Bringing Back Beowulf by Peter Leyland
Bringing Back Beowulf*
A recent blog on AuthorsElectric asked whether anything we write is ever wasted? and this coincided with another one referring to Anglo-Saxon poetry.** I had once sent articles to the Times Educational Supplement when they were asking for "Best and Worst" pieces for their magazine. I had sent them "Best and Worst Lessons", and "Best and Worst School Trips" but they had been rejected. I had written one about Assemblies but I was getting so fed up with the TES’s negative responses that I filed it away in my ‘Articles’ folder, doubting that it would ever see the light of day. The two Authors Electric blogs reminded me of this unpublished piece. I had really enjoyed writing it so here goes...
It was the mid-eighties, before SATs, when teachers were free to follow their own ideas. I was at a Middle school with a Yr6 class where it was a tradition that classes had to put on their own assembly each term. Standards varied from the utterly boring to the most imaginative and creative. One colleague had performed a musical about the Second World War, complete with songs he had written and uniforms he had hired.
Not being unduly competitive, but stuck for something to do, I consulted the class. As it happened, I had been reading The Dragon Slayer by Rosemary Sutcliffe to them last thing on a Friday afternoon. Why not perform the story of Beowulf? they suggested.
This interested me. I had studied Beowulf as an Old English text at University but had never been able to use it in my teaching career. Perhaps it was now time. I took this class for English, Science and Humanities - ten lessons a week in all - so I decided to drop everything else and spend two weeks on the production. It was February, normally a very uphill time in the teaching calendar.
The first thing we needed was a workable script. Two girls produced this at home, and I photocopied it. Once the class had given their amazing piece of work a reading, the actors were chosen. I had thought the main part of Beowulf would go to a boy but no, Natalie put herself forward.
Natalie was blonde and normally quiet, but as rehearsals proceeded she grew into the part. Around her the boys who were to play the Danes and Geats acted out their roles with home made swords and shields. The cowardly Unferth was easily put in his place by Natalie’s Beowulf.
Using wood, card and invention, members of the class built the side of a longship to carry Beowulf and the Geats over to help the beleaguered Danes in Heorot. A stag’s head was brought in to hang over the door of the Danish hall. Cardboard helmets were made for Natalie and the ‘thanes’. How the class loved that word.
The other dramatic find was the girl who played the role of Grendel’s mother. This was Sara with hair dark and curly, a real foil for the fair Natalie. The struggle between good and evil was to be enacted.
Assemblies at that time, pre-Ofsted, could get by with having some kind of moral theme. This was my justification for the play. It was to show the triumph of the forces of good. I knew that some commentators on this Anglo-Saxon poem had detected pre-Christian ideas so that was all I needed.
The performance itself was stunning. Beowulf tore off Grendel’s papier-mâché arm; he struggled with Grendel’s mother in the depths of the mere and finally brought up the head of her son. A football with a grey wig attached bounced across the stage.
We had to leave out Beowulf’s encounter with the dragon. It would have taken too long. Even in those days there were limits.
Years passed and Natalie was at university studying Education. I was by then teaching at another school in the same area. I was approaching retirement and Natalie came to spend two weeks with us at the school as an observer and helper. The National Curriculum was well and truly in place and science teaching was all about knowledge and SATs tests. I was hanging on grimly to what was called "scientific investigation", where working in groups and discovering answers was one key to learning. Natalie came into the lab where I had about ten different investigations going on into what is known as “Forces”. I had designed activities on balancing, floating, sinking, falling, building, moving, spinning and stretching.
She stayed with us for many of the science lessons and worked with the children effortlessly. At the end of the fortnight I asked her what she had enjoyed most about it. “Oh, I remembered how you used to teach us," she said. “It made me want to be a teacher.”
In Rosemary Sutcliffe’s story, although the dragon is slain, Beowulf is mortally wounded in the struggle. As is the custom the King's body is burned and the dragon's treasure is piled around his ashes. Beowulf's Hearth Companions place the ashes in a stone barrow built high on the shore. Here it is "left alone with the sea wind and the wheeling gulls and the distant ships that passed on The Sail-Road."
*Names have been changed
**Thanks to Mari and Nicky whose blogs triggered my memory
Dragon Slayer (1966) by Rosemary Sutcliffe
Grendel (1973) by John Gardner, illustration by Michael Leonard
“May The Forces Be With You” by Peter Leyland in Primary Science Review Nov/Dec 2001
All crushed to dust by the narrow-minded, corrupt gang of morons posturing as our government.
I read Dragon Slayer when young and Beowulf at university and enjoyed the story but that bit about the arm... yuck. It's the main thing I remember and I wish it wasn't.
That last line (Sutcliffe?) gave me chills. Beautiful.