Teaching Genesis B in the British Literature Survey

Alison Langdon

Western Kentucky University


With almost a thousand years of literature to cover in a term, grappling with the sheer volume of material in a typical survey course can be a challenging prospect. Not only do instructors have to make judicious decisions about what to include, we also may struggle with creating a cohesive course unified by something more than mere geography and chronology. One effective way I have found to do this in my Survey of British Literature I course at Western Kentucky University (WKU) is to create several thematic threads we will follow throughout the semester: tracing the evolution of the hero, exploring conceptions of good and evil, and so on. In this course I use Genesis B as the first text establishing one of these threads: the portrayal of women through the figure of Eve.

As is the case at many academic institutions today, undergraduate students at WKU have few opportunities to study Old English literature. Our English majors have no breadth requirements beyond five required survey courses (Survey of British Literature I and II, Survey of American Literature I and II, and World Literature), and there is no course devoted to Old English literature in the department's rotation, though every two years we offer a junior-level Medieval Literature survey as an elective. Some students will have read Beowulf in high school, at least in excerpts, but rarely anything else. Thus, what exposure to Old English our majors will receive is generally limited to those texts they encounter in Survey of British Literature I. In my version of the course, our three-week Old English unit covers the usual suspects: excerpts from Bede, shorter poems such as "The Dream of the Rood" and "The Battle of Maldon," and of course Beowulf. However, as with all units I make a point of including a less canonical text, in this case Genesis B, to remind students that more literature exists outside the narrow confines of any given anthology.

From the moment of my own first reading of Genesis B in a graduate Old English seminar I have been intrigued by its unique reconfiguration of original sin within an Anglo-Saxon heroic ethos and in particular its representation of Eve. As A.N. Doane explains, in this poem "the audience encounters a story that is both familiar and strange. The disjunctions force the audience to see the old story of the Fall with new eyes, as if it had never been seen before, and to see it in terms of what their own reactions would be" (140). Students generally share my delight in the frisson of the familiar made unfamiliar, and in end-of-semester evaluations they tend to rank Genesis B highly among favorite texts in the course.

Genesis B appears in few anthologies of any sort, let alone those commonly assigned in a British literature survey course. A prose translation is available in S. A. J. Bradley's Anglo-Saxon Poetry, but I prefer students to read the poem in verse form and am reluctant to require them to purchase another book in addition to our already-costly anthology, especially for just one poem. Susan Burchmore's excellent online translation is a good option, but its fairly literal translation of the original syntax makes it a challenging read for my students and the introductory essay she provides does some of the interpretive work I ask students to do themselves. The translation I have used most recently is that of Aaron Hostetter; also freely available online via the Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, this translation of Genesis B has the advantages of being a readable and reasonably accurate poetic translation, though like Burchmore's it is not alliterative. In addition, students visiting the site will discover links to over a dozen more translated poems that are not available in a typical survey anthology.

As the culminating text in our three-week Old English unit, Genesis B provides an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. Near the end of the second week, after we have read excerpts from Bede1 as well as "The Dream of the Rood," "Judith," "The Battle of Maldon," and "The Wanderer," I assign a short paper with the following prompt: "Given what you have learned so far through your reading and through in-class discussion and lecture, how does Genesis B attempt to synthesize Anglo-Saxon cultural values with Christianity?" Hostetter offers no introductory material for his translations, so along with the assignment instructions I provide a very brief explanation of Genesis B's provenance and manuscript context. Throughout the following week as we read and discuss Beowulf together, students read Genesis B on their own and complete the paper before we discuss the poem in class, leading to richer discussions informed by the critical thinking in which they must engage to write their analysis. With the exception of Genesis 3 in the Douay-Rheims translation, to which I include a link in the assignment, no additional sources beyond what we've read and discussed are allowed. Precisely because Genesis B is less canonical, those students who inevitably turn to the web to search for answers will discover far fewer online essays off which to crib and soon realize they will have to do the heavy lifting of interpretation themselves. The exercise is a valuable one as it allows students to reflect on the Old English unit as a whole and to practice close reading and analytical skills early in the semester. They also seem invigorated by the assignment, seeing it as a puzzle to tease out rather than a regurgitation of class lecture.

