The warrior king returns

7th June 1996 at 01:00
An anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem is now being put to work as a highly-valued resource in schools. Kevin Crossley-Holland charts the taming of Beowulf. Have I got the stamina? Will I drop off before I reach the top? Most of us - teachers, artists, honest readers - feel some trepidation when we approach a classic, especially an ancient classic.

But recently home after six years in Minnesota, I see something has happened to Beowulf. The highest peak in the Anglo-Saxon range no longer holds terrors for teachers; it has been tamed and put to work as a highly-valued and popular resource. It is as if teachers - primary and secondary - had heard the Beowulf-poet's enjoinder to his own hero, "Make good use of everything! Enjoy everything!", and applied it to Beowulf itself.

No one will ever know where or when Beowulf was composed (for recitation to the accompaniment of a six-stringed lyre), but as likely as not it was commissioned by one of those seventh-century East Anglian kings, Swedish in origin, who were laid to rest at Sutton Hoo.

At one level, the poem is a kind of double folk-tale. First the young Beowulf, a warrior from a Swedish tribe known as the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, old king of Denmark, who has been tormented for 12 years by an appalling monster, Grendel. He rips off Grendel's arm and then follows Grendel's dreadful mother over the moors to a lake, and a stone hall beneath the lake. Fifty years pass ("50 winters," says the poet). In the second part of the poem, Beowulf, now the old king of the Geats, has to fight a third terrible enemy, a dragon that has been disturbed in its cave where it guards an astonishing treasure hoard.

This dragon is a different kind of enemy from the monsters, who are like humans-gone-horribly-wrong. In fact, the dragon may be death itself, to whom all humans must succumb, but who can also be defeated by lasting fame.

So Beowulf is a wild and magical tale about a hero, two monsters and a dragon. But that's like saying A Midsummer Night's Dream is about a king and queen of the fairies and a man who turns into a donkey. For at another level, Beowulf is an astonishingly sophisticated poem, the work of a subtle, sensual, generous-spirited, manly, Christian antiquarian unsurpassed by any surviving piece composed or written in England during the following 700 years.

At key stages 2 and 3, the national curriculum speaks of reading "myths and legends"; "poetry from oral and literary traditions" and "texts from other cultures and traditions which represent different voices and forms".

Beowulf not only satisfies these conditions but is the ideal, rip-roaring English springboard for a wider understanding of the essential motifs in a hero's or heroine's life. The hero customarily has an uncommon birth, a weapon or talisman (such as Herakles' club) and performs a childhood feat (such as Arthur pulling the sword from the stone). Heroes are not gods but humans and so they have weaknesses (for example, Achilles' heel) and, after their initiation, they embark on their crucial journey, task and sacrifice.

From here, the road leads forward to more recent heroes and heroines, actual and imaginary. Do we need them and, if so, who are our candidates? Nelson Mandela? Florence Nightingale? Superman? Richard Branson? Are these the counterparts to Herakles, Gilgamesh, Samson, Arthur and Roland? Why? And what do they tell us about our own values? (And is it useful to see the very business of growing-up - the journey from childhood to adulthood - as an heroic act?) Within the "invaders and settlers" module (key stage 2), with its emphasis on "the legacy of settlement, for example, myths and legends", Beowulf is plainly a masterkey. Revolving around family kinship,friendship, moral and physical courage, piety, the importance of ritual, a relish of material pleasures and love of life itself, the poem identifies the values central to Anglo-Saxon culture in the same way that the Norse myths (much too little used) do for the Vikings.

The poem can also be used to relate ancient and modern by exploring features of Anglo-Saxon culture such as the shaping of the landscape, coinage, laws and, above all, language that anticipate and underlie our own.

What is rather surprising is the paucity of retellings of Beowulf. Some teachers may still be loyal to Rosemary Sutcliff's fine old version and, of course, I'm grateful to those who use my own, with its renowned illustrations by Charles Keeping. Robert Nye's richly imaginative and dramatic version ("Its flesh was greasy. It had red lips and hanging breasts. It dribbled green bile and gobbets of blood") was first published almost 30 years ago and has recently been reissued in paperback.

But I suggest you discount Tessa Potter's retelling of the second part of the poem, Beowulf and the Dragon. Simon Noyes' pictures have a certain expressionistic force, but the text invites unkind words. (The editor of this Heinemann series of myths and legends needs reminding of Plato: the whole point of introducing traditional tales to children, he said, is to develop that "active imagination" which leads to a discovery of the meaning of life. ) An increase in the use of Beowulf in schools has originated with English and history teachers, but I rejoice, above all, in the way the poem is being used right across the curriculum - the pursuit and celebration of a cultural whole by crossing from discipline to discipline. This is at the very heart of an education committed to furthering culture and, no matter what the national curriculum does or does not say, we know this in our hearts to be true.

Late in April, some 70 students at St Peter's High School at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex staged an audacious, stately and moving two-act opera based on Beowulf, written and directed by their own head of music, Peter Dale. In his maverick and brilliant programme notes, Dale writes of the essential artificiality of opera: "It is those things we don't have to do - play games, add parsley to the grilled haddock, fly to the moon - which make us peculiarly human, and the more useless they are (in a material-istic sense), the more important they are to us, and the less we are like orang-utans."

I talked to many of the students involved, and there was no mistaking their excitement as they realised the artifice by developing a plethora of skills - orchestral and vocal, acting, dance, set design, costume - and mask-making, stage management - and discovering how these elements must work and fit together.

Four years ago, the Royal Opera House's education department collaborated with the British Museum's education service and Aldeburgh Foundation's education department to present The Treasure and the Tale, an opera based on Beowulf written for and with six Suffolk schools (one primary, four middle, one secondary) by Edward Lambert.

This initiative, incorporating some of the students' compositions, aimed to extend the participants' "understanding of the social, cultural, political and religious climate of Saxon England". In much the same way, I worked last summer in East Sussex with librarians, a drama adviser, English advisory teachers, an archaeologist, teachers and children to present "Beowulf in a Barn".

For three sizzling summer days, children from five primary schools commandeered the beautiful medieval barn at Michelham Priory and handled Saxon artefacts, wrote metaphorical riddles, sang songs, fashioned a grisly green arm, played recorders, cooked on open fires, and got to know Beowulf through role play, discussion and time for personal writing.

What delicious, partly-calculated, not-quite mayhem! What enthusiasm!

And what learning! On the third evening, as the wind picked up, a large audience filled the creaking barn to watch 30 children and me perform a kind of antiphon. I retold the story of Beowulf, and each short stage was punctuated by a child.

Some spoke for characters in the poem, some spoke of experiences in their own lives corresponding with the passages of Beowulf: sea-crossing, feeling terror and learning to cope with it, doing something brave, making a sacrifice, feasting (at a wedding, for instance), mourning the loss of a loved one (human or animal), remembering the praising.

Thus the Geats, Beowulf's hearth-companions, grieved over the death of their lord; they said that of all kings on Earth he was the kindest, the most gentle, the most just to his people, the most eager for fame.

For of course this is the point. The poem Beowulf is so many-sided and so humane, that we will rediscover ourselves and our deepest longings whenever we say it, or play it, or sing it, or shape it or write it to life. You and I, we are the story.

* Beowulf. By Robert Nye. Dolphin paperback (Orion Children's Books). Pounds 3.50 * Beowulf and the Dragon. By Tessa Potter. Illustrated by Simon Noyes. Heinemann Education. Pounds 38. 50 for the 12-volume Myths and Legends pack * Beowulf. By Kevin Crossley-Holland; illustrated by Charles Keeping. Oxford University Press. Pounds 3.99 * A video cassette of Peter Dale's opera, Beowulf, is available from Jan Wilson, St Peter's High School, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex CMO 8QB for Pounds 15

Kevin Crossley-Holland is writing an oratorio based on Beowulf with the composer Lawrence Siegel for the American Boychoir. His new collection of poems, The Language of Yes (Enitharmon), was published last week.

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