What I Learnt From Teaching Beowulf


The world of an English major is endless. Every now and then, you will feel like you have read enough, that you have discovered all there is to find. This assumption is the most dangerous one, it is a wake-up call. The moment you feel confident in how much you know, you will find another text that will rattle your worldview, that will shame you for that false moment of confidence. As a teacher of English, this fear is somehow more potent; for no teacher should ever be so confident that it shows up as arrogance. I learned this very early in my teaching career when I began teaching Beowulf.

I was given the Beowulf paper in my second year of teaching. I was told one day that I had to teach the epic poem, that I had to read it many times so that I knew its words like the back of my hand. With three weeks of preparation, I began a deep dive into the world of Anglo-Saxon England — England when it wasn’t England yet, but a combination of other small worlds, other languages that came together to form what we now know as English. The text itself is a fairly simple one. Beowulf, the hero, is supposed to save Heorot from a monster named Grendel. Grendel has been tormenting the kingdom for 12 years now, and the only option they have is this mighty-bodied, undefeatable Beowulf.

Classes were being held online at the time, in the height of the pandemic. I was teaching students I did not know; faces I did not recognise. Every Monday and Tuesday, when my classes with them were scheduled, I would be reduced to a pile of sweaty clothes. The worry was primarily that I would not do justice to the text, that I would fail to communicate the importance of the story to my students.

This worry faded gradually. In a regular workweek, there is no time for small things like nervousness, there is only a need to keep pushing on. I continued teaching, but the mundane silence of the online class meant that my teaching process became increasingly private. When you receive no responses from students in a classroom, you eventually begin teaching yourself more than you teach them. I became a better student; I learnt to read more closely, I began to engage myself in debates that the students ended up enjoying more than I did.

None of this would have been possible if I wasn’t teaching Beowulf, a text that has survived centuries of human folly. Beowulf used to be an oral tale; a story told perhaps in bars over glasses of mead, or by a bonfire on cold winter nights. It went through a tedious process of being transcribed. It survived fires, carelessness, and human calamity. It survives now almost as a souvenir of a world that once was.

The heart of the story — hero saving the world — is not unusual. We have all watched different versions of this, we have lived through these stories through our films and shows. So when young people today read such an epic, we’re given to see not only good craft but we’re allowed to carry the stories with us. Because of this, Beowulf has seen several modern-day retellings and adaptations. In 2018, Maria Dahvana Headley wrote a retelling of the text through the point of view of Grendel’s mother — a character barely mentioned in the original. With Headley’s book, The Mere Wife, a new character was born. For the hundreds of years that people have read the text, Grendel’s mother remained nameless, and yet now we find a 21st-century writer who has decided to rewrite the story from scratch. This is the capacity of a classic.

My students, once they got as invested as I was, began a contest between Beowulf and Grendel in the classroom. Half of them were Team Grendel, and the other half were team Beowulf – much like the whole Team Edward vs Team Jacob saga from the Twilight books. Our conversations were deeply contemporary — for that is how we know how to read a text. Yet, it was impossible to forget that we were reading a classic — a poem with so much scholarship behind it, that it would be impossible for one person to read everything.

Every time the students talked about their favourite parts of the story, I was made to rethink the question — how should a classic text be read? Particularly in a country like ours wherein English is not our first language. The answer to this is simpler than we might imagine. A classic must be read not as a classic, but simply as a text that belongs to each reader as much as the next. Do you need to be an English major to read Dickens? Do you need to know the history of England to understand Beowulf? Do you need to be a woman to read Jane Austen? The answer to all these questions is a very simple no. You only need to be a reader.

Drishti Rakhra is a reader, teacher, and writer, in that order. In 2019, she completed her Master’s in English from Ambedkar University Delhi and is currently an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.

Image credits: medium.com