As we progress through the course, students make the obvious connections with other texts that explicitly reference Eve. From the Early Modern period they read Lanyer's "Eve's Apology in Defense of Women" along with the excerpts from Swetnam's The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women; Speght's A Muzzle for Melastomus; and Sowernam's Ester Hath Hanged Haman included in our Broadview Anthology's "'Unconstant Woman,' 'Excellent Woman': A Seventeenth-Century Debate" section.2 They also read Books 1, 2, 4, 9, and 10 of Milton's Paradise Lost; as an additional benefit we get to speculate on the possible degree of influence Genesis B might have had on Milton's portrayal of Satan, given that the Genesis B manuscript was in the possession of Milton's close acquaintance Franciscus Junius. The connections we make between such texts prove to be quite fruitful, not only for depth of discussion but also as a means to foster a sense of continuity in the course. In a survey of students' responses after the end of the semester, one student wrote of Genesis B that "the text's portrayal of Eve as more of a victim of deception than a malicious conspirator piqued my curiosity and primed me for our later exploration of the attacks on and defenses of women (for example, I felt I was better able to appreciate the role of Eve in Paradise Lost after first understanding her role in Genesis B)." Exploring the complexities of Eve's earlier portrayals helps prepare students for a more nuanced analysis of Milton's Eve, a character that tends to provoke strong and visceral reactions among some students.

The presentation of Eve as archetypal woman in literature throughout the term also facilitates connections among texts that raise gender issues without an explicit reference to the Fall: with Gawain's displacement of blame onto the wiles of women near the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; with Chaucer's Wife of Bath and her provocative question "who peyntede the leoun, tel me who?"; with Julian of Norwich's sympathetic exposition of original sin in her Showings; with the Dark Lady in Shakespeare's sonnets; with Beatrice's impassioned "O that I were a man!" speech in Much Ado About Nothing; with the complicated gender satire in Swift's "The Lady's Dressing-Room" and Montague's "The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to Write a Poem Called The Lady's Dressing Room"; and with Heywood's exploration of female roles and identity in Fantomina. Because Genesis B offers a narrative so different from the one with which students are familiar, it prepares them to probe more critically the ways that cultural expectations shape literary constructions of gender.


Works Cited


Black, Joseph et al., eds. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. 3 vols. 2nd ed. Petersborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009-12. Print.

Bradley, S. A. J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. New York and London: Everyman, 1995. Print.

Flood, John. Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Genesis A & B. Trans. Aaron Hostetter. Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project. 2 June 2014. Rutgers University-Camden. Web. 29 July 2014.

Genesis B. Trans. Susan Burchmore. Genesis B Translation. Baldwin Wallace University. Web. 29 July 2014.

Doane, A.N. The Saxon Genesis. Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1991. Print.

Smith, Nathaniel. "The Eve Debates: Teaching Milton Alongside Anti-Misogyny Literature." Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching 20.1 (Spring 2013): 111-26. Print.

"'Unconstant Woman,/ 'Excellent Woman': A Seventeenth-Century Debate." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2: The Renaissance and the Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Joseph Black et al. 2nd ed. Petersborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2010. 569-81. Print.

1. Of those excerpts included in the Broadview Anthology of British Literature we read Bede's accounts of Edwin's conversion, Hild of Whitby, and Caedmon.

2. For an excellent discussion of strategies for teaching Lanyer, Swetnam, Speght, and Sowernam in conjunction with Paradise Lost, see Nathaniel Smith's "The Eve Debates: Teaching Milton Alongside Anti-Misogyny Literature." For further contextualization of the figure of Eve in earlier English literature, see John Flood's Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages.