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Learning at its Best

You Should Ban Beowulf

I don’t know why I had to read Scarlet Letter, but I know that the themes of hypocrisy, sin, redemption and religion imposing on individual will should have resonated with me. My guess is that I hated it, because it was assigned. It’s why I loved Brave New World, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and The Color Purple. None of them were assigned. None of them required a book report.

So, a former student bitches about Beowulf. Pardon the language, but that phrase just sounded fun, so I kept it. Anyway, he’s all upset about how irrelevant it is to his life. He mentions slaying dragons and dying a hero’s death and says that none of it makes sense to his world.

My first response is this:

Thoughts on Beowulf: Because if you haven’t do so yet, you will someday have the chance to slay dragons and in the process, regardless of what happens, you will see a glimpse of your own mortality and realize that the myths were right. To be heroic you must die, even if it is simply dying to your own will. It’s in those dragon-slaying moments that you will reach, not for some clearly defined functional texts, but for the poetry of the soul and the deepest mythology humanity has to offer. The problem with Beowulf is not that it isn’t relevant. The problem is that it is so relevant that it pushes us to ask questions we don’t want to ask. It’s why there is more relevance in a Pixar flick than in ninety-five percent of what you see on the news.

I stop, though. I erase it before pressing enter. Instead, I write, “Beowulf is like beer, strong, powerful, amazing at times, but maybe not suitable for children.” I erase it again. Too snarky. Too insulting. I hated Beowulf the first time, too.

I’m convinced the answer is to ban Beowulf. Tell kids that just say no to mythology. Tell them that it opens up the mind to new worlds and it causes them to fight against injustice and it’s really not very pro-capitalism. Tell them that it’s dangerous. Put it in the Restricted section. Keep the book under lock and key.  It might go unnoticed, but that’s okay. It’s already unnoticed. But if it’s banned, we might at least admit that mythology is powerful.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


6 thoughts on “You Should Ban Beowulf

  1. Hehe. Reverse psychology. Love it.

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | November 5, 2012, 10:17 pm
  2. And if we say no to it, we whet the appetite of our children. I like your list of books. I do not encourage junior high students to read The Color Purple, but I use the conversation between Celie and Shug about God part way through the book to point to a possible answer for children who want to begin facing big questions in life. I think it is important to open minds and great literature in all its forms will do that. Thank your for a provocative post, John.

    Posted by ivonprefontaine | November 5, 2012, 10:26 pm
  3. I read Beowulf too, as a kid….

    A silly teacher suggested it. I’m going to admit a horrible thing here: The teacher was right! I liked it…. (I realize that for me to admit that, is totally out of character. Although, Insanity does run in my family.)

    I remember little of the story. (Perhaps I was actually too young to read it AND remember it. All I can recall, is that is had the Old English (or whatever it was) and the Modern English text side by side. It was also the poetic version. I will be cursed, but I recall, at the time, wishing someone would have written this as a “real story”. I know, I know, it was originally a poem. But I wanted a story. I think I was maybe 12 at the time. So this was some 40 years ago.)

    But, I do recall that it was good! And when I read Larry Niven’s “Known Space” Series…. I at least understood Beowulf Sheaffer.
    And when I ran into the video below, I was AWED:

    (Go listen, be enthralled!)

    But I absolutely LOVED your first response! It was GREAT! Even better: It was THE TRUTH! Whether it will work, though, depends on the student. These sort of answers “work or do not work” on an individual basis. If you know the student, then you know better, than anyone else, what will work.

    I also loved and laughed at your second response. But you are right… It is a tad snarky. Again, it depends on the student. I might work with some. But only a few.

    I liked your third strategy, too. That will likely work with a lot of students. And it is nice, and diabolical.

    Can I offer a 4th strategy, which may also work with some students, if you want them to read it?

    Show them snippets from the Pixar Film. But not the whole thing. Show them snippets from the text. But not the whole thing. (If there is a “real story” prose version, show a few snippets from that.) Whet their appetites. Then take it away. Make THEM ask for it, want it…. But make some excuse that there is not enough time to cover it or something… And then … because you are so cool… When they beg, let ’em have it anyway. Beowulf ’em, like what happened to poor poor Grendel….!!! (Yes, I am evil.)

    Good luck! Now go slay some dragons! And save the Thanes! (The Thanes, are the students, you see… If you think about it.) I will offer you some “advice” from Kubilai Khan, for encouragement: “Go! And conquer! Like a Mongol born!”

    Posted by Pete Laberge | November 5, 2012, 11:06 pm
  4. Reblogged this on Teacher as Transformer and commented:
    Although I think there are limits to what is acceptable literature, I believe we need to include the great books that pass the test of time and enhance learning, curiosity, and human growth at appropriate ages. This post struck me as important to our conversation about these big topics.

    Posted by ivonprefontaine | November 6, 2012, 9:55 am
  5. We adults don’t have to do anything. Young people are way ahead of us in science fiction, fantasy, mythology and the classics. They have read Beowolf, and all the classics, watched revisions on Anime in Japanese. They are exposed to so much creative stuff online, it blows my mind. They are blogging and writing and discussing. Listening to Wagner’s ring series redone in animation by some young guy in Korea. It just goes on and on. The internet is an incredible tool for sharing learning across cultures, including Beowolf which my son has been exposed to in many variations along with all the classics. They seem to be learning more from each other than from adults.
    Most adults are watching TV saying, it’s awful how much time these young people spend on their computers.
    I think they are clueless.
    If I was a teacher. I wouldn’t teach it. I would ask my students to bring in three minutes of their favorite bit of Beowolf and tell the class why they selected it.
    I read Beowulf, thirty or so years ago, when I was a freshman in college.
    Still love it.
    But kids that age now, are way ahead of where I was then.
    “I hear babies cry.
    I watch them grow.
    They learn much more than I’ll ever know,
    and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
    Great post. Thank you.

    Posted by cindy knoke | November 9, 2012, 10:16 pm


  1. Pingback: Book Review | ‘Beowulf’ by Anonymous « Wordly Obsessions - December 28, 2012

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