Friday, September 16, 2011

Talking with Teens about Beowulf, Fate and Their Futures

Today my juniors spent the whole class period writing and talking about whether fate rules us or whether we rule our own destiny. The subject relates to the poem we are reading together in class: "Beowulf." I was touched to see so many of them, despite the wounds they might carry, still see what is possible; still see themselves as unfolding and not as victims of the hand of Fate.
I started this conversation with them this afternoon because I begin their year of British Literature by introducing them to "Beowulf,"  the earliest epic poem in English. It tells of a battle between a blood-thirsty monster and a noble hero. One solitary manuscript (see above) of this great work miraculously survived King Henry VIII's destruction of Roman Catholic monasteries. I haven't been to London since I was eight, but if I ever return, I will be sure to visit this manuscript in the British Library.

The story of Beowulf was first told from generation to generation as a pagan tale. By the time it was written down more than 1,000 years ago, however, England was Christianizing. And so the tale we read is interwoven with references to the pagan belief in omens and fate and the Christian view of life as a battle between good and evil, with God on one side and the devil on another.

Today I wrote two quotes on the blackboard. The first was from Marcus Aurelius. "Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart." The second quote came from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Men are not prisoners of Fate, but only prisoners of their own minds."

Nearly all my students said they believe the second quote more than the first. This moves me because I know that their optimism will protect them from depression, from substance abuse and from antisocial behavior. Some already have had to cope with great losses.  I am touched they understand that their lives are something they can help to shape through what they do and what they fail to do.

Click on this link, scroll down and listen to poet Seamus Heaney read from his translation of "Beowulf' about the hero's battle with the monster Grendel.

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