Teaching Beowulf and Other Old English Poems: An Annotated Bibliography for Teachers

Dr. Alan Lupack, Curator of the Robbins Library, 
University of Rochester, presents

Library Resources on Medieval Topics

Guest Columnist:
Sharon E. Rhodes
University of Rochester


Old English is more like a foreign language than not. This has both advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, just as we commonly teach the Iliad and the Odyssey without teaching Greek, it is not necessary for students to interact with the original language of the text. On the other hand, because we call it Old English, many feel that translations should not be necessary. Since no Modern English speaker can comprehend Old English without extensive training, this literature is ignored even though we commonly teach Homer or Franz Kafka via translations. However, once we get past the notion that English speakers should be able to read any English without training, translations and dual language editions open up the world of literature as much as any translation of Homer or Kafka ever did. Indeed, dual-language editions have the added benefit of showing students that, although time has made Modern English and Old English two distinct languages, even they can see shades of what gave birth to Modern English such as fæder “father” and isig “icy.” This will be particularly interesting if one or more of the students present have some familiarity with other Germanic languages.

Beowulf is by far the best known Old English text and, although it has great depth in many ways, the story is relatively easy to understand. For elementary school students Beowulf is probably enough. It is a long and excellent story that should easily engage them with its monsters and battles. With this in mind, I’ve concentrated on versions of Beowulf for elementary and middle school students, though I’ve also included an illustrated non-fiction book, Anglo Saxons by Margaret Sharman, which could prove useful in giving younger readers a historical context for the story of Beowulf.

High school and advanced middle school students may be interested in exploring other Old English poems in addition to Beowulf. One interesting pairing might be Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood. The latter is a Christian religious poem with many similarities to Beowulf. By reading both poems students can get a sense of the religious ambivalence of the early Middle Ages when the old pagan stories were still well known, but new Christian stories were proliferating and, in some cases, being recast in the style of the old pagan stories. Finally, I highly recommend The Seafarer; much of this poem is timeless and accessible, but still useful for gaining insight into the historical moment of its writer.

For Elementary and Middle School Students

Beowulf: An imitative translation. Trans. Ruth P. M. Lehman. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Unlike many other young-reader appropriate versions of Beowulf, Lehman includes the opening section on Scyld Scefing, a mysterious character who disappears after line 52. The narrator simply drops Scyld and we do not hear of him again. Nor is there any other information regarding Scyld that we know about. This lack of information is part of the mystique of Old English literature. We’ve lost so much, yet, we can still comprehend the stories of monsters and heroes and triumphs. If only for the first fifty lines, teachers might like to use this version. It could even be read after another version to allow students to consider how Scyld’s story relates to the larger story of Beowulf.

Morpurgo, Michael. Beowulf. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006.

Morpurgo’s book is an illustrated retelling of Beowulf; it includes some interpolations from the re-teller, but the interpolations fill in gaps in the original poetry which, while fascinating to scholars, can be off-putting to others. The illustrations and style don’t back away from the fact that this is a story about monsters and violence. Morpurgo also begins with an explanation of why we should still listen to Beowulf:

“Hear and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkenss and beyond. We know that each of us in our time, in our way, must grapple with this monster of the night who, given a chance, would invade our homes, and even our hearts, if he could” (7).

Regardless of whether you choose to use this book, the above is one of the best statements of Beowulf’s continued relevance.

Serraillier, Ian. Beowulf the Warrior. London: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print

This translation, though it omits some portions of the poem, is nevertheless a verse translation which older elementary students and middle school students could enjoy. Beowulf the Warrior is broken into three segments which makes the poem somewhat more manageable.

Background for Elementary and Middle School Students
Below are two books on Anglo-Saxon life and culture.

Harrison, Mark. Anglo-Saxon Thegn AD 496-1066. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1993.

This book comes from the Osprey Warrior Series and describes the weapons and war tactics of the Anglo-Saxons as well as the structure of their warrior culture. The text of this book is somewhat dense, but suitable for middle school students; the pictures could be used to teach all age ranges about what Anglo-Saxon England and the characters of Beowulf may have looked like. High school students interested in warrior culture would also find this book and its bibliography useful.

Sharman, Margaret. Anglo Saxons. London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 2007.

This is a well illustrated introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world appropriate for elementary through early middle school students The language is clear and uncomplicated, but engaging. Older elementary students could read this book on their own or a teacher could use it to present the history of the Anglo-Saxons in a way that is manageable for young students.

For High School Students
Below I’ve listed a number of translations of Beowulf as well as anthologies of Old English literature.

Beowulf. Ed. and Trans. R. M. Liuzza. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2000.

