Homeschool Beowulf Literature Study

Homeschool Beowulf literature study

We are reading Beowulf as part of our literature study whilst looking at the Anglo Saxons. Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon heroic epic set in 5th century Denmark.  Beowulf, prince of the Geats, attempts to destroy first Grendel, the foul fiend, his mother, the hideous sea-hag and finally a monstrous sea dragon.  First, we read Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo. As always Morpurgo reels you in from the very first paragraph.  I really enjoy his writing, find him very natural to read aloud, and given the complexity of the original poem I think he’s done a fab job making Beowulf accessible to his young readers.  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.  I hope you enjoy our homeschool Beowulf literature study.

Homeschool Beowulf Literature Study


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, Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, we will be using for the actual study.

Introducing Beowulf

The children were so excited about this homeschool Beowulf literature study! Straight away, we spent a week or so reading the picture version out loud.  Morpurgo is an undeniable mastermind at rewriting the classics, and this is no exception.  On the whole, it is a very comprehensive and full version of the original text and brings the whole epic of Beowulf to life.

First, the children wrote a short paragraph explaining what/who 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:

Beowulf note page

Literary Devices of Beowulf

Next, we looked at the main literary devices in Beowulf.

The Anglo-Saxon Kenning

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 have the most beautiful lyrical language. So, the children were able to pick out lots confidently.  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”

Oxford Dictionary

I had pointed out the odd few kennings I had noticed in Morpurgo’s Beowulf, but when we studied Heaney’s we 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.

Finding the Kennings

I gave the children their own photocopy of the passage where Beowulf defeats Grendel. We went through these together and underlined all the kennings and their meanings:

We went through underlining kennings and writing next to them our best guess of what they might mean

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. 

Writing their own Kennings

They came back with some ideas, but they weren’t quite right.  So back to the drawing board.  I walked them through it, and afterwards they wrote their essay and I enjoyed the results.  Not quite as independent as I’d hoped but the results were worth the wait!

Homeschool Beowulf literature study
Each child then made up a few of their own and tried to incorporate it into some prose, linked to Beowulf.
Homeschool Beowulf literature study

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, for example 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 reaped some fun results:

Homeschool Beowulf literature study

Beowulf as Primary Evidence

The author (or authors) of Beowulf composed this epic between 700 and 1000AD. This means Beowulf is a form of primary evidence. Whilst it is a myth, it contains a lot of information pertinent to this time period.

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. 

Burial Mounds at Sutton Hoo
Burial Mounds at Sutton Hoo (Image Credit: Alex Healing)

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 a reconstruction of the Burial Site:

Anglo-Saxon Burial
Anglo-Saxon Burial (Image Credit: Gernot Kellar)

Here is the children’s version of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo placed on their homemade paper mache map.  The children found many similaries between this one and the one in the original version of Beowulf.  

A reconstruction using PlayMobil of the Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo
Our Map of Great Britain showing an Anglo-Saxon Village and the Burial at Sutton Hoo

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!

Homeschool Beowulf literature study

Charlotte, age 9, 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).

Old English and Beowulf

I wanted the children to realise that Beowulf was written and spoken in old English and  it was this old English that our English today came from.  I also wanted them to realise that Beowulf told in old English was phenomenal and sounded just as the story is – gruff, passionate and unfinished.  To that end I researched until I found the following reading on You Tube:

The children were mesmerised.  I think they could really imagine it being told by the fire by these guttural, unwashed Anglo-Saxons, rather than their mummy reading it out at bedtime whilst sat in their beds in their fluffy pjs.  It added another dimension for them.

Along the same lines I found this website about the changing English Language.  I photocopied the second and third page to go through with the children.  Basically it is a passage from Beowulf first on audio for you to listen to and then written out in old English  The children and went through the text trying to find any words we might recognise as English today.  We then checked our work using the third page.  They were particularly interested in words that really have stood the test of time and we still use in their entirety now.

Beowulf old English language

Beowulf Newspaper

The rest of our time has been spent filling in the newspaper outlines with lots of stories and announcements pertaining to Beowulf’s death.  We really enjoyed seeing how a newspaper comes together and I think it is a really effective way of presenting knowledge on a particular subject.  Our inspiration for this activity came from a boxed set I found in the charity shop:

Make the News newspaper kit

The children wrote multiple articles based on the whole of the epic of Beowulf.  This was a great final activity which brought together everything the children had learnt about Beowulf.  Here is a photo of the front page:

Homeschool Beowulf literature study: Newspaper
And a close up of the first page

and the whole newspaper, the Geatish Guardian:

Homeschool Beowulf literature study: newspaper
Our Geatish Guardian- a newspaper all about Boewulf!

Beowulf as an Epic

The last activity was the same activity I do for all the epics we study.  We use this form.  It’s purpose is to drill home what makes an epic an epic and for the children to begin to learn to back up their answers with examples from the text:

Elements of an epic poem worksheet

All in all I really enjoy our literature studies, so it was no surprise that this was voted one of our favourite things done whilst studying the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.  The children were particularly excited to see it come together and their own work in print rather than their own handwriting!

And lastly, to complement our study of Beowulf they watched 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!

Beowulf video

If you’ve enjoyed this homeschool Beowulf Literature study, please do check out my other related posts:

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

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