Curriculum Area: Biology and English Literature
Grade Levels: 9-12
Title of the Program: Beowulf in the Bog
by: Pamela S. Duncan
This unit provides an opportunity for the student to experience the depth and breadth
of a literary work while encompassing the basic principle of ecology. The activities
which lead to the final event are those which would commonly be found in any class
in biology or literature. The exceptional component of program is the method in which
the two discipline are interwoven. The students who voluntarily participate in the
culminating experience must be enrolled in either Biology or English Literature.
Beowulf is taught as part of the normal curriculum in English Literature and, of course,
any study of Biology includes the concepts of succession in the community. But the
study of both is enriched by the connections which are found between these two distinct areas.
Students are allowed to explore the scientific aspects of the natural environment
as well as to experience the setting of an important work of classic literature.
Through this unit, the students becomes aware that all people are dependent upon
the environment and this dependent relationship has affected human history and literature. During
the culminating activity, the students journey to the center of the bog accompanied
by a Biology teacher and an English Literature teacher. The students have been encouraged to participate fully in the experience.
The students enrolled in the literature class have already examined the pass which
contains the trek in which the hero, Beowulf follows Grendel from the great hall
into the "moor" or bog. This passage contains much descriptive natural history of
these regions. Prior to the trip, the student mark descriptive passages that they expect to
encounter on their re-creation of the journey. These students have, in conjunction
with their literature class, explored the folklore and anthropology of northern Europe
during the time period which Beowulf occurs. They prepare 3 to 5 minutes stories of
the region to share during the culminating activity. These stories may, for example,
the finding of preserved bodies in bogs which date from this time period.
The biology students also prepare for the field experience, and many of the field
techniques and ecological concepts taught in class are focused on the bog. The methodologies
are learned in order to increase the individual's understanding of this unusual ecosystem. Although succession was presented in class as a general process, the
students are divided into teams which attempt to determine the seral stages of the
bog. Students learn many techniques including how to use a key, deciding what type
of transect might be appropriate, and learning how to test water quality. Each group is
looking at different ecological factors at the bog site. The data which is collected
will be collated into a complete unit after the visit to the bog.
Several of the students are in the advantageous position of being enrolled in both
classes at the same time. This allow those students to submerge themselves in two
very different view points of the same phenomena. However, the fact that the two
classes do contain different students who have prepared for the same experience in different
ways increases the diversity of the experience as they share and explain their findings
to their peers and as they proceed through the actual field trip.
As we move through the different successional stages of the bog, we also experience
a conceptual transference in a literary sense. We journey through what is known
and comfortable to the unknown, where anything is possible form monster to heroic
human deeds both real and imagined. We believe that this is the true adventure of all education.
"Beowulf in the Bog" allows us the opportunity to culminate and education experience
which involves content knowledge from two apparently separate and distinct disciplines.
"The grim spirit was called Grendel known as a rover of the borders, one who held
the moors, fens, and fastness." --From Beowulf
During this unit, the student should:
1. understand the ecological concepts of succession.
2. relate ancient ecologies to the culture and literature of ancient people.
3. conceptualize the setting of a literary work within the actual ecological system.
4. recognize the importance of the environment to the survival of humans.
5. identify plants associated with various seral stages of the bog.
6. make real what appears, on the surface, to be imaginative and contrived, placing
modern students inside an ancient experience.
7. investigate factors which cause the changes in the flora during primary, hydrarch
8. authenticate the environmental terrors that led to iron-age cosmography, religion,
9. understand the importance of bogs in determining the ancient flora of an area.
The following are representative of types of assessment which may be used:
1. Preparation of a chart showing the relationship of ancient literature and ancient
ecology and the effect this would have on primitive people.
2. Multiple choice and essay items concerning the student's understanding of succession
and the factors that contribute to succession.
3. Observation of student willingness to indulge perceptively in the imaginative re-creation
of an iron-age bog experience.
