Poetry: Beowulf

“Do you want me to read it?”

Before me sat half a dozen middle schoolers, watching with that wide-eyed curiosity and amazement that I know will be hidden in only a few short years. They watched and giggled and nodded their heads, some of them even cheering me on. They had already heard me read in Latin, and I told them that a few more fun readings were up ahead. But my Old English was a little rusty. It had been a moment since I’d read anything that old aloud. But I gave it my best shot.

I read only a few lines, but it did the trick. All of them laughed and then protested their disbelief. “No way, that can’t be English!” one said. I assured them that it most certainly was. “Can you do it again?” asked another. This time I played a recording, one with a much clearer pronunciation.

“…þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.” Beowulf

The kids were mesmerized as they listened to the speaker recite the opening lines of the poem. They’d never heard anything like it, and I got the feeling that they were beginning to understand how different their language now was and how quickly it had changed. In a small way, they were coming to understand the concept of time that I introduced at the beginning of our class. But as the recitation ended, and those last lines were spoken, one of the kids picked out a couple of words. “He was goot king.”

We all laughed, but I told him, yes, that is what he read at the end. That kid was so proud. He had listened and caught hold of what was said. I’m not sure how much they noticed, but I was so proud of them too. They had grasped, if not completely, another concept I had been trying to teach them: that we should learn history because it connects us to the past, our past, the past that connects us to each other. These kids didn’t know Old English, they had never even heard it before, yet they found what they did and ran with it. I still smile thinking back to that night.

I miss that class so much. They were are great kids. I loved teaching them about the world from creation to the present. I loved sharing accounts from Scripture with them. I loved connecting the spiritual with the physical for them through history. I loved sharing art and music and literature with them. During this period with Beowulf, we were obviously talking about English history (both the people and the language), a short stop along the way of world history. I read them Chaucer and Shakespeare and other works as well. But Beowulf is a fun one, especially for kids. They love hearing the gory details and fantastic elements. They laugh and groan and ask for more. They love the stories, and I love to share them.

See, listening to and creating stories are a part of who we are as people, I think. Beowulf is an interesting story. Like the epics that came before, it has elements of both the real and the fantastic, the myth with the fact, the history after a game of telephone. I love this story because it tells of a time long gone, of men and monsters, battles and victories. I love that it preserves a language left only in fragments today. I love that it has dragons. But most of all, I love it because it is a story that connects us to our past, as all history does. You have to teach history as a story, you know. That’s the best way to learn it. That’s what these epics, in part, were for. To keep and teach history for later generations, with a bit of entertainment as well.

We’re still learning from these stories today. What were our ancestors like? What did they value, believe, look like, fear, love, and say? Where did they go, what did they accomplish? How did they want their deeds remembered? What did they want us to remember? 

I hope one day we find an even earlier version of this epic story. I hope we find another piece to our past, a story perhaps even more true but just as fantastic to defy even our imaginations. I hope I have a chance to teach it, too. Perhaps it won’t be to kids at church, there for puppy chow, fellowship, and history, but to my own. I’ll watch them giggle as I read in a different voice using words they’ve never heard before that became their own as this story is a part of their own. This story, Beowulf, is more than dragons and warriors, treasure and glory, but of life as it was for those today. It is our story, and it is one that I hope will be cherished for centuries to come.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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