ENGL 3361

Note: This course will not be offered in 2019-2020 but qualified students can contact me about other options.

Fall 2018 – Winter 2019  ||  Full unit of credit  ||  Tuesday and Thursday 12:00- 1:15

Course Description
Why Study Old English Literature?
Pre-requisites and Program Requirements
Course Aims

Course Description

This course is a study of the literature of the early English period (c. 500 – 1100) both in Old English and in modern English translations. You will learn to read selections of prose and poetry in Old English, including elegies, riddles, and heroic narratives, the best known of which is Beowulf. To provide a broader context for seminar discussions, we will also read some texts in modern English. Some of our discussions will examine the role of medievalism in contemporary culture in, for example, film, fiction, and graphic novels. Throughout the year, we will try to develop an awareness of what popular and scholarly sources mean by the term “medieval.”

The course will be structured in the following way:

Fall term: Old English: Translation Theory and Practice
Winter term: Old English: Beowulf, Then and Now

Why study Old English literature?

Detail from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript
Detail from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript

The literature is beautiful and fascinating and varied.
Some people might think that Old English literature is simply about dragons, warriors, and raucous feasting. There is some of that, but the literature that survives from this era can also be meditative and philosophical, as in the elegiac poems. It can play with language and meaning, as in the riddles. It can tell of wonders and miracles in saints’ lives, or provide proverbial advice on daily life. It can construct histories of the past or exhort people to political action, as in the work of Bede, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or the preacher Wulfstan. We will read a variety of works, and you will have an opportunity to select texts that interest you in your research projects, ranging anywhere from all kinds of poetry, history, and philosophy, to law, medicine, or theology.

The language is beautiful and useful to learn.
Your first impression of the Old English language might be similar to the way J.R.R. Tolkien described it: “rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”  The character Legolas speaks these words as he listens to the Rohirrim, Tolkien’s fictional version of the early English, in The Lord of the Rings. Legolas expresses a dominant theme in Old English literature: the contemplation of the transience of life and the need for courage to face this reality. “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?” are Tolkien’s lines (and you might recognize Peter Jackson’s film version of them), but they are adapted from the Old English poem “The Wanderer.”

Elizabeth Elstob, who advocated the study of Old English for women in the 18th century
Elizabeth Elstob, who advocated the study of Old English for women in the 18th century, and who wrote the first OE grammar in modern English

This “rich and rolling” language is also a useful study for any student. Consider how many times you’ve wished you knew something about grammar  — maybe when you weren’t sure of how to correct a faulty sentence or how to understand the comments on your essays. A Canadian university graduate should know something about the structure of the English language, and this knowledge is obviously important if you hope to go into teaching, editing, writing, or other communication-related positions when you graduate. We’ll proceed slowly in our study of the language, making sure you have a grasp of basic concepts before developing your reading and translation skills. A study of Old English will also help you develop an understanding of the history of the English language and the deep roots of many of the words we use today.

Detail on the Franks Casket showing the mythical figure Weyland the Smith and some runes
Detail on the Franks Casket showing the mythical figure Weyland the Smith and some runes

You can study the interplay of orality and literacy in Anglo-Saxon culture, observing interesting analogues to our contemporary transition to a digital culture.
The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain in the fifth century brought with them an oral culture, with some use of runic inscriptions, but within a few hundred years these early medieval peoples were producing written works of the highest quality. Yet many of their writings bear the marks of an oral style. We will have an opportunity to speculate on the interplay between orality and literacy in early English culture, in which we might find some analogues in our contemporary transition to a digital culture.

You can develop a hands-on understanding of translation theories and practices while learning to assess different kinds of translations.
Although English is a widely known language around the globe, we do rely a great deal on translations in order to understand other cultures. Learning to translate Old English will give you the opportunity to understand the processes and challenges of translation first-hand. The early English themselves were prolific translators of Latin, and some of their works will be part of our discussions as we learn to assess what different translations can offer.

The early medieval period can challenge your historical preconceptions and make you rethink some ideas you might be taking for granted.

AEthelflaed, the
AEthelflaed, the “Warrior Queen” of the Mercians

Do you think of the early medieval period as the “Dark Ages”? Do you expect to find primitive warriors slaying monsters and raping women?  Or do you expect to find Christian monks praying and singing in their churches? Do you think the period is young and primitive or old and ancient? Lawless and free, or repressed and controlled? This is your opportunity to explore what we can know about the past and why it matters to us in the present.

You can explore answers to the question, what do we mean by “medieval” and why are the Middle Ages everywhere around us in the 21st century? For that matter, why were the Victorians so taken with the idea of the medieval? And who was Elizabeth Elstob?
Part of our discussions throughout the year will involve examining the concept of medievalism — that is, the recreation of some aspect of the Middle Ages in a later time. Look around today and you will see the “medieval” all around us  — in television shows, films, graphic novels, video games, and fiction. Why and how do we use the idea of the “medieval”? Why did medievalism appeal so strongly to the Victorians in both popular and scholarly sources? What did the first scholars of Old English before the nineteenth century find important ? In all of these times, how did the “medieval” help to shape notions of the present day? (And for some clues about Elizabeth Elstob, read this.)

