idea that humans benefit from a common rule of law; otherwise, they fall into disorder and violence. In social contract theory, Hobbes proposes that humans consent to surrender some of their freedoms in order to secure their remaining rights.
Introduce “Excerpts from Leviathan” after students have read up to line 2669 in Beowulf — when Wiglaf swears he will stand by Beowulf in battle — in order to study the character's motivations. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that it is the law that leads men to cooperation and keeps them from being driven to war by their “brutish” natures. In contrast, the relationship between community members in “Beowulf” is not based on laws but on love and loyalty between thanes and their lord. Ask students to contrast loyalty and legality as two very different types of motivations that can lead to community cooperation. In what ways does one carry stronger incentives than the other? How can both loyalty and legality serve as incentives for social cooperation?
In this poem, Anglo-Irish essayist, writer, and political commentator Jonathan Swift uses satire to criticize John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, an English soldier and statesman whom Swift stated as having “no one good quality in the world besides that of a general.”
Introduce Swift’s poem after students have read (2538-2820), the scene of Beowulf’s death in battle, in order to study themes of legacy and honor. What reasons does the speaker in Swift’s poem give for the insignificance of the General’s death? In contrast, what is depicted as the reason for the significance of Beowulf’s death? Despite the difference in the poems’ tones, what do they similarly suggest about the qualities of a good military leader?
In the speech “Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Lecture,” Carter accepts the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to international peace.
Have students read Carter’s speech after they have read Beowulf lines 2884-3027, in order to analyze themes of war and peace. Readers are told Beowulf’s reign was peaceful because neighboring nations feared his strength, but Wiglaf predicts that after Beowulf’s death the Geats will face the resurrection of old wars. President Jimmy Carter relays in his address that, “The world has had ample evidence that war begets only conditions that beget further war” and argues for the necessity of nations building friendships through “equal understanding and mutual respect.” In what ways can students argue that the way Beowulf achieves peace is similar or antithetical to the method for achieving the peace that Carter advocates for? By depicting the vicious cycle of war, is the theme of Beowulf ultimately in agreement with Carter’s message, that peace can only be achieved by disarming armies and building friendships between nations?
In Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Death of a Soldier,” a soldier’s life and death is compared to autumn.
Introduce Stevens’ poem after students have read lines 3137-3183 in Beowulf, where Beowulf’s leadership is commemorated by placing his body on a grand funeral pyre. In Stevens’ poem, a soldier dies without fame or pomp; in contrast, Beowulf’s death is followed by the Geats’ recognition of his greatness. Despite this difference, both poems have a melancholy tone. What do the two poems differently suggest about the significance (or insignificance) of the ultimate sacrifice of a soldier in battle? What different themes lead to the similar melancholy of the two poems? How would you argue that the two poems are more alike because of the similarities in their tone, or argue that they are different because of the differences in their themes?