This lesson can be taught as part of a larger unit on Beowulf, or as a separate lesson. Use this lesson to help students understand how different cultures look at women differently and how there are cultural markers in literature. I've used the poems "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood, "Missions" by Heather Cahoon, and an excerpt from Beowulf.
Sunday night, mid-summer. I'm trying to think about ways to teach Beowulf for the upcoming school year; I'm trying to include Native American literature. I've been thinking about this lesson all weekend and the idea I have in mind is closer to game show or a dating game. It's not the right idea, but I know that it can morph into a teachable lesson.
Then I call teaching colleague, Becca, wwho has about the same amount of experience as I do, but approaches her classes from a different perspective. I tell her my idea, "I want my students to listen to the different voices, I want them to pick out the differences and to see how cultural influences gender."
She tells me I have a solid idea and then suggests the Margaret Atwood poem because it speaks to the trickster tradition. The ideas begin to come together and I start thinking about a way to teach students voice and cultural markers.
The questions start to flow as I read and re-read the poems and think about the way they relate to one another, and by the end of the lesson I felt that I had a solid learning plan for my students. This kind of collaboration leads to some of my best ideas, because it pulls me out of my comfort zone and gets me thinking about literature I wouldn't normally include. Collaboration can be a challenge in a rural school, I've been the only English teacher or one of two, and I have to make the effort to find collaborators in different schools, but the effort is very worhtwhile.
For many reasons this year, Wealhtheow is a tantalizing a popular character. I think the students equate her with the 2007 movie counterpart played by Robin Wright Penn, or perhaps they are boggled by the idea that women have no more than a pour-the-mead role in this poem.
We closely read the lines 1167- 1232, noting the order of events. The students zero in on the fact that Wealhtheow is suspicious of Beowulf, wondering if he could possibly usurp Hrothulf's place at court, and what position that might put her sons in. Some of the students think she makes her first speech with sincerity and her speech after Beowulf is presented with the torque in an ironic or biting tone. Either way, it's her only major scene.
The point here is to help students see what'smissing from the text as much as what is present.
Divide the students into groups of three, have students divide up the task of notetaker, timekeeper and reporter. Then randomly give each group a copy of ONE of the following:
"Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood
"Missions" by Heather Cahoon (a Montana Pend d'Oreille poet)
Lines 1158-1232 from Beowulf, the Seamus Heaney translation
Have the students read the poems through once out loud and then have them read them through silently. Then instruct the students to make note of the following:
Explain to the students that other groups have the same poem as they do and that it's okay to share ideas but each group will present separately. Each group has three minutes to present, and they have twenty-five minutes to read and discuss the poems and make note of the poems.
The subject of women and culture is fascinating for high school seniors because they are beginning to develop a sense of the impact of culture on gender relationships and identity. This lesson brings to light the disparities between cultures and their treatment of women and how often stereotypes demean women in a culture that once gave them power and prestige.
In a class on Native American studies taught by Joseph McGeshick at Ft. Peck Tribal College I learned that with the advent of European settlers into the western interior many Native women gave up their power in exchange for technology that made their life at camp easier. Quite often women were willing to trade for cast iron cooking pots, steel sewing needles, cotton cloth, and other household items that we take for granted. In the process of this trading Indian women were often subjugated by the white traders and their male relatives, becoming pawns in the early business deals.
For Native women this loss of power has been devastating, and by listening to the contemporary voice of Heather Cahoon we can get a sense that the memory of a woman's status in her tribe and her status today bubbles at a conscious level.
Conversely,Wealhtheow's placatory speeches show how deep the masculine and patriarchal ideas run through Beowulf. If Wealhtheow has any concerns at all they are for her husband and sons. She is at the most a suspicious barmaid unfit to serve as precursor to Lady Macbeth.
Finally Margaret Atwood's poem speaks to both worlds to the power of transformation shared by the siren and by trickster characters like Grandmother Spider. She wields power, but is ultimately powerless to step beyond the role of seductress or free herself from the cycle of seduction and death.
Each of these selections offers students clear contrasts between gender and culture and encourages them to look below the surface of stereotypes of women.
Students give their presentation of the poem and if time allows discuss the cultural differences in the poems. Which of the women's voices sounds stronger? Which of the women seems the least powerful?
Discuss the role of the trickster in Native American tales. Mention that some of the trickster characters in Native American tales are women, like Grandmother Spider from the Hopi and Navajo traditions. Ask students if there are any trickster traits in the speaker from "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood.
At this point in the reading the students are aware of the narrator's voice, intruding in on the action, stopping to explain how certain characters are related, and overall acting as a nuisance.
After the fight with Grendel is over I usually stop to explain who this narrator might be, I rely heavily on Seamus Heaney's introductory notes, particularly xix to xxii, which examine some of the Christian references and why they are likely present.
Additionally, we discuss the fact that a reading of Beowulf without the Christian elements, removes the concept of evil. Instead of the spawn of Cain, Grendel is simply greedy and lonely. The curmudgeon next door who doesn't want anyone to have any fun and who is perhaps a little too close to his mother.
Beowulf, too, is a hero, not because he is chosen by God, but because he is strong and smart.
A Beowulf without a didactic narrator bringing it all back around to God's plan, is a story about strength and might.
For their reading assignment I assign lines 2669-3180