Beowulf, Harry Potter, and Teaching the Uses of Literature

Margaret Cotter-Lynch

Southeastern Oklahoma State University


Iteach Beowulf in a sophomore-level general education humanities course at a small, public, regional university in rural Oklahoma. The catalogue description of the course is simply: "Unity of philosophy and the arts in the ancient and medieval world. Emphasis on relevance to present life." One of the designated general education outcomes for the course is that students "evaluate current cultural and societal activities in light of their historical roots" (48). As a medievalist teaching a general education course, I see it as part of my job to show my students how the Middle Ages are both relevant and important to the world we live in today. One of the ways I do this is by asking my students to stage a debate in which they correlate Alcuin's 9th-century argument against reading heroic literature like Beowulf with more recent debates about whether or not Christian children should read Harry Potter. Our study of Beowulf thus becomes a way to interrogate the fundamental uses of literature within a culture, whether ancient or contemporary. When we bring Beowulf, Alcuin, and the debates around Harry Potter into conversation, many of my students become deeply engaged in interrogating the definitions and roles of both religious faith and literature in their own lives.

For the purposes of this exercise, I specify that we must temporarily put aside one of the primary uses of reading for the course: an attempt to get a glimpse into the cultures of the past. Rather (with a nod to the General Prologue), we focus on the dyad of entertainment and instruction for all literature, regardless of its age and provenance. Most students will initially say that stories should do both, but the Beowulf debate forces them to plumb the difficulties and specificities of this balance. The key questions are:

  • • How do we understand and value the balance between entertainment and instruction?
  • • What counts as entertainment?
  • • What counts as instruction?
  • • In what ways do we learn from what we read?
  • • How does the interaction between the intellectual and the emotional figure in both entertainment and instruction?
I situate this debate in a contemporary context using Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series topped the American Library Association's list of most-most banned books every year from 1999 to 2002, due to protest from a noisy minority of Christians and Muslims who claimed that the series promoted Satanism and glamorized the occult. A question and answer forum from the Christian Broadcasting Network website summarizes the objections of some Christians to children reading Harry Potter. Having grown up deep in the Bible Belt, most of my students are familiar with the evangelical arguments against Rowling's series, although most of them are also very willing to question the grounds of the argument. Discussing Beowulf in Harry Potter terms thus invests many students in the debate on a personal basis.

My classroom is far from religiously monolithic; while nearly all students in the room are familiar with evangelical Christianity, their relationships to it vary widely. A typical class includes, usually as a minority, a number of devout fundamentalist Baptists, as well as students with a range of concerns about and reactions against the clearly predominant evangelical rhetoric of southeastern Oklahoma, among them students raised within other religious traditions.1 I am always careful in my classroom to articulate that 1) students of all faith traditions are welcome and 2) no one is ever under any obligation to discuss their personal religious beliefs. Every semester I explicitly announce that while it absolutely not my job, as an English professor at a public university, to tell anyone what they should believe, it is my job to help them all learn about what different people have believed at different times in the past. Over the course of the semester, in the Humanities class, we learn about the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in addition to studying a range of literary, philosophical, and historical texts.

Most teachers of Beowulf will be familiar with the letter composed by Alcuin and included in the Norton Critical Edition under the title "What Has Ingeld to do with Christ?" (Donoghue 91). After we have completed our study of the text of Beowulf itself (which, in this survey class, is usually done in approximately one week), I dedicate one to two class days to a debate about whether or not Beowulf should be considered appropriate reading for a Christian audience. As students prepare their arguments, I ask them to consider the parallels and differences between Alcuin's arguments and those made about Harry Potter. This correlation forces students to see the connections between early medieval and modern debates about the roles played by literature in individuals' lives. The debate also often brings us into discussions about the interrelationship of Christian and pagan elements in the poem. This is a particularly apt topic of discussion in my classroom, where approximately a third of the students identify as ethnically Native American. Nearly all of my Native American students distinguish between their Native cultural traditions and their Christian religious faith. Thus, the idea that Beowulf represents the adaptation of a pre-Christian story into a Christianized culture is a recognizable template which opens up discussions about the distinctions we do (and do not) make between cultural practices and religious belief in historical and contemporary cultures.

