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Dissecting Beowulf
By David A. Schwinghammer
Posted: Friday, May 28, 2010
Last edited: Saturday, December 20, 2014
This short story is rated "PG" by the Author.
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Recent stories by David A. Schwinghammer
· All the Good Stories Are Taken
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A young man goes out on his student teaching assignment in a suburb of a large city.

I started my student teaching experience in Minnetonka, a suburb of the Twin Cities with what I remember as a couple thousand students. You could not walk down the hall in the morning without being stepped on or being bounced from wall to wall. The other teachers knew where the back doors were and thus were able to navigate better than I could. I also did not have a car and had to ride the school bus to work in the morning, feeling like the biggest dweeb in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. I lived about two miles from school and walked home to avoid the embarrassment in the afternoons. I was wearing dress shoes. I had blisters on my blisters by the time I got to where I was staying.

This was 1971 and the drug thing was just becoming a problem in the Cities. These kids were not the same ones I, Ralph Dugan, went to school with when I graduated from a small Central Minnesota high school in 1962. They were a lot cooler for one thing. I was decidedly uncool; I didn’t even know what heavy metal was. My supervisory teacher, Boyd Norberg, wanted me to teach Beowulf to these headbangers. I spent the first two weeks observing. I was so scared my knees were knocking, and I wasn’t even the one who was the target of their drowsy, judgmental scorn. Boyd seemed unsympathetic. I asked him how he’d dealt with student teacher jitters, and he said his practice teacher, in Grygla, Minnesota, way up in the frozen northland, had disappeared the first day and he hadn’t seen him again until the last day of his stint. “It was a lot better that way. He didn’t see all my screw-ups, and he didn’t see the terrible time I had with discipline. Those kids used to crawl out on the roof and run around out there. But I made it through, as you may have noticed.” Boyd barely looked at the students and hardly ever called on anyone. He had a monotone worse than Ben Stein’s from “Forrest Bueller’s Day Off.”

When Boyd finally insisted that I fish or cut bait, I stayed up all night reading and rereading the translation of Beowulf. Thank God for that, if those kids had to read the version I read in high school with the occasional footnote, there was no way I could keep them to read the thing. But it did have its gruesome parts. Kids loved gruesome. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Blob. Grendel definitely fit the genre. I read over the part where he attacked the first time:

“One night, after a beer party, the Danes settled in the hall for sleep; they knew no sorrows. The evil creature, grim and hungry, grabbed thirty warriors and went home laughing. At dawn, when the Danes learned of Grendel’s strength there was a great weeping. The old king sat sadly, crying for his men. Bloody footprints were found.”

Finally I had an idea. Sort of. I would do a survey of the class, an ethnic survey to begin with. These kids were from Minnesota. They had to be mostly Scandahovians, right? Norwegians, Swedes, Finlanders, and Danes. with a few Germans and Irish thrown in for good measure. Beowulf was their epic poem. And maybe we could talk about horror movies just a bit, how no matter how much things changed, they stayed the same.
When I stood up in front of the class . . . Boyd was down in the teachers’ lounge drinking coffee . . . the first thing I noticed was the kid in the back of the room with his feet on the desk across the aisle. He was wearing engineer boots, and he was whittling. I’d expected to be made fun of, but I hadn’t expected to be confronted by a kid with a knife. The kid was good. He was crafting what looked like a wild stallion. I decided to ignore him. That was the first thing an older colleague I’d befriended in the teachers’ lounge had recommended: If a troublemaker goes to sleep, don’t wake him up. This one wasn’t exactly asleep but at least he was occupied. He could be carving on me.

These days if you bring a cap gun to school you can get arrested, but weapons weren’t exactly illegal in those days. Just about every kid I knew in that rural school I went to carried a jackknife.
I gave them the fifteen minutes to do the survey, but most were done in less than five, and the noise rose to the sectional basketball playoff level. All I could think of to say was, “Inside voices, inside voices,“ but thankfully I managed to refrain from doing so. I would have been branded a dweeb for the rest of my stay, which would have been days rather than weeks. When they finally finished, I scanned the results, trying to talk at the same time. I found that most weren’t taking this thing seriously. There were two Swedes, a Norwegian, and a Finlander. Must of the others were either Martians or Lower Slobovians. I had added a few other survey questions in addition to the one about horror movies, such as “What do you like to do in your spare time?” One girl answered, “I like to ball.” I didn’t even know what that meant. I thought she’d forgotten the verb.
I decided to take attendance and ask a few questions to get to know my students better. That ought to kill some time, and maybe I could sneak in a few questions about Beowulf in the process. God, I hoped some of them had read the assigned pages, or I’d be up here talking to myself.

