'Beowulf' dropped to attract students

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The Independent Online

For generations, Beowulf, the epic text of Anglo-Saxon writing, has been the scourge of students forced to study it as a cornerstone of English literature. But now scholars at Oxford University have removed Old English from the list of compulsory studies for first-year English undergraduates.

Members of the English faculty have voted to make Anglo-Saxon literature optional in an attempt to make English degrees more appealing.

They are also establishing a compulsory general course to introduce freshers to the study of literature as part of a wide ranging shake-up of courses. Faculty members decided on the changes in a university-wide poll, though the final decision will be taken by an academic board later this month.

Dr Kate Flint, chairman of the board of the faculty of English, said the changes were designed to make the university's English degrees more flexible and appealing to sixth-formers. She said: "They are not quite perhaps practised enough in dealing with literature in various ways and a lot of them are unfamiliar with poetry."

Beowulf was catapulted into the headlines earlier this year when the poet Seamus Heaney won the £23,000 Whitbread Book of the Year for his translation of the epic poem, after a strange head-to-head with J K Rowling, author of the hugely popular Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Old English has been a central part of Oxford English degrees since they were first introduced and the period has been a compulsory part of the university's degree since 1970. Dr Flint said the epic poem and other Old English texts were still "very exciting reading".