You will have an opportunity to study adaptations of Old English literature in fiction, film, and graphic novels, and you will have the option of doing your own creative work in translation or adaptation.
We will discuss adaptations of Old English works in various media, and you will be able to select according to your interests the texts you’ll want to examine more closely: novels, films, graphic novels, children’s literature, for example. If you are inspired, you can produce your own creative retelling as part of your research project.


Beowulf and Grendel's Mother. Beowulf. Dir. R. Zemeckis. 2007.
Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother. Beowulf. Dir. R. Zemeckis. 2007.

Pre-requisites and Program Requirements

Stylized horse head from the Staffordshire Hoard
Stylized horse head from the Staffordshire Hoard

Although the minimum requirement for an upper-level seminar course such as this one is successful completion of one unit of literature at the 1000 level, it is strongly recommended that you have some experience in a 2000-level course before registering in a senior seminar. Students who are not English Majors or Honours students are welcome in the course if they have the equivalent experience in other departments. If you are not an English student and are unsure about whether you are adequately prepared for this level, please email me at anna.smol@msvu.ca.

For English Honours students: this course is listed as a Group B: Medieval course in your list of required courses. For English Majors: this course fulfills the requirement of a pre-nineteenth-century course.


Course Aims

Successful completion of this course should give you:

Beowulf and the dragon from Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children by H.E. Marshall, 1908.
Beowulf and the dragon from Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children by H.E. Marshall, 1908.

1) a knowledge of some of the major texts of the early English period;

2) a knowledge of various theoretical approaches to the reading, editing, translating, and interpreting of medieval texts;

3) an introduction to the study of adaptations of medieval texts in other media and for different audiences, especially in contemporary film, graphic novels, and fiction, including children’s literature;

4) an ability to read Old English, along with the enhanced sense of English grammar that this knowledge entails;

5) a knowledge of research conventions and resources used in literary studies. You will learn to use secondary sources in essays of some length and breadth;

6) experience in communicating ideas orally in a seminar and in writing in various media.


Evaluation  (the following evaluation scheme was used in 2015-2016. Check this space for updates in a couple of months).

You can expect a variety of assignments over the year, ranging from short language quizzes to longer research papers, including opportunities to do creative work in translation and adaptation.This course requires the occasional use of Moodle to supplement the work done in class.

The final course grade will normally be an average of the two terms’ grades, although you will be given an option to select a 40-60 split if you prefer.

Fall Term

from the graphic novel Beowulf by Gareth Hinds
from the graphic novel Beowulf by Gareth Hinds

Participation: 20% of Fall Term grade
This is a senior seminar course and as such, it requires that you attend all of the sessions (unless you have reasonable grounds not to) and that you participate in the discussions and complete the exercises. This component of the course includes any in-class or at-home exercises or responses that you will be asked to complete.

6 Translation Quizzes:  30% of Fall Term grade
These will be open-book quizzes. Each quiz must be passed before taking the next one; you will be allowed to re-do the quiz until you pass, with a final deadline for all quizzes at the end of the semester. The reason for these quizzes is to make sure that you understand the grammar and processes of translation that we will be working on in class and to ensure that you keep up with the rest of the seminar. Falling behind in your understanding of the language would put you in serious difficulties as the course proceeds, and no one wants that to happen!

Research project: 50% of Fall Term grade
This project will be done in gradual stages to ensure that everyone can present their best work. I will discuss the details of this assignment in class, but generally, you can expect that the assignment will require an oral presentation and a written essay, which can take the shape of a traditional scholarly paper or any kind of other creative adaptation or translation of the Old English literature we’ll be studying.

Winter Term

Participation:  20% of the Winter Term grade

4 Translation Quizzes:  20% of the Winter Term grade

Research Project:  50% of the Winter Term grade
As in the first term project, the grade for this term’s project will be broken down into gradual stages which will be discussed in class.

Final Reflection: 10% of the Winter Term grade



  • A Gentle Introduction to Old English. Murray McGillivray.  Broadview Press.
  • Old English Poetry: An Anthology. R.M. Liuzza, trans. Broadview Press.
  • The Cambridge Old English Reader. R. Marsden. Cambridge UP.

These texts will be available in the MSVU Bookstore by September.


Watch one of the most creative adaptations of an Old English poem, “Wulf and Eadwacer,” in the following video, a machinima interpretation of a poem that has always struck readers as a most difficult riddle to solve.


A detailed syllabus will be posted and updated regularly on the course Moodle site.


Anglo-Saxon brooch. Trustees of the British Museum

Image:  Brooch. Late 6th – early 7th century. © Trustees of the British Museum.