Gods and Monsters: Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon World

Open—Spring

Hwaet! So begins Beowulf, the story of a group of Swedish warriors battling monsters in Denmark that has been claimed as the English national epic. Although the poem was largely unknown for several centuries following its composition in the early Middle Ages, its 20th-century aficionados—from J. R. R. Tolkien to Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney—helped to popularize the poem for a modern audience. In this course, we will examine the poem in relation to its original historical and cultural contexts in Anglo-Saxon England but also trace its enduring legacy in contemporary literary and popular culture. For example, we will spend some time comparing the different approaches to translation adopted by Tolkien, Heaney, and others, as well as analyzing the enduring popularity of Beowulf and his monstrous nemesis Grendel in film, comic books, and music. Moreover, although Beowulf is the longest and most famous poem still extant from Anglo-Saxon England, it is far from the only one; and this course will also, through modern translations, introduce you to the great breadth of Old English poetry. In order to gain an appreciation of the diversity and depth of this early medieval poetic corpus, we will read a selection of other heroic poems, riddles, elegies, saints’ lives, dream visions, and more. Above all, you will come away from the course with a better understanding of the earliest beginnings of both English poetry and the unlikely language that would go on from being spoken by a handful of wandering Germanic tribes to conquer the world.