I asked if anyone would like to summarize the first part of the story. A miniature librarian in the front row wearing horned-rimmed glasses with her hair styled in a bun raised her hand. I could have kissed her. “Yes, Marsha,” I said.
“It’s Millicent,” she said. I looked down at the seating chart. Apparently they weren’t sitting in their assigned seats. She was supposed to be Marsha Browning
“Go ahead, Millicent,” I said.
“Beowulf is a Scandanavian epic poem written in England between the eighth and eleventh centuries. They’re not sure if it was passed down orally or not. You might say it’s a hero’s journey. A monster named Grendel is murdering thanes. That’s a nobleman in case you didn’t read the footnote. Beowulf, who lives elsewhere, volunteers to take on the monster, and he and his men sleep in the castle overnight. Grendel skulks in, and as he’s dragging away another thane, Beowulf, who’s unarmed, attacks. To make a long story short, Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm out of his socket bare-handed, and the monster limps home and dies. Needless to say his mom is not happy.”
“So then, you said it was a hero’s journey. Could you explain what that is?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Let’s pretend I don’t”
She gave me a look reminiscent of Louis Pasteur studying bacteria that caused milk to spoil through his microscope, but she went on, clearing her throat sarcastically before continuing. “Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, gets credit for the steps. Your hero, in this case, Beowulf, gets a call to action. He should be reluctant, at first, but should eventually accept the challenge. He’s got some kind of magic power. Beowulf has a magic armor and a magic sword, but it doesn’t do any good against Grendel. He can’t use a weapon anyway because Grendel is unarmed. There’s also the crossing of the threshold, but that doesn’t really come until Beowulf goes after Grendel’s mother in her territory. Then there’s the belly of the whale. That happens when Beowulf is dragged down to Grendel’s mother’s cave.”
“Okay, Millie, that’s enough for now. Let’s talk about why these people wrote this stuff, shall we?”
“No radio, no television, no books,” said the kid in the back with the knife. His name was Gerald Holmes, and he was sitting in the right place.
“Any other reason, do you think? I mean, they memorized them and passed them down from generation to generation.”
Another of the librarians in the front row raised her hand. “Marsha?” I said.
“Yes, Mr. Dugan. I’m sorry I wasn’t sitting in my assigned seat. These people wanted to feel better about themselves, so they probably took a real incident and embellished on it to some degree. Every society needs a hero. We have George Washington, Daniel Boone and such. They had Beowulf, among others. We’ve exaggerated the Washington story with the cherry tree and the ‘Washington slept here’ stuff. We did it with Lincoln, too.”
“Yeah, Grendel was probably a wild animal originally,” Gerald said. I found out later that Gerald was the smartest kid in his class. Had a GPA of four. Never had a grade under an A. And he was a National Merit Scholar. So much for first impressions.
“Any modern heroes comparable to Beowulf you can think of?”
“JFK,” Gerald volunteered. “His PT boat got cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, and he saved this other sailor’s life.”
“Not so many these days,” Marsha said. “Maybe Mahatma Gandhi. His countrymen were being persecuted by the British, but he rejected violence.”
“Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks the lady on the bus in Selma or wherever it was,” Millicent said.
“My grandpa was at Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion,” Gerald said. “He doesn’t like to talk about it, though. But I think anybody who charged that beach had to think they were going to die, and they went ahead and did it anyway. They were really heroes.”
“Wow, that’s very good. I want you to look around tonight and see if you can come up with some 1971 heroes comparable to Beowulf. Meanwhile, anybody want to summarize Part II?”
A cheerleader in the third row with long blond hair that reached all the way down her back raised her hand. “That’s the part about Grendel’s mother. She attacks the hall the night after Grendel’s death and kills the king’s most trusted warrior, Aeshere. Hrothgar, the king, Beowulf and their men follow her to her cave under a lake. Beowulf prepares for battle and is given his magic sword, Hrunting. I would imagine that’s where King Author’s sword Excalibur comes from. Anyway, Beowulf dives into the lake where he’s attacked by Grendel’s mother and dragged down to her lair. Grendel’s body is in a cavern down there along with the men Grendel’s mother and Grendel had previously killed. Beowulf and Grendel’s ma fight, and she’s kicking his butt, but she can’t kill him because of his magic armor. Hrunting can’t harm Grendel’s mom either, so Beowulf chucks the sucker in the corner. Anyway, he grabs a sword of the Giants from Grendel’s armory which was so heavy no man had ever lifted it in battle and beheads her. He then cuts off Grendel’s head and swims to the surface with them both.
Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with his family’s heirloom sword, Naegling.”
“Thank you, Emily. It is Emily, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Emily Fox.”
“Lots of magic swords and stuff, huh? Anybody know anything about their religion?”
“Christianity was just coming into favor in the British Isles,” Gerald said. “If this was written in 800 AD, that’s when the Vikings were raiding the monasteries in Northern England and Ireland. And there‘s that reference in the poem about Grendel being the son of Cain. So, if this was written by a Viking, Christianity had made inroads there as well.”
“Do you have a hero, Mr. Dugan?” Marsha asked.
“It’s always been firemen for me. I wanted to be one when I was a kid, but my mom and dad were both teachers so I had to settle for this.”
Some of them actually laughed.
“My dad is a homicide detective on the Minneapolis police force,” Marsha said. “He’s my hero.”
That was when the bell rang. I told them to read the next section about Beowulf’s tussle with the dragon and asked them to think about any modern movies or books that reminded them of Beowulf, then excused them.
I was flying on cloud nine when Boyd, who must have been eavesdropping at the door, entered the room. “How’d it go?” he said, wiping his glasses with his handkerchief. He did that a lot.
“Much better than I thought it would. I had them do a survey, which didn’t help a whole hell of a lot. But there were a couple of girls who took the ball and ran with it.”
“Marsha and Millicent?”
“You guessed it, and Emily Fox summarized Part II.”
“You got Emily Fox to participate? She hasn’t said a word all year.”
“Then there was Gerald.”
“Gerald probably knows more about literature than you and I combined.”
“Does he always whittle during class?”
“Should’ve warned you about that.” He grinned sadistically. “Speaking of a warning, your college supervisor will be here tomorrow to observe.”
“Most kids start teaching after the first couple of days.”
“Yeah well, I was kind of surprised I didn’t pee in my pants.”
Mr. Marsh spoke to me for a moment before class started. He was one of those ex-hippies with the receding hairline and the ponytail. “I understand you had a fit of nerves,” he said. “We all felt that way at first and we made it somehow.”
Big mouth Boyd had to tell him I’d had a fit of nerves.
“What have we got going today?” Mr. Marsh said.
“We’ll start out by comparing Beowulf to some modern literature.”
Marsh looked at me askance. “Lots of luck with that,” he said.
I’d done one thing right the day before. I’d memorized the names of the kids I hadn’t known by doing the word association thing. John Swanson had a long neck. Jayne Swift was definitely not Jayne Mansfield. Marsh looked impressed when I went through the entire list of thirty kids without getting stuck. Then I asked if anybody had come up with a modern equivalent of Beowulf.
Gerald was Gerry on the spot. “I couldn’t find a movie that fit exactly but the action comic book heroes certainly work. There’s Superman, Batman, the Hulk, etc. etc. They‘ve all got some sort of special power and they all have a mission to solve crime.”
“I thought of Scarlet O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND,” Marsha said. “She sort of reluctant at first. She’s this spoiled belle of the South with all these men tied around her little finger, and in the end, she’s got to fend for herself.”
“How about King Kong?” John Swanson volunteered. “He’s on sort of a hero’s journey. They grab him out of his natural environment and take him to the big city and he has to fight off all these airplanes and stuff.”
“Except they kill him in the end,” Gerald said. “Most of those other guys are sort of indestructible.”
“That’s true ,” John said, “But I still felt sorry for him, even though he was a giant ape.”
“So did I,” I said. “Let’s get back to Beowulf, shall we? Who’d like to tell us about the dragon episode?”
A red-headed boy sitting next to Emily raised his hand. He had freckles on his freckles. “I can’t summarize the part about the dragon, but I do want to ask a question. Why do we have to study this stuff? How is it going to help us when we get out of this dump?”
I wondered if this kind of thing happened every time you were observed as a teacher. Some little shit trying to show off in front of the college supervisor asking the biggest cliché in education. The old guy in the teachers lounge had warned me about situations like this. Never answer a question you don’t know the answer to. “Can anybody help Rusty out? We already talked about the inspirational aspect and the hero’s journey. Anything else?”
Gerald gave Rusty a “that’s dirty pool” look, then said. “It’s like finding your grandpa’s old WWII photos, when he was your age. I used to look at those pictures for hours, imagining myself there. I never could quite do it. And grandma kept his letters. They’d been going together since eighth grade. People need to know where they came from and Beowulf does that.”
“Then there’s the humanistic aspect. I think Christianity borrowed a little bit from Norse and Greek mythology. Jesus was part human and part God, but we still have this notion that man is a sinner and that he will eventually be salvaged by Jesus. The Greeks and the Norse myths had a bit more respect for humans. Beowulf was a flesh and blood person who took on this beast who’d been marauding the castle for twelve years, and he beat Grendel. Hercules was another one. Sure, he was part God, but he had human characteristics that got him in a lot of trouble like a bad temper. That’s why they made those stories up. To show that human beings can do anything they want to.”
“Like the Watts Tower in Los Angeles,” John Swanson said. “One guy built that.”
“And the man on the moon,” Emily said. “That was a lot of different people working together, but it’s the same thing. Some day we’re going to have to leave the planet and go to another solar system and history and literature inspire us to get it done.”
“Does that answer your question, Rusty?”
“I’m gonna be a trucker when I grow up and you’re telling me I need Beowulf and Shakespeare and those guys to do that. I don’t think so.” Rusty didn’t know it, but I agreed with him. Germany and other industrialized countries let kids opt out or test out of traditional education in the ninth grade and take classes in automotive engineering or homemaking if that was their bent. Thank God we have Area Learning these days where the Rustys of this world can go if they won’t do their homework or are a disciple problem.
“Sorry to hear that, Rusty. Each to his own I guess. Now, can somebody summarize Part III?”
Jayne, the flat-chested girl, raised her hand. “Beowulf goes home and becomes king of the Geats and has a pretty uneventful life until one of his slaves steals a golden chalice from the cave of the dragon, Sua. The dragon is incensed and goes looking for the culprit. He burns the crops and the houses he comes across. When Beowulf and his men confront him, the dragon wounds Beowulf, and his warriors run away, all except for Wiglaf who stays to help. They kill the dragon, but Beowulf dies from his wounds.
He’s cremated and buried on a cliff overlooking the sea.”
“I kind of expected him to be buried on a boat with the boat set on fire and pushed out to sea,” Gerald said.
Mr. Marsh, first name Joe, and I spoke in the teachers’ lounge after class. Nobody was in there except us, for which I was profoundly grateful. There were usually a couple of gossips in there complaining about the principal, who seemed like an all right guy to me.
“Overall that was very impressive for a student teacher,” Joe said.
“I know I sure didn’t do that well my first time out.”
“You were an English teacher?”
“Social studies, mostly American History, but they thought if you were a history teacher you could teach psychology, sociology, civics, the whole gamut, which ain’t necessarily so. I didn’t know a thing about psychology. I got everything out of the teacher’s guide.”
“How long did you teach?”
“Twenty years, but I’d been taking classes toward a specialist’s degree all along. That’s what they call a principal’s degree in case you didn’t know. But I’d been a supervisory teacher with about twenty kids over the years mostly with the same guy from Mankato State, and he recommended me for this job. Let’s say it pays a little better than what a high school teacher makes.”
“Don’t you miss the kids?”
“Kids come with parents and some of them are just beyond belief. But . . . that’s enough about me. Let’s get back to my observation. Let’s try to make this as realistic as possible. When you get your first job you’ll be on probation for two years before you make tenure and the principal will evaluate you a couple of times if not more those two years. They’re usually pretty busy so it’s usually only once, but don’t tell anybody I told you that. Once you’re tenured they usually don’t do it at all, unless the school board insists. The reasoning behind that is that their fellow teachers, and principals do think of themselves as teachers, are professionals and shouldn’t have an administrator breathing down their necks. Or they don’t know how. Some think that just because a teacher has a little bit of a disciple problem she’s not a good teacher, which is a lot of baloney. The kids just make more noise when they’re involved.”
“So, do you have any recommendations on what I could do better.”
“Well, that thing you did where the kid asked a question and you put it back on the class was so mature I couldn’t believe it, but I did notice you had like three kids doing most of the participating.”
“Boyd said Millicent, Marsha, and Gerald usually lead the discussion when he’s teaching, too.”