Regardless of the faith tradition with which students may (or may not) identify, Alcuin's letter resonates with students regarding central questions about the role of one's religious beliefs in how one conducts one's life. The first paragraph focuses much more on denouncing partying than it does on discussing literature. Alcuin directly addresses the question of whether or not a young man who identifies himself as Christian should drink beer at a concert (or, in Alcuin's words, wine while listening to a harpist) on Friday night: Alcuin says no. And yet, of course, many, if not most, college students are working out the complex relationships between their personal beliefs and their lived behavior, often while drinking beer and listening to music. There are, as one might expect, plenty of students prepared to argue against Alcuin's assertion that "Splendour in dress and the continual pursuit of drunkenness are insanity [...] Whoever takes pleasure in such things will, as Solomon says, never be wise." College students are, almost by definition, interested in "dress," "drunkeness," and wisdom (or at least, we hope, some kind of education). Alcuin's categorical dismissal, then, becomes an occasion for plumbing the subtleties of the decisions we all make regarding our religious beliefs, our ethical positions, and our quotidian behavior.

The second paragraph of Alcuin's letter speaks more directly to the role of literature and storytelling within these religious and ethical decisions. Juxtaposing Alcuin's arguments about Beowulf with the more contemporary Harry Potter debate forces students to precisely and cogently define their terms. Alcuin claims:

    Let God's word be read at the episcopal dinner-table. It is right that a reader should be heard, not a harpist, patristic discourse, not pagan song. What has Hinield to do with Christ? The house is narrow and has no room for both. The Heavenly King does not wish to have communion with pagan and forgotten kings listed name by name; for the eternal King reigns in Heaven, while the forgotten pagan king wails in Hell. The voices of readers should be heard in your dwellings, not the laughing rabble in the courtyards. (Donoghue 92)
Here, Alcuin's argument seems quite direct and absolute: one should read (or hear) explicitly Christian literature, and not "pagan song." And yet: what can, or should, or does, count under each of these categories? Do only the Bible and recognized Church Fathers count as "Christian"? What about stories that contain biblical references and apparent lessons that might be characterized as Christian—like Beowulf? Is fantasy necessarily demonic? Can one learn good lessons from "bad" books (or stories, or films)? These, clearly, are questions that apply not only to Alcuin's letter and Beowulf, but the ways in which members of contemporary culture—like ourselves and our students—make choices about what counts as "appropriate" entertainment. The debates around Harry Potter here make a familiar bridge for students as they relate our discussion of Beowulf to their own lives. By correlating the Beowulf and Harry Potter debates, students learn to widen their consideration beyond individual texts and discuss the fundamental uses of literature within a culture, and how those uses are contentious.

In practical terms, here is what I do in class. This exercise works best in one 75 minute class period; if necessary, it can be spread over two 50-minute periods. In a pinch, an abbreviated version can be shoe-horned into a single 50-minute period, but in my experience the students then lose the opportunity for the rich discussions that often follow the debate. I should note that the debate is structured very loosely, following almost none of the standard conventions of forensics; my goal, in the end, is simply to produce a discussion about the uses of literature in which students become personally engaged. By the end, things have usually devolved such that participants from both teams are speaking spontaneously about issues that do not strictly support or refute one of the two sides; I consider such devolution a sign of pedagogical success.

