Places: Beowulf

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First transcribed: c. 1000 (earliest extant manuscript; new translation by Seamus Heaney, 2000)

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Epic

Time of work: Sixth century

Places DiscussedHeorot

Heorot Beowulf (HEH-oh-rot). Headquarters of the aging Danish ruler Hrothgar. The great timbered hall is elaborately described, for only here can human beings be, within limits, civilized. (The unnamed great hall of the warrior-hero Beowulf’s uncle, King Hygelac of the Geats, resembles Heorot.) A great open hall with smaller divisions, Heorot is adorned with gold. Its approach is by a stone-paved road. It has benches and tables at which the retainers of Hrothgar sit. At night it is lit by torches, and its light reaches out to the surrounding wild. It is only within the king’s hall that court poets can tell and retell the heroic and dreadful tales of the northern peoples, for these tales demand a proper setting for their force and meaning. The stories give the values of the culture, both positively and negatively. They teach about the importance of loyalty and about the consequences of both loyalty and betrayal.

Here the people, or rather the nobles, carry on all the activities of human life; it is where they eat and drink and where many sleep. But it is nevertheless also close to the wild, not only in being made of wood, but in its name, for Heorot means “Hart,” or male deer–a noble animal but still animal. In being wood, like others mentioned in the poem, it can be and will be burned, with great slaughter. The humans who live here can and will be terrible to one another. Moreover, Heorot’s bright lights and noises offend Grendel, a monstrous descendant of Cain who is condemned to wander alone in the wastelands. Grendel visits Hrothