Over the river and through the woods to Beowulf’s house we go…

by cheri block

Every Thursday night, I teach writing to two small classes of high school students. My bunch this session includes a smart little 8th grade guy.

Poor kid.

Do not start your essays with a question. That’s soooo  junior high.

Oh, sorry, Rohan.

Rohan smiles, sorta.

And so it goes.

This week’s lesson was how to write an engaging introduction to a literary analysis essay.

Just introducing the topic, I watched the high school brain begin to switch off and go into a rim sleep mode.

Have you guys ever heard of Beowulf?

All shake their moppy heads no.

You haven’t? Oh my god, that answer is exactly why I left the California public school system. You’ve got to be kidding me. You haven’t heard of Beowulf? What are they teaching you this year? What? I’ve never heard of that book. Are you studying the classics? OK, well let me help you along, here.

Would you like to learn about a total stud who loved to drink and party? A guy who cuts off the shoulder and arm of a troll? How about this humanoid’s mother, who lives below the water in a filthy swamp and loves to wrestle around with that studly guy?

This light-hearted shaming tactic works like an irritating leaf blower, swirling around all sorts of stuff in their minds.

Now, I call to my secretary.

Pat! Please bring in some Diet Coke to any of these fine students who need a swig of mead. [Pat hustles in with Dixie Cups full of Diet Coke.]

Well, here we all are in Hrothgar’s mead-hall, chugging our mead. After we go to sleep (something you little rug rats understand well), an almost extra-terrestrial blood-hungry monster will enter this room and begin to suck the marrow out of your—Rohan—your bones! And then, James, he will crack your skull in half and slobber all over your brains. You see, the monster’s name is Grendel and he has a bone to pick (literally, I add,  but they don’t get my joke).

Now, to the topic at hand.

As you know, I too, am a student. Every Wednesday night, I travel over there, across the bay, to Stanford.

This news, to these students is more stimulating (sadly) than my dramatic descriptions of Beowulf and Grendel.

I  slave over my papers, hoping my professor will give me an A.

Why do you care about grades, Mrs. Sabraw? You’re kinda old. [Everyone laughs at Kevin’s bravado.]

You think I’m old; you should see my professor. Why, he reminds me of King Beowulf in his older age. Speaking of King Beowulf, shall we view the introduction to my paper on Beowulf?

The foreplay has gone over its time limit. They are  fading.

Up on the overhead, my introduction brightens the dark room.

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!” (Sendak 22)  So said Maurice Sendak’s character Max after he had tamed a horde of monsters. This collection of hairy-horned beasts with talons and scale-armor, perhaps dreamed by a young brave-heart sent to his room for the night, has not escaped analysis. A master storyteller’s tale, Where the Wild Things Are, is about a strong-willed child who becomes a king in a land of rowdy misfits. He finds that royalty is overrated and sails back to a consciousness where his dinner is waiting. Max is not alone among literary kings who have done the same: King Gilgamesh of The Epic of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, King of Ithaca, journey great distances to discover their true natures. They too, battle symbolic monsters, but more importantly they wrestle with their egos in the process. In 800 C.E. another epic poem, Beowulf, is put to parchment. The Nordic hero fights two monsters in his youth and one in his old age. The monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother serve as foils, juxtaposed in battles that emphasize Beowulf’s heroic qualities, but it is not until his final battle with the dragon–his alter ego–that the true nature of King Beowulf emerges.

OK. How did I capture the reader’s attention?

What grade did you get Mrs. Sabraw?

I might tell you if you pay attention, I answer.

I opened with something I hoped would grab the reader’s attention and then tapered to the thesis. The hardest part is the bridge between the grabber and the thesis.

Which sentence is the bridge? I ask.

Mrs. Sabraw, what’s a foil? Lauren asks.

Who is Gilgamesh? Richard asks.

Which sentence is the bridge? I repeat my original question.

Could it be the one about parchment? Ming responds.

Yes! Bingo!

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Over the river and through the woods to Beowulf’s house we go…

  1. I’m surprised you got blank stares about Beowulf. Wasn’t there a movie version a few years ago? That usually puts things on the radar screen. I remember hearing about kids thinking that Troy wasn’t as good as Lord of the Rings and not knowing that one was history and the other was fantasy.

    • Cheri says:

      If a cool video or computer game of Beowulf and Co.’s violence were available, they would know the name immediately.

      Most of my students are children of recent Silicon Valley immigrants and are programmed to go the way of math, science, engineering, law, medicine and other such professions.

      Shall we say the Liberal Arts are not their focus.

  2. The Sci-Fi Fanatic says:

    Great post. A great read. I did notice your image at the top of your post was selected from the animated film Beowulf.

    As Thomas made mention, it is funny the kids may not have checked out the Robert Zemeckis picture.

