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Heorot Hall, Mead-Halls

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Nice To Mead You

It's not unusual for architecture in literature to have massive symbolic clout: churches and mosques symbolize religion, schools symbolize education, and Grandma's house symbolizes the place where the Big Bad Wolf will try to eat you.

But there are few literary architectural symbols as completely kick-butt as the mead halls of Beowulf.

In the translation of Beowulf that we've used, King Hrothgar's mead-hall is called Heorot, which is its name in Old English. Translated into modern English, "Heorot" means "hart," which is a male deer or a stag.

Hrothgar's lavish, wealthy hall—where his warriors gather to drink and feast and where he holds court —is named for this proud, majestic animal. And at first everything's peachy keen:

Inside Heorot there was nothing but friendship. The Shielding nation was not yet familiar with feud and betrayal. (1016-8)

Of course, deer aren't just any kind of animal: they're prey animals, hunted by men and other predators. Perhaps this is a little hint to us that Hrothgar's hall is destined to be attacked, again and again, by the (un)friendly local man-eating demon, Grendel.

Heorot, along with the unnamed mead-hall back in Geatland where King Hygelac holds sway, represents the brotherhood and unity of the warriors in the tribe. Each mead-hall becomes a symbol of power, a place for kings to display their gold, jewels, armor, wealth, and even their manpower—the number of "thanes," or followers, that they can boast. The mead-hall doubles as a location for feasts and as sleeping quarters for the warriors.

Beowulf and his men go to Heorot first for a formal audience with Hrothgar, second for a feast and wild party, and third, at the end of the night, for a place to bed down with their armor and weapons right beside them, ready for action. Each mead-hall is a palace, a cafeteria, a bar, and a barracks all in one—a visible symbol of the intense life of formality, excess, and brutal warfare that medieval warriors led.

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