Beowulf, Harry Potter, and Teaching the Uses of Literature
Southeastern Oklahoma State University
I teach 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.