BEOWORLD! Manuscript as Gamebook with Dr. Lemons
How do you take a medieval epic poem and reinvent it for a modern classroom? Dr. Andy Lemons, an English professor here at Clemson for nearly six years, has taken an extraordinarily well-known piece of literature and completely reinvented the way his students analyze it. This semester, Dr. Lemons is teaching a class on the famous piece Beowulf, but in a not-so-traditional way. He encourages his students to explore the text through an exciting world building game in which each student creates a historically-accurate character and, through this persona, brings this heavy text to life. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Lemons and learn more about his unique course setup.
How did you come up with the idea for this class?
Well, there’s one medieval manuscript that preserves the Beowulf poem, which is commonly understood as an epic. It’s only there and it’s nowhere else, so it’s a very unusual and important manuscript. The funny thing is that there are five texts in this manuscript, but no one ever reads the other four. Everyone just reads Beowulf. They’re all in Old English and one’s about St. Christopher and his martyrdom, one’s about Alexander the Great, one’s about Judith, this Old Testament heroine that decapitates this enemy general (it’s awesome). Then, there’s this encyclopedia of monsters from the East, and then finally Beowulf. So, I thought about ways I could teach all of these texts together, and re-reading the manuscript and suddenly I was like, this is just like a game manual, it’s just a medieval game rule book. There’s a whole list of monsters, there’s heroes, there’s a whole bunch of crazy places and settings, there’s magic; so I thought why don’t I make a game out of this and teach it.
Can you tell me about this class and how it works?
It’s kind of a hybrid. There’s three parts: we spent about a third of the semester reading intensively and studying all the backgrounds and trying to get a grasp of what the medieval manuscript is and where it came from. Now we’re moving onto the second phase which is a world building card game I created. In the third phase, which is going to have to move online after spring break, is more of a traditional tabletop role playing game, kind of like Dungeons and Dragons. So, the students have read the manuscripts, they’ve created characters that would fit in the world of the manuscript and now they’re building up the worlds in order to explore it. The premise is that all of these five places — ancient Judea, the crazy monstrous east, the North of Beowulf, Alexander’s Greece— are all in the same world at the same time. But the difference between a regular role playing game and this game is that every action and decision has to be justified by reference to the text or its immediate contexts.
In the class session of the worldbuilding phase, students draw from a deck of cards I made based on the Anglo-Saxon runes and use them to create and workshop ideas for places, objects and persons that exist in the world. Really, all this is really just a pleasantly complicated way of creating writing prompts. After class everyone goes home and researches and writes a two page continuation of their character’s story that describes the person, place or thing from the cards and makes it fit into the world.
The scholarly wager of the whole class is basically: “what if we can do better scholarship of the middle ages through games and historical fantasy writing than through argumentative essays?”
How do you think this unique set up has helped your students understand this piece of literature better?
I think it’s immersion. It’s simply providing the context for a very deep and invested immersion. The students are really committed because everything that they do is from the perspective of their character, and everything about their character has to be justifiable within the context of the text, so they’re doing research like crazy on it.
So they’re really reading this more carefully than I think they would if they were just writing a critical essay at the end of the semester, which maybe they would never read again and which they don’t have any intrinsic investment in it.
Is this style something you’d want to continue in the future?
Oh I’m going to replay this actual class, definitely. At the end of the semester all of the materials that they’ve made — their own stories, the rulebook, the artwork — I’m going to publish all of these things in a book. That book will then be there the next time that I teach this as a resource, so every time I teach this course, the world will grow and what happened in past semesters will be there. Eventually, I’ll have to make a Wiki or something because I’m hoping there will just be a continual growth of Beoworld.
Have there been any challenges with this class?
Not really, except that there’s really no good venue on campus for this. We’re in a room in Daniel, with its cinder blocks and marker boards, and it just doesn’t feel right.It’s no place to have an analogue relationship to a book, where we can sort of just get together and be cozy and play. So, that’s been the main challenge: setting.
What has been your favorite part about teaching this specific class?
Just playing the game. It’s so engaging and fun and easy. This is the best way to do literature, because the more I think of this manuscript as a game book, the more I’ve become persuaded that that’s actually what the medieval manuscript is. There were some medieval people somewhere, relatively isolated compared to us, and they had maybe this one book that they transcribed all these different sorts of things in. And when they read it, perhaps they were having an imaginative adventure, going in and out of these fantasy worlds. So just really bringing that element of literature to light and not submitting it to the routine of 20th century critical analysis is golden. I definitely look forward to this class every day because interesting things come out of it in a way that hasn’t happened in traditional class settings.
What do you hope your students will take away from this class?
The memory of an adventure. I would love it if they keep their characters with them and even keep adding to the story that they created. If they don’t remember Beowulf, fine, but if they’ve created something that outlasts their tenure at Clemson and they can look back fondly on their adventure, that would be remarkable.
Written By: Savannah Franklin