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Do you have a Reading Group? Want to try an old classic? How about Beowulf?!

Sometimes called the oldest story in the English language, Beowulf is an exciting tale of
adventure from ages past and many of it themes still speak to us today. Its barely a
hundred pages long, a quick read, and would make an excellent choice for any Reading
Group wanting to try an old classic.

It was written in Old English (also sometimes called Anglo-Saxon) but fortunately there are
now lots of easy-to-read translations into Modern English. Seamus Heaneys translation
(published by Faber) is very famous. When Neil Gaiman was working on his film of the story
he used the Penguin Classics version translated by Michael Alexander. Other very good
versions are by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (published by Carcanet), or by the American
scholar Roy Liuzza (published by Broadview). If some members of your Reading Group were
reading different versions it would be interesting to compare their word choice at certain
points (such as the description of Grendels Mother, for instance).

If you want to find out more about the old poem, you could start with our blog here. But
remember: Beowulf was never written to be studied, it was written to entertain. So most of
all have fun!

If your Reading Group discussed Beowulf wed love to hear about it! Tell us what you
thought at: englishimpact@st-andrews.ac.uk
Reading Group Discussion Questions for Beowulf

1) Why does Hrothgar decide to build the hall Heorot? What do you imagine Heorot
looks like? Do you think Heorot stands for anything more generally in the story?

2) Why does Grendel attack Hrothgars hall Heorot? What do you imagine Grendel
looks like?

3) Grendel, Grendels Mother, and the dragon are usually called the poems
monsters. What makes them monstrous? How similar to, or different from each
other are they? Are the monsters real or symbolic? In Old English Beowulf and the
monsters are both sometimes called aglaeca, which means something like terrifying,
or powerful in a frightening way. How different are the monsters from the humans
in the poem? What is monstrosity? What makes a monster?

4) The poem often makes little digressions or flashbacks to tell, or hint at, the stories
of other characters who are not themselves in the main story. Do you find this
intriguing or distracting? Think of an example. Does your chosen example relate to
the main story in some way or not?

5) Three leaders in Beowulf are called a good king (in Old English the phrase is god
cyning): Scyld (sometimes called Shield), Hrothgar, and Beowulf himself. Yet
Hrothgar cant protect his people from the monster Grendel, and at the end of the
poem Beowulf dies without an heir, leaving his people at the mercy of neighbouring
tribes. Is the poem sincere or ironic then when it calls these men good king? What
makes a good leader?

6) How many women appear in the story? How many of those women speak? What
appears to be the role of the women in the poem, or their role in the society the poem
depicts? How does the storyteller seem to feel about the women and the situations
they are in?

7) Have you seen Neil Gaiman and Roger Avarys film Beowulf? What would you
say were the most important differences between the poem and the film? How do
those differences affect the way we think and feel about the story?

8) Our only copy of the poem of Beowulf is a thousand years old, and the story may
have been several hundred years older than that. What does it mean to re-tell the
story of Beowulf in the twenty-first century, as Gaiman and Avary did, and what
does Beowulf have to say to us, if anything, today?

If your Reading Group discussed Beowulf wed love to hear about it! Tell us what
you thought at: englishimpact@st-andrews.ac.uk

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