MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Students in Patrick Conner's English 311 class are using computers to fathom the Spear-Danes, the Geats and the Germanic monster Grendel in the Old English poem "Beowulf."
Conner, who teaches English at West Virginia University, has helped students grapple with the Anglo-Saxon alphabet and the themes of "Beowulf" for 15 years.
Dubbed "The Beowulf Workstation," the program includes four translations of the 3,182-line poem, a 4,000-entry Old English dictionary, genealogies of the characters and graphics.
The program also has excerpts from other literature that provide discussions and descriptions of events in the poem.
"All Germanic literature depends on the reader being familiar with names and genealogies," Conner said.
The long, anonymous poem describes the exploits of Beowulf, a Geat prince who kills Grendel, a man-eating monster, and Grendel's revenge-seeking mother.
Although scholars argue about the exact date, most agree the poem was written in northern England between 750 and 1000.
Conner's program was written for Apple MacIntosh computers and uses Hypercard software.
It is still being refined and is not yet available for distribution.
"What I've simply done is created new ways to link things together for my purposes," said Conner.
Students using the program are greeted by the image of a warrior's helmet from the period, a computer-generated flourish of trumpets and a slow, steady drumbeat.
A click of the computer's controls brings up the poem in its Old English form. Another click produces translations, images or literary discussions.
"It's like having the whole library at your fingertips without having to carry hundreds of pounds of books around," said Danny Williams, 38, a graduate student.
"I probably did more work than I would have in a traditional course, where you're looking up every word, translating line by line, because I had more time to read the criticisms and analogs already in the program," Williams said.
"My figures tell me that these are the best classes I've ever given in 'Beowulf,' " said Conner.
"I usually lose more than half of the class before the semester ends for one reason or another.
"Last semester, for the first time ever, no one dropped out."