    In fact, I’m not sure who saw the film. I still haven’t seen it. Have you? I’m such a fan of The Epic Of Gilgamesh and Beowulf and the works of Homer, there’s not much on film I would want to see for fear it might ruin it all. This is why I never did see the CGI take on Beowulf [2007]. I never saw Beowulf & Grendel [2005] starring Gerard Butler or the Beowulf [1999] with Christopher Lambert. If anyone has a recommendation I’m open.

    Keep up the inspiring work at school and on the internet. It was like being in school under the direction of one of my favorite teachers.

  3. Cheri says:

    Thank you, Sci-Fi Fanatic,

    Just what I needed today. You are so sweet.

    I, like you, avoid movie renditions of works of literature that I love, afraid that my imaginative images might be besmirched by the new ones.

    Just wondering. Have you read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?

    I have just finished rereading five of them for my class and got a big kick out of Chaucer’s irreverence…

    Try reading The Miller’s Tale and the Prologue to his tale. Whew….

  4. andreaskluth says:

    I’m not surprised that they really started paying attention when you told them that you, too, are a student.

    That made you vulnerable and recognizable to them. It made the class personal.

    That said, I think it may be too much to ask these kids to share our (your and my) love for the “classics”, the few timeless stories out there that have stood the test of time. That impulse — hunting through the past to find what endures — probably afflicts only “old” people.

    BTW, I would flunk your course. I think I have started articles with questions, and I don’t know what bridges and foils are — or at least, I’m not aware of using any.

    • Cheri says:

      As a professional (and successful) writer, you can start your articles in any way you darn well please, right?

      You couldn’t flunk. We don’t issue grades. Plus, your fast wit might make you teacher’s pet.

      Foil is what you cover your turkey with so it doesn’t burn on Thanksgiving.

      Bridges are what cars use to get over waterways.


  5. zeusiswatching says:

    A lot of my reading interests came from having two parents who loved to read (and had totally different tastes when it came to books). Much more came along with a couple of outstanding instructors at the Jr. college level. There were a few teachers in Jr and High School (one of whom had us read a translation of Beowulf) and a librarian in elementary school who helped. It seems that if a student isn’t interested in the liberal arts, the system gives the student a pass.

    I think our current education system pushes liberal arts and the classics (Asian and Western) to the remote corner of the learning universe. Many seem to discover this world after university.

    I’m optimistic, we liberal arts types will make a comeback. All this technology and commercial prowess today has to eventually give way one day to the (cyclical) period of reflection. After all, why is all this great “stuff” meaningful, or seemingly so, anyway? That’s where we come in.

    • Cheri says:

      A reminder to all readers to turn off the tube, limit screen time, and read as a family.

      Oh to meet a junior high teacher who would have his students read a translation of Beowulf.

      What type of a comeback do you think we will make? I sure hope you are right.

  6. andreaskluth says:

    Thank you, Cheri.

    Just summarizing:

    “Successful” writers like me (defined as: those with a job) can “start articles in any way they darn well please.” Unsuccessful writers (those out of a job) must never start articles with a question.

    This means that all writers looking for a job should save up their opening-line questions for the moment they land one.

    Seriously, though, I’m interested: What is the rationale for the no-question thing? Is is alleged to be gimmicky?

    • Cheri says:

      A question by its function causes a reader (or listener) to stop and think. This may be what an adult writer is aiming for. In that case, questions are effective.

      Young writers by their nature are terribly disorganized, like their rooms. 🙂

      The best paragraphs are ones you cannot leave.

      Better to get knee deep into a paragraph and then be asked to think.

      I might tell my high schoolers this:

      “Take your reader by the hand and lead him into your paragraph. Offer him something clear and tangible that will make him read on and on, desiring more. Every now and then, squeeze his hand, wink…and say, Are you with me? Why? and then keep going, heading for that place you hope you will both arrive. ”

      And yes, little ones have trouble formulating a good question before they have said anything. So gimmicky is an apt description.

      • Cheri says:


        Let me continue this morning, now that I am rested.

        I am correcting papers (ughhh) this morning and just read a paragraph written for a topic that asked whether effort or achievement should be used to determine grades.

        This particular student, a 10th grader, argues that achievement should be the guiding factor. Here is her first body paragraph. This is a 25 minute timed essay.

        “Education is the foundation that students build on for over a decade. School is a preparation for future real life experiences. The real world is full of problems that need solving: the search for renewable energy, the philosophical questions of life, the quest to master literature and writing, and the search to cure the diseases plaguing the world. If one cannot solve a problem or achieve some steps toward the solution, the effort is not going to be acknowledged. For instance, consider the Olympic games, an international tradition since 1896, honoring the physical achievements of the amazing athletes of the world. How could the games possibly be judged by effort? Would they study the history of each athlete’s accounting for every minute they spend? The least subjective way to judge the games in through achievement, as with much else in the world. Schools should be preparing kids for a results driven mentality.”

      • Richard Manchester says:

        Your 10th grader deserves an A for achievement. How does a teacher measure effort, anyway?

        At my grammar school, in end-of term reports, teachers used to award two grades, one for achievement, the other for effort. This resolved into the exam result and work during the term.

        There was another instrument of torture – “fortnightly marks”. The highest achiever’s marks were scaled to 40 for each subject, and everyone else’s scaled accordingly. There were no grades, only marks. All nine scaled marks for academic subjects were individually added together and the winner scaled to 36, a similar scale then applying to the losers, and the result written into a grid. The headmaster would then visit every class in the school on an appointed day once a fortnight and question every pupil on his record. If he was dissatisfied because your mark had gone down, he would place you on “Daily Report”. This meant you had to carry a report card with you to every period and receive a written comment at the end from the presiding master. At the end of the day you waited outside the headmaster’s study, in a queue, for him to peruse your card and to suffer his wrath. The ultimate sanction was a caning in those days.

        The headmaster was revered by staff and pupils alike, as is his memory to this day. I could never understand why.

        The form master was supposed to make the calculations, but one year he asked the form to choose one of their number to make the calculations. You’ve guessed right – they chose me. A double torture! As it happens, the form master also took us for English Literature.

  7. The Sci-Fi Fanatic says:

    We all think you’re terrific here.

    I have read The Canterbury Tales. So long ago. I even visited parts of England in which it was based though my memory is a bit fuzzy on that. We were based out of Bath, the University of Bath and travelled out from there. It was a wonderful course called the Literary Landscape Of England.

    We visited Thomas Hardy’s home and spent some time at the Roman Baths and the Bathhouse reading stories like The Return of The Native and Northanger Abbey.

    It was really special to place the context of those stories with real locations.

    There was also a hostorical component dubbed the Historical Landscape of England.

    The Canterbury Tales was very good. I should read more of the classics. I did enjoy some along the way of my own accord like Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal Of The Plague Year. So much great stuff out there and so little time.

    I must admit, speaking of irreverent, Tim Burton’s [and I’m not much of a fan really] take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland looks appealing. Visually it appeals to me because it captures the spirit of the book at first glance. Still, I’m sure it won’t be perfect. I’m intrigued though and I don’t say that often about films based on the classics.

    • Cheri says:

      What a jolly pilgrimage you took!

      I ask because I am now studying four of the tales and have just about decided to write my next essay on the Wife of Bath. What a memorable character she is…

      I haven’t read these in so long and am getting a big kick out of them now.

      Funny you would mention the upcoming Alice in Wonderland film. That is one I will see too.

  8. andreaskluth says:

    Pretty sharp student. She should have made a para break for the Olympics example, and condensed all the preceding sentence into one short one. But pretty good.

    I’d give her an a A for achievement. No wait, she clearly didn’t try very hard — this looked easy — so she should get a C for effort. Oh, actually…..

  9. andreaskluth says:

    My room and mind is disorganized, I have decided. I will never, ever, start anything with a question again.

  10. andreaskluth says:

    My room and mind ARE disorganized, no less. I will never, ever, organize it again….

  11. Cheri says:

    Hi Richard,

    The responses to that particular prompt are predictable: those students who struggle in a subject think that effort should be part of the rubric. The other students, those with A’s, wonder how effort can be measured.

    Your grammar school experience–no grades, but very stiff and calculated “marks” and individuals who crunched your numbers.

    This type of scoring appeals to me as a student. Grades are important to me…which must indicate something (perhaps insecurity or a need for validation for my thoughts and work?)

    Would you send your grandchild to the type of school where you were educated?

    • Richard Manchester says:

      Yes, although my own children went to bog-standard comprehensives where they were mollycoddled.

      My old school is a selective state grammar school of some 700 pupils, and one of the few that still exists in the country. Its academic record remains high, much to the consternation of those who would abolish it in furtherance of egalitarian and ideological objectives. A couple of years ago, parents at the school gate were causing a disturbance trying to get their children enrolled.

      In my day it was little more than a sweatshop.

    • Richard Manchester says:

      I would add that fortnightly marks were unjust because you could land on daily report even if you did better, simply because the top boy did particularly well.

      The regime applied to the top stream as well as the others and was abolished when the headmaster retired. On balance, more harm than good was done, whether or not you came top.

      • Cheri says:

        Yes, those top boys (or girls) were always so annoying, ruining the curve.

        I hear stories like this from my many students from China, Taiwan, Korea, and India.

  12. Randall says:

    Great story telling (on both accounts), Cheri. Beowulf was one of my favorite books back in High School. I was enthralled to find out years later, that the portion we read in school was only part of the story, and that the beast known as Grendel had a mother that was even more fierce. I ended up reading it a few years ago thanks to Joyce, who I believe teaches this book as well.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Randall,
      Welcome to the blog!

      And yes, Grendel’s mother was one protective she-thing. I could have used a mother like that every now and then…


      The descriptions of the battle between King Beowulf and that awesome dragon are wonderful as well.

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