I divide the students into two groups, usually with approximately 10-12 students per group. I have done it with as few as 5-6 per group, which works fine; groups larger than 12 become unwieldy. I assign one group as "pro-Alcuin" and another as "anti-Alcuin." I find that the exercise works best if I assign students to one side of the debate or the other, so that a mix of personal opinions are found within each group. I give the groups approximately 10-15 minutes to prepare their arguments, then allow each group up to 5 minutes to speak. After both teams have spoken, they then all have 5 minutes back in their groups to prepare rebuttals. Since both the original arguments and rebuttals are limited in time and usually only involve one or two speakers per group, by the end of the defined debate period there are usually several students ready to burst out of their seats with points that their teammates "forgot," or didn't articulate as thoroughly as they'd like. This is the point at which I happily throw out the rules and let my students argue. I confine my own role to occasionally asking for clarification or pointing out places of agreement and contrast.

In setting up the debate, I usually define the "pro-Alcuin" group as quite strictly adhering to the terms of his letter: if you call yourself a Christian, you should not be feasting, drinking, and listening to stories like Beowulf. You should instead be performing acts of charity and spending your time reading (or listening to) passages from Scripture and the Church Fathers. While Alcuin's letter is of course addressed to bishops and not lay people, I generally elide that point in the interest of encouraging debate. I also point out to students the parallels with the Harry Potter debates, and encourage them to designate one or two students to whip out their phones and turn to Google to help them support their arguments.

The "anti-Alcuin" group needs more guidance in terms of what arguments I ask them to make. I position the pro-and-con point as follows: whether or not people who identify themselves as Christian should allow themselves to read/listen to stories like Beowulf. While I usually leave them at that to start their discussion, I often intervene after several minutes (after eavesdropping to discern the direction of the conversation) in order to introduce the entertainment vs. instruction distinction. There are, in fact, two separate ways to structure the anti-Alcuin argument: one is to say that entertainment for entertainment's sake is at least allowable, and perhaps even desirable and/or necessary. This amounts to a carnivalesque argument. The second possible argument, and students often (but not always) need to be reminded that this is in fact a separate argument, is to assert that not-explicitly-theological texts can still have religiously instructive value. In short, one can learn Christian values from a text that, while acknowledging aspects of the Christian tradition, is not, in the end, strictly biblical. Here, also, I encourage the group to designate one or two students to look up Christian defenses of the Harry Potter series. This second argument is actually more useful in discussing the status and value of Beowulf as text, as well as the uses of literature in general. Although I don't usually cite this directly to my students, we are in fact entering into a discussion about the sort of medieval "ethical reading" of classical pagan texts discussed by Mary Carruthers.

As the debate continues, students almost uniformly find themselves making a case for why they like Beowulf: why they enjoyed reading the poem, why they think it is important, why they think it should be studied in school. In semesters when I have not taught it, Beowulf is the most requested text to have added back into the syllabus (Dante's Inferno is in second place; no one seems to miss Boccaccio or Aeschylus when they rotate out). Thus, the Beowulf/Alcuin/Harry Potter debate not only serves the explicit pedagogical purpose of asking students to articulate the roles of literature in culture, it also serves the covert purpose of investing students in their love for Beowulf as a poem. As students think through and defend the roles of storytelling in their own lives, they become invested in the importance and power of the stories they use as their particular examples (Beowulf, Harry Potter, and often their favorite film/comic book/TV show/video game). This allows students to both fulfill the course's designated general education outcome, by seeing the connections between the medieval and modern worlds, and to understand why, more than 1000 years after its composition, we should all still be reading Beowulf.


Works Cited


Breimeier, Russ. "Redeeming Harry Potter." Christianity Today. Christianity Today, 15 Nov. 2005. Web. 19 Aug. 2014.

Carruthers, Mary J. The Book of Memory : A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 70. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Donoghue, Daniel, and Seamus Heaney. Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

"Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century." American Library Association. American Library Association, n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.

LaFond, Linda. "What's the Harm in Harry Potter?" The Christian Broadcasting Network. The Christian Broadcasting Network, n.d. Web. 07 Aug. 2014.

Southeastern Oklahoma State University. 2013-15 Undergraduate and Graduate Catalogue. 2013. Web. 6 Aug 2014.

1. It is worth noting that nearly all of these students, including a number of Catholics and Mormons, follow traditions identified as Christian.