4. The ability to measure pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen levels both in the
field and in the lab.
5. Lab report on the observed factors of succession.
6. Quality of documentation, in a critical essay of the authentic natural history
form the text of Beowulf.
The following activities precede the actual visit to the bog.
Laboratory activities during which the student practice the following techniques:
dissolved oxygen measurement
Read and discuss Beowulf
Literary research to find critical essays concerning Beowulf.
Read a selection of the following:
critical essays on Beowulf
scholarly essays on Anglo-Saxon life and literature
plays and novels based on Beowulf
(This may even include a recent episode on the Star Trek Voyager series where a "Grendel"
is encountered in the dark, reaches of space and the heroism takes the form of an
effort to communicate with the new life form, which the crew has inadvertently offended, before more of the crew is "taken".)
Classroom discussion focusing on ecological succession.
Examination of core samples which contain the vegetation of the bog during the time
Abrams, M.H. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature
. 5th Edition New York. 1986.
The section of Medieval Poetry provides an excellent explanatory preface to Beowulf.
A clear prose translation of the poem.
. Translated and edited by Burton Raffel. New York. 1963.
Glossary and genealogical tables and a readable poetry translation featuring authentic
alliteration make this an good resource for the actual bog journey.
Fry, Donald, ed. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs. 1968. This source book supplies university-level
criticism and scholarship from a number of authors and from several periods starting
with J.R.R. Tolkien's standard-setting essay.
Gardner, John. Grendel
. New York. 1971.
The first of several editions. Professor Gardner's imaginative retelling of the Beowulf
poem from the monster's point of view explains the creature's motivation and attempts
an imaginative natural history of the unseen Scandinavian moors.
Andrews, William, ed. A Guide to the Study of Freshwater Ecology.
Englewood Cliffs. 1972. Excellent book which provides a myriad of laboratory and field
activities concerning aquatic ecosystems.
Barbour, Michael et al. Terrestrial Plant Ecology.
2nd Edition. Menlo Park. 1987. Chapter 9 and Chapter 11 are of the most interest
here. Chapter 9 describes methods of sampling plant communities. Chapter 11 provides
an in-depth discussion of current models of succession.
Barnes, R.S.K. and K.H. Mann, eds. Fundamentals of Aquatic Ecosystems.
A collection of descriptive papers on a variety of aquatic systems. Good background
for instructors not familiar with wetlands.
Johnson, Charles. Bogs of the Northeast
. Hanover. 1985.
The best overall text currently available about bogs. Bog formation is described
with and fine illustrations are included. A discussion of various plants and animals
found in the bog concludes this fine book.
Archeological and Historical References:
Glob, P.V. The Bog People
. Ithaca. 1969.
An extensive examination of how bogs preserved the record of human existence. A must-read
for any instructor trying to incorporate the "Beowulf in the Bog" program.
Jordan, Paul. The Face of the Past
. New York. 1984.
The chapter on European barbarians contains very descriptive anthropology. A good
examination of the political and historical environment of the first listeners to
the Beowulf tale.
Keys and Other Useful Guides:
National List of Plant species that Occur in Wetlands for USF & WS Region 3.
Resource Management Group Inc. Grand Haven. 1992. A field guide listing both common
and scientific names of plant species found in wetlands.
Mohlenbrook, Robert. Forest Trees of Illinois
. 6th Edition. Illinois Department of Conservation. The best tree key I have ever
used. The test is further enhanced by very good description of individual tree species.
Peterson, Roger. A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and Northcentral North America
. Boston. 1968. Good guide for beginners for use when flowers are in bloom. The
guide is organized by the color of the flower.
Robbins, Chandler et al. Birds of North America
. New York. 1983. A good guide for identification of birds. Birds play an important
role in bog ecology. In addition, the sounds produces by bog or marsh bogs add to
the eeriness of the bog. Thus the identification of the birds helps in understanding
the ethos of the bog.