Study Guide

Beowulf Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Unknown

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Sea, the Mere, and Water Imagery

There are several important scenes involving different bodies of water in Beowulf – the dangerous sea-crossing that Beowulf and his warriors undertake to go from Geatland to Denmark; the swimming contest between Beowulf and Breca and the sea monsters they had to fight; the bloodstained lake, or "mere," where Grendel's mother lives in an underwater cave; and the seaside cliffs where Beowulf slays the dragon – and meets his doom. Why so much water? And why does the water always seem to be associated with, well, really dangerous things?

The easiest answer is that the medieval Scandinavians were a seafaring people. After all, that's part of the reason that the Anglo-Saxons were telling the story of Beowulf centuries later in England – because their Scandinavian and Germanic ancestors had sailed across the sea to colonize Britain.

As a member of a seagoing tribe, Beowulf is familiar with the sea, and also with its dangers. Of course, because Beowulf is an epic, the mundane dangers of the sea – getting swept overboard, getting lost, running out of food and water – are replaced by fantastic dangers, like sea monsters. But the principle is the same. Grendel's mother, in her cave beneath a stagnant lake of bloodstained water, represents the uncertain danger lurking in any watery expedition. Later in the epic, Beowulf's followers will push the carcass of the dragon he slays over the cliff into the water to dispose of it, returning a monster to the place it seems to belong, the dangerous, capricious sea. And the barrow that Beowulf asks Wiglaf to build for him is not just a monument to his memory – it's a monument that can be seen on the coast by men sailing on the sea. In other words, it's a reminder of the strength and success of a hero that you can see and take courage from even in the middle of a dangerous, uncertain world.

Heorot Hall, Mead-Halls

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. 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 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.

Swords

There are several different famous swords in Beowulf – so many, in fact, that you might have trouble keeping them straight. First, there's the sword that Hrothgar gives Beowulf after he kills Grendel (1022). Second, there's Hrunting, the sword that Unferth lends to Beowulf to fight Grendel's mother (1458). Unfortunately, Hrunting fails to do any damage to the monster, so Beowulf grabs another sword from her horde of treasure (1557). This third sword decapitates her, but the blade melts when it touches her poisonous blood. After he brings the hilt back to the surface, Hrothgar discovers it is covered in engravings of the great flood and destruction of the giants. Fourth, there's a gem-studded sword that King Hygelac gives Beowulf to celebrate his great deeds (2193). We can probably assume that this is the sword called Naegling, which breaks when Beowulf tries to use it to kill the dragon (2680).

There are a few other swords in the story here and there, but these four are the most important ones: Hrothgar's gift, Hrunting, the sword with the engraved hilt, and Naegling.

That leaves us with two questions: why are there so many different swords in the epic, and why do they so often fail to harm the enemy? And no, we don't think the answer is just that swords are phallic symbols. Well, there are many different swords in the epic for a pretty obvious reason – in a warrior culture, weapons are going to be pretty important, and there are a lot of them around. There are also different weapons for different purposes, and sometimes one sword can succeed where another fails, depending its quality and its history.

But the really strange thing in Beowulf is that, frequently, swords don't do their job. Hrunting won't cut Grendel's mother; Naegling snaps when Beowulf swings it at the dragon; the sword with the engraved hilt melts in Grendel's mother's blood. We're getting an inkling that the poet wants to remind us of the futility of battle. It also seems that Beowulf does better when he uses his own body strength against the monsters around him, instead of weapons, which are almost like cheating because they give him an artificial advantage. Alternatively, at one point, the narrator suggests that Beowulf is so strong that his mighty strokes break blades in half, so perhaps Beowulf's heroism is greater than mere weapons could make it.

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