“Don’t be defensive. That’s the worst thing you can do during a post-observation by the way. Just listen and pretend you care what the old goat has got to say. I’m not one of those who believes a principal is a fellow teacher. Most forget what it was like to be a teacher the moment they leave the classroom. They don’t know the meaning of the word “empathy.”
“Okay. So what do you suggest I do about the participation problem?”
“You can divide them up into groups and have them discuss the questions before you talk about them as a large group, or you could grade them on class participation, maybe a tenth of a grade. That’s what I did.”
“How do you do that?”
“You’ll think of a way. I did it by trial and error. I thought I’d remember who participated, but that wasn’t really fair.”
“But you found a way?”
“Yup, and the principal could not believe what he was seeing when just about every kid in class raised his hand when I asked a discussion question. So, what are you doing tomorrow?”
“I thought I’d compare Beowulf to other Norse mythology. You know, Thor, Loki, and those guys. You can see the creation myth more clearly and the ongoing battle of good and evil.”
“Oh yeah, I love Loki. Just about every civilization has that mischievous character. With the Indians it was Coyote.”
“Hey, I wonder if that’s where the Roadrunner guys got the cartoon character.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“So, will you be here tomorrow?”
“Nope, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, though. I do about twenty schools in the suburban Minneapolis area. Keep up the good work.”
We shook hands and he left. I thought back on what he’d said about principals, wondering if most college supervisors were that cynical.
Did you know the Norse gods were defeated during the Twilight of the Gods? I certainly didn’t. How was I going to explain that one. Actually it was more of a draw with the Giants also going down in flames. Sounded a little like a Giants vs. Dodgers World Series. But then I read a little more about the aftermath of the battle, which was actually kind of optimistic. A new world sprang from the new, a much better world actually. These Norse Gods were kind of fallible and even more human than the ones in Greek mythology. Odin cheats the builder of the wall around Asgard out of his payment. That mischievous devil Loki kills an otter who in reality is a blacksmith’s son. Odin pays him a bounty by stealing a dwarf’s treasure, which leads to the eventual destruction of Asgard. One of the rings has a curse on it. Loki deteriorates into a truly evil entity, marrying the witch Angerbora, who gives birth to Fenir the Wolf, the serpent Jormungard, and a third entity called Hela, the withering of all life. These bad eggs are all destroyed and in the end we are left with the Norse Adam and Eve, only they called them Lif and her mate Lifthrasir. Odin had hidden them in the forest before the walls came tumbling down. There’s a new Sun and a new Moon and new gods, Vidar and Vali, sons of Odin, who find tablets the old gods have left, telling of all that happened before The Twilight of the Gods.
None of my Scandanavian descendents knew about the destruction of the world and the creation of the new. Even Rusty participated in class, remarking that it reminded him of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. How he’d been exposed to that I’ll never know.
After I wrapped up my unit on Beowulf, Boyd informed me my next unit would be on Chaucer, and I should study up over the weekend. All I knew about Chaucer was that he was the first to write in vernacular English, not that you could tell if you were required to memorize some of that stuff.
But I was surprised to find out how much smut there was in some of those tales. All we’d ever read in high school or college was “The Pardoner’s Tale,” and that was as clean as the driven snow. In the “Miller’s Tale” they were sniffing up each other butts for Christ‘s sake. I wondered if Boyd would let me teach that one. Somehow I doubted he had that kind of guts.
The nine weeks blew by after that, and I actually made friends with some of those kids. Gerald is now a lawyer for the EPA and we exchange cards every Christmas. I even saw Rusty at the supermarket last week. He’s a trucker all right, and he still doesn’t understand why I expected him to read the Iliad and the Odyssey, which explained a lot about Rusty.
Mr. Marsh would be surprised to learn that I’d spent five years teaching English in Two Rivers, Minnesota, while working on my specialists’ degree just as he did, and I’m now a principal in a middle school in the very same suburb where I did my student teaching. And I do still consider myself a teacher.

Dave Schwinghammer's unconventional mystery, SOLDIER'S GAP, is available at, new and used.                                                                                                                                                    

Web Site: Mystery Writer  

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Reviewed by m j hollingshead 8/2/2014

interesting read

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