For a bonus question on their exam, my students used their artistic talents to draw their own rendition of Grendel’s mother from the Old English poem Beowulf.
God Jul! My ancestors crafted Beowulf’s armor. Ok, maybe it’s a stretch. Earlier this semester, one of my students blurted out, “That means your great-grandparents made Beowulf’s armor!” I’d like to explore the justification for this suggestion on this day, in memory of what would have been my mother Joan’s 95th birthday.
Her father, my grandfather Werner–who called himself a Viking–was born in the 19th century in Sundsvall, Sweden. He grew up on a farm where tomtens knotted the horses’ tails every night. The milk Werner left out was always drunk by them. So he maintained.
This old Swede, as I knew him, said he was descended from Weland or Wayland the Smithy, the smith god in the Norse and Germanic mythological panoply. After all, his last name was Wehlen, though my Swedish cousins spell it Welin. So when Beowulf talks about his armor as “Welandes geweorc” or “the work of Weland” (line 455), that must be my ancestor’s artistry at play–at least according to my student. I like to think that’s true.
In case you don’t believe in the tomten, see this book by Viktor Rydberg, which features the beautiful paintings of Harald Wiberg. Below is the very copy my second cousin, Barbro, sent to my brothers and me in 1963. I still read it out loud to my children, just as my mother, Joan, did, on a still Christmas Eve. Maybe Weland is listening, too?
I love what happens in the classroom. Just before the end of our penultimate day discussing Beowulf, one of my students burst out, “How is a brown girl like me supposed to identify with Beowulf?”
The next class we discussed issues of diversity and how we can use them to explore Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon culture. I shared with my students all sorts of material, including about Jorge Luis Borges, the brilliant Argentinian author who read, wrote about, and translated Old English literature. I shared an undergraduate honors student’s thesis written for me in 2004 called “Jorge Luis Borges: Nazi critic / by Andrew Edward Dunsky. We explored The Public Medievalist, a blog site devoted to defending medieval studies from white supremacist racist rhetoric.
Most importantly, I opened a page to my blog on Grendel’s Mother. This particular entry, called “Old English is Mine!”: Diversity and Old English, includes a poem by Nahir I. Otaño Gracia, the medievalist. She writes about how just because she is from Puerto Rico, she has “as much right to” Old English as anyone else.
I asked my student if she would be willing to read the poem—in both modern English and Spanish– aloud to the entire class. She was willing and sparked the most wonderful class. Later she wrote me, “I just wanted to thank you for showing me the poem in class. It was very empowering for me, and I’m very grateful for that.” Later she fashioned a wonderful final project in which she translated a favorite song in Spanish into Old English. She chose is “La Trenza” by the Chilean artist Mon Laferte. As she writes so eloquently, “Overall, this was a very healing project of me. Being able to reclaim a part of my culture which has been co-opted by hateful groups has allowed me to feel welcome and validated as a student at Texas State. Additionally, merging two very different aspects of my identity has given me the opportunity to understand the value of diversity and inclusion.”
I’m grateful to my student, for opening the minds and hearts of all our students—and me.
And I’m especially grateful to Nahir for sharing this poem that allowed for a moment of grace in the classroom. And here’s the song that inspired my student so much.
If only I could take my students to the British Library next fall 2018. An amazing exhibit is set to open with all sorts of Anglo-Saxon material culture, including the Beowulf manuscript. Now we win the lottery…..
I was so happy to be asked to be interviewed by one of my favorite organizations, SCBWI Austin [the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. This wonderful group supports beginning and expert writers in the field of children’s and YA lit. I have always found them to be delightful and helpful.
I never imagined they’d interview me. And little did I expect Daniel Radcliffe to show up!
I’ve taken to giving pop quizzes with easy answers…if you’ve read the material. When I told my students they’d have one everyday as we went through Beowulf, they said, “Then it’s not a POP quiz.” So I starting calling them “Pop-Tart quizzes.” In any event, I always say, if you don’t know the answer, make me laugh–or draw a picture. My students never fail me!
Why I love my students….let me count the ways…
Concerning Tolkien’s “The Monsters and the Critics”
What is or are NOT “an inexplicable blunder of taste”?
- Literature critics
- It is an inexplicable blunder of taste to neglect the study of Beowulf in scholarly settings.
- My memory of what the answer to this question is
- Dr. Morrison’s hair
What does Leyerle argue about interlace in Beowulf?
- No idea, so I drew Beowulf in a corset because inter[lace]. 🙂
- Another student wrote “I like your outfit today by the way :-)”
At least she was paying attention!
What does Leyerle say about digressions in Beowulf?
- That one’s mind should not digress from remembering what Leyerle says about digressions.
Concerning Jane Chance’s article “The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel’s Mother”
Why, according to Change, is Grendel’s Mother ‘monstrous’?
- Because she’s a strong independent woman who don’t need no man?
What overtones color her battle with Beowulf?
- Sexual (bow chicka bow-wow)
Extra Credit: what is Euhemerism?
- I have no idea, but Robinson really likes to talk about it.
- I do not recall, but again, today’s outfit is REALLY cute.
According to Roberta Frank, what is the ultimate point of Beowulf?
- To claim an ultimate point is to reduce the text into nothingness. Maybe I’m just trying to cover up my ignorance.
The Bayeux Tapestry beautifully depicts a Norman view of the political events culminating in the decisive loss of Britain for the Anglo-Saxons in 1066. Now, for those Games of Thrones fans out there (I am too! Team John Snow!), here is an amazing tapestry for you to enjoy.
Here is how they made it.
This style tapestry also inspired A.A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame.
I’m a Tigger girl myself…..