Anglo Saxon Literature Study: Beowulf Part 1

Anglo Saxon Literature Study: Beowulf Part 1

We are reading Beowulf as part of our literature study whilst looking at the Anglo Saxons.  I have lots of activities planned.  We do not do separate writing, spelling, grammar or English in our home school.  I simply plan all those subjects through the study of great classics.  The two books we are using for this are the following:


The first picture book introduces the children to the story as a whole in a very interesting and accessible way.  The second book we will be using for the actual study.

Introducing Beowulf

We spent a week or so reading the picture version out loud.  Morpurgo is a mastermind at rewriting the classics, and this is no exception.  It is a very comprehensive and full version of the original text and brought the whole epic of Beowulf to life.

The children’s first task was to write a short paragraph explaining what Beowulf was.  I read out some excerpts from different sources and together we did a spider diagram.  I have found spider diagrams very helpful for my reluctant writer.  They completed a lovely note page in no time:

Literary Devices of Beowulf

Anglo- Saxon poetry uses alliteration and the metaphorical device of kenning.  The children knew about similes, metaphors and alliteration having studied Homer the previous year.  The Odyssey and Iliad are littered with them so familiarity with all three came swiftly.  A kenning, whilst quite fun, is slightly more tricky I think.

A kenning is a compound expression in Old English and Old Norse poetry with metaphorical meaning

I had pointed out the odd few kennings I had noticed in Morpurgo’s Beowulf, but we studied Heaney’s and came up with many more.   My goal for the lesson was for them to be able to recognise kennings easily, be able to take a fairly good guess at what they might mean and to make up a few of their own.

The children all had their own copies of the passage when Beowulf defeats Grendel and we went through them together, underlining all the kennings and writing at the side what word they were meant to represent.

Their final task was to choose a character from Beowulf and describe him using strong alliteration and metaphorical kennings.  I didn’t really mind if they ‘borrowed’ some from the text (mirroring is useful learning) but I did want them to make up at least two of their own (so I knew they fully understood).  Off they went to think about it whilst they had a swim.  They came back with some ideas, but they weren’t quite right.  So back to the drawing board.  I walked them through it, they wrote their essay and I enjoyed the results.  Not quite as independent as I’d hoped but the results were worth the wait!

We went through underlining kennings and writing next to them our best guess of what they might mean
Each child then made up a few of their own and tried to incorporate it into some prose, linked to Beowulf.

I particularly wanted this work to include characters from Beowulf, rather than making up more modern ones, however I did want them to understand that we use kennings colloquially even today i.e.  joy rider.

The Formal Saxon Boast in Beowulf

Next up was to learn about the Formal Saxon Boast.  The children did some copywork of Beowulf’s boast and wrote a short paragraph about it.  Their assignment for the day was to write a formal boast about themselves, including two original kennings, and laying aside all humility!  This assignment reaped some fun results:

Beowulf as Primary Evidence

I also wanted to discuss how epics can be a form of primary evidence, in that they were composed during the time period in question and although often imaginary tales they would naturally contain lots of information pertinent to the time.  We used Beowulf’s funeral scene to investigate funerals during Anglo-Saxon times. I printed off a copy of Beowulf’s funeral scene for each child, and after studying the burial at Sutton Hoo (thought to be a cenotaph to king Raedwald) we used a highlighter to highlight all similarities between the two.  We also read and coloured in some information sheets about Sutton Hoo.  We are fortunate to live a couple of hours away from the site and so will likely visit at some point.

Here is the children’s version of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo.  It was interesting just how many similaries were found to this in the original version of Beowulf.  My full post on this can be found by clicking the picture below:

Writing Fiction using Beowulf

I asked the children to write about Gredel’s journey home after he had his arm ripped off by Beowulf.  The results were great fun!

C9 wrote the above essay.  She is my wonderfully scatty, quirky twin and her ‘3 minute sum up’ at the end of the essay cracked me up! (If you want to read it, click on the picture, then you can zoom in)

And to complement our study of Beowulf I allowed them to watch an animated DVD of the story.  There is a newer, possibly better version (non-animated) but it is for older students so mine had to make do with this one for now!


All in all a great study with lots more to follow!

Other Posts about the Anglo Saxons

Literature Study: Beowulf – Part Two

Anglo Saxon Presentation

Re-enactment as a form of narration

Developing an historically inquiring mind

How to make a paper mache map 

Using our paper mache map to learn about the Anglo Saxons

A Review of Morpurgo’s Beowulf

11 responses to “Anglo Saxon Literature Study: Beowulf Part 1”

  1. Great study, we read Beowulf to the children also and for our home school group my daughter re enacted one of the sections in the story and my son told saxon ridicules. I am enjoying seeing what your doing with your English history studies:) I spent 3 years on English history and am now moving on to the ancient world:) Living in England has been a real joy for us as a family and we will be sad to leave next year

    • OOh, I like the idea of re-enactment. How did that work out? Did she dress up? Did you do a post on Beowulf – I must visit your blog and see- we’ve got another four weeks of Beowulf so I’m always after good ideas. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  2. What sequence/ curriculum do you use? I love that you teach through literature — I love the Beautiful Feet (American) history curriculum, but I think they do other history too 🙂

    • I do my own thing. It sounds a bit flash to say I write my own curriculum, but I guess that is basically what I do. I follow the flow of where ever the history takes us, and it has worked really well for us so far!

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