Thursday, November 01, 2007

Unlocked Wordhoard aligns with National Standards in English

So. I too received the Beowulf movie poster Dr. Virago talks about in this post, but unlike her, I was so naive about it that I thought the materials on the back were just an advertisement for the "Study Guide." I called the telephone number to request the actual study guide, only to realize that it was the group sales number. As I searched for the actual number or e-mail to order the study guide, I realized that the glossly ads for the film on the back of the poster were the study guide. Oh.

After realizing how stupid I had been, I was horrified to realize what the claim "This program aligns with National Standards in English for grades 9-12" implied. It means that we have some sort of national standards that are met by these materials. Let's just see how high our national standards must be if this material meets them. We'll examine "Activity Three."

Activity Three is called "Monsters: A Case Study." The students are supposed to pick a non-Beowulfian monster and compare it to Grendel by examining these attributes: name origin, home, appearance, special powers, weaknesses, motivation, friends/family, why feared, and fate. Let's put aside for the moment the assumption that listing these attributes of a monster will somehow help students learn something, let's examine the validity of the claims made by these materials.
  • Name: Grendel. OK, so far so good.
  • Origin: son of King Hrothgar and a succubus, a woman mostly human in appearance but with demonic characteristics. Um, that's entirely in the film, not in the poem ... or as the study guide calls it, "this modern portrayal of an ancient monster." So, studying the film monster to the exclusion of the poem monster meets national standards?
  • Home: a dark cave littered with bleached bones and rotting carcasses with a black pool teeming with moray eels. OK, a little embellished, but I'll buy that.
  • Appearance: large, hairless, misshapen body covered with scars, scabs, and open sores; eyes flecked with gold; exposed eardrum membranes; retractable claws; nearly impenetrable skin. Is this supposed to be a description of Grendel, or Wolverine with mange?
  • Special Powers: extraordinary strength, speed, and agility; ability to vault himself across great distances. Or maybe instead of Wolverine, he's supposed to be the Incredible Hulk?
  • Weaknesses: loud noises, especially the sounds of celebration coming from Hrothgar's palace, cause him excruciating pain and drive him into a fury; not intelligent; emotionally sensitive. See, it wasn't that Grendel bore God's wrath, and attacked because the Scop sang of creation, it's that the Danes were inconsiderate neighbors -- and you know how emotionally sensitive poor Grendel is.
  • Motivation: Wants to stop the noise of Hrothgar's celebration; enjoys tormenting his victims. Enjoys tormenting his victims? What happened to the Alan Alda Mr. Sensitive Grendel?
  • Friends/Family: loving mother, "pet" moray eels. Well, they sure got the first part right.
  • Why Feared: dismembers and devours heroes in their sleep. Huzzah! A statement I can support without hesitation!
  • Fate: looses [sic] his arm in a clash with Beowulf and runs back to his cave to die. Also correct!
If these are our national standards, I'm thinking of moving to another nation. Perhaps one on another planet.

Can't get enough of these activities? You can download all the materials (in PDF) for yourself here!


  1. For the change you are looking for, transfer to another species would be necessary.

  2. This is what is used to teach Beowulf in the local school districts here. So if this is the bar the movie had to meet, I'm not surprised it meets the standards.

  3. Ooof -- MD, please tell me that it's on the elementary school level, at least.

  4. It wasn't what I was taught out of -- we actually (much to my chagrin) didn't do much earlier than Spenser -- but the friend who told me about it was in the school districts local to where I live now (Northern Orange County, California). I think it's a Jr. High text.

    One question -- is there an episode with bees that I missed in reading Beowulf? The aforementioned friend remembers this episode with bees in this text, to the point that he calls it Bee-owulf.

  5. The bees probably comes from that text you linked to, MD -- I was reading the reviews of the book, and apparently (to quote the first reviewer) "In Nye's version, Beowulf is a part-time beekeeper, and he kills the dragon by having a bag of bees fly down its throat and sting it to death from the inside (I'm not making this up). There is no battle. Beowulf is never injured. Beowulf then simply dies on the mountain for no apparent reason other than his age."

    Terrifying. Much better not to read it at all, in my view!

  6. The original poem itself might have a bee connection. One theory about Beowulf is that he is connected with a germanic mythological figure known as the "Bear's Son," a sort of half-bear, half-man figure (possibly where Tolkien gets the idea for Beorn in The Hobbit).

    This theory then goes on to suggest that the name Beowulf literally means "Bee-wolf," and that a bee-wolf is a bear.

    I'm at home at the moment, so I can't remember who first developed this theory ... was it Garmonsway?

  7. Thanks for taking apart these "national standards" so carefully. As you could see in my post, I couldn't get past the whole "son of Hrothgar" part.

    The whole idea of using a movie adaptation, no matter how good, to introduce literature to students makes me want to smack my head against the wall. Now, if you want to introduce film adaptations of literature, that's a whole 'nother thing.

  8. Oh, and btw, one of my students told me that there's already a novelization of the film script. Oh goody.

  9. Neil Gaiman made the following comment about the Beowulf teaching materials in his latest blog post:

    Incidentally, I think the educational pack done for Beowulf is simply wrong. Part of the point of the Beowulf movie that Roger and I wrote is the places it diverges from the story of Beowulf, and the ways it explores the relationship between a person and a story about a person. I don't think they should be putting the stuff we made up on material intended for schools -- it seems like a way of justifiably irritating teachers, who have enough to put up with when they try to teach Beowulf without us making their lives harder. It would have been much more interesting to have put up either the original, or one that talked about the differences -- I'd absolutely encourage high schoolers to see our version and talk about what changed and why.