This is the best translation of Beowulf that I have ever read. Liuzza leaves his translation in verse, but he does not force modern English into any sort of archaic verse form. This makes for a much more natural sounding language and a more faithful translation. At the same time, the translation is quite pleasant as literature in its own right. Additionally, Liuzza includes some explanatory footnotes, but not an overwhelming number.

Beowulf. Trans. Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy. Ed. Sarah M. Anderson. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.

This translation follows the original very closely and provides excellent footnotes. Its best attribute is the “Contexts” section which provides excerpts from background texts such as the Bible, Tacitus’s writings on the Germanic people, Bede and other historical works which help to shed light on the society that produced and read Beowulf. All of this information could be used by a teacher to create a context for the poem or by advanced high school students in formulating their own ideas about Beowulf and other Old English poems. In addition to the section of “Contexts,” this book provides a number of versions of the first twenty-five lines of Beowulf; sometimes comparing translations can be the best way of getting at the crux of a work in translation. Finally, the book includes translations of some of the more popular Old English poems.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Seamus Heaney’s translation, a former bestseller, is easily the best known modern translation of Beowulf. Heaney is a poet in his own right and his translation evinces this. However, I don’t recommend this text because the dual-language format suggests fidelity to the original when Heaney’s work is much more a retelling than a translation. If you do decide to use this text, keep in mind that Heaney does much of the interpreting for the reader and thereby takes away from the poem’s ambiguities and ambivalences.

Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition. Trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr. New York: Random House, 1977.

For teachers interested in showing students the links between Old and Modern English, Chickering’s dual language edition would be very useful. The translation is not beautiful, but high school and advanced middle school students could easily examine the first few pages for words which have, more or less, survived into Modern English. For instance, in the first 35 lines, students will find the two words mentioned above–faeder and isig–as well as their slightly altered Modern English equivalents. I don’t recommend Chickering for the story, but for exposing students to the evolution of the English language. Teachers may use the introduction both as an outline of Anglo-Saxon history and as a primer on the language.

Beowulf and Other Old English Poems. Ed. and trans. by Craig Williamson. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

This volume offers a readable verse translation of Beowulf as well as many other Old English poems, including two which I think particularly useful for comparison to Beowulf: The Dream of the Rood and The Seafarer. The latter poem I have taught–without context–to college freshmen; every student was able to get something out of the poem because, while antique, it deals with many timeless themes. This volume also contains a selection of OE riddles (in translation) which students may enjoy trying to solve; beware, though, that proposed solutions have been included in an appendix.

Hinds, Gareth. Beowulf. Candlewick Press. Cambridge, MA. 1999.

This is a graphic novel adaptation of the Beowulf story. Both high school students and advanced middle school students could enjoy this book. The adaptation follows the original poem closely, but uses perfectly contemporary English. The illustrations offer an interesting interpretation of the story and of early Germanic tribal life. More importantly, the illustrations are beautifully wrought and extremely engaging; they show the story as, essentially, a scary one, a fact which can be lost when students struggle with language and foreign ideas. This text would do very well as a stand-alone edition for teaching Beowulf; given enough time, an ideal class might read the graphic novel first and then Liuzza’s translation.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

This is easily the most complete collection of Old English texts in translation. In addition to the texts of Beowulf and many of the most popular poems, Kevin Crossley-Holland includes tracts from Anglo-Saxon law codes, letters written to and from some of the most influential Christian scholars of the Anglo-Saxon period and a selection of legal documents (such as charters and “A Marriage Agreement”). For those wishing to teach the history and culture of the period, this would be a very useful book to read either as a whole or from which to take excerpts.

Backgrounds for Teachers and Advanced Students

Baker, Peter S, ed. The Beowulf Reader. New York: Routledge, 2000.

The Beowulf Reader is an anthology of essays on various aspects of Beowulf which might prove useful in providing background information for teachers or as a source of secondary readings for advanced high school students. The essays can be dense, but, overall, are accessible to the Old English novice (translations are provided of all foreign language quotations).

Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

This book comes from a remarkably useful series of concise, but authoritative introductions to a variety of subjects put out by Oxford University Press. This volume covers the migration of the Angles and Saxons to England, the role of Christianity and monastic culture, the Viking invasions, and the end of Anglo-Saxon England, among other things. In addition, this book provides a small selection of illustrations that teachers may find useful. If time is limited, this is the most thorough background text on the Anglo-Saxon period.

Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

This is a remarkably thorough introduction to the period, covering the beginning of the Anglo-Saxons in England, their interactions with the Vikings, their economy, government and the Christian Church. It is also amply illustrated and would be a good source of images with which to teach the context of Beowulf and other Old English literature.

Crawford, Sally. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. Westport, CT: Greenwood World Pub., 2009.

In this book, Sally Crawford uses archaeological evidence, wills, legal codes and literature to explore topics including Anglo-Saxon England’s society, households, food and drink, clothing, trade, religion, health and treatment of criminals. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England offers a unique perspective on the ordinary.

Fulk, R. D. and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

This is a comprehensive history of Old English literature appropriate for teachers seeking to understand Old English literature in its broad historical context. The text is relatively dense, but readable.

Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo ship burials, discovered in 1939, contain jewelry, weapons, silverware and helmets. These are easily among the best preserved and most elaborate artifacts we have from the Anglo-Saxon period. Below, I have included two books on the site–though many more are available and many of the images you will find of Anglo-Saxon artifacts have come from the Sutton Hoo site. We have no way of determining the exact relationship between what has been found at Sutton Hoo and stories such as Beowulf, but Beowulf does include two important funerals which may have looked something like the Sutton Hoo ship burials.

Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? Philadelphia, PN: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

This book details the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burials and offers interpreatations for what has been found therein. The book includes some black and white images of excavated grave goods.

Williams, Gareth. Treasures from Sutton Hoo. London: British Museum Press, 2011.

This volume contains large, clear photographs of the Sutton Hoo excavation and its contents including jewelry, elaborately decorated drinking horns (used in feasts such as those featured in Beowulf) and war gear such as helmets and swords.

Middle school and high school students might enjoy using the following websites to explore the Old English language. Many such websites are available, but I have found the two below to be exceptional.

The Electronic Introduction to Old English. Ed. Peter S. Baker. 2003. <http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/resources/IOE/index.html>.

Though I believe that we can teach Beowulf without Old English just as well as we can teach The Odyssey without Greek, some will enjoy learning more about the original language of Beowulf and the other poems. This is an online version of Peter Baker’s Old English language textbook with very accessible language. The particularly curious can even use Baker’s Old English “Aerobics” to test their knowledge (http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/exercises/index.html).

Old English Translator. Phil Barthram. <http://www.oldenglishtranslator.co.uk/>.

This website will help students to see the links and disconnects between Old and Modern English. Simply plugging in Modern English words will show that some words have changed a great deal while others have changed very slightly. If you’d like to do this, encourage students to think of everyday words, words for food or furniture. You’ll be surprised at the number of common words that you can recognize.

Video and Audio Sources
Many of the translations listed above include some guidelines for how to pronounce Old English, but it can be difficult to gain a true understanding of the language’s sounds through such guides. Scholars don’t entirely agree as to how we should pronounce Old English, but using two or more audio-visual versions can give students a sense of the language’s phonology and the rhythms of Old English verse.

“The Battle of Bruanburh (Old English Reading).” Christopher Spellman. YouTube. 2008. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfaEGU45lKA>.

This is an audio recording of The Battle of Brunanburh, a poem which can be found in many anthologies of Old English literature including Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Anglo-Saxon World listed above.

Beowulf. Dir. Stellan Olsson. 2007. DVD. Charles Morrow Productions LLC.

The above is a video of Benjamin Bagby performing Beowulf for a live audience. Bagby speaks the original Old English of Beowulf and accompanies himself with a 6-string harp. This harp alone is reason enough to view at least part of Bagby’s performance; the maker of the harp, Rainer Thurau, created it based on a 7th-century harp found in Germany.

“The Lord’s Prayer (Fæder Ure) in Anglo-Saxon (Old English).” Daniel Foucachon. YouTube. 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQVyol7N1Jo&feature=fvwrel>.

This is a recording of “The Lord’s Prayer” read in Old English. Anyone familiar with the Modern English of “The Lord’s Prayer” will recognize similarities in the rhythm and sound of the piece. The youtube page also includes a transcript of Old English so that listeners can follow along.

“Readings from Beowulf.” Old English at the University of Virginia. Ed. Peter S. Baker. University of Virginia. <http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/Beowulf.Readings/Beowulf.Readings.html>.

This website provides links to audio recordings of Peter S. Baker reading passages of Beowulf. He provides line numbers so that one can follow along in the text.

Modern Adaptations of Beowulf

A great deal of work has already been done on modern adaptations of Beowulf; those interested in Novelizations and Film versions should see John Sutton’s bibliography: “Beowulfiana: Modern Adaptations of Beowulf” at <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/BeowulfBooklet.htm> [REVISION: http://www.library.rochester.edu/robbins/beowulfiana (11/23/2016, C.L.R.)


Sharon E. Rhodes is a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester, Department of English. She specializes in Old and early Middle English and medieval projects of translation.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 1, Spring 2012  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/Spring2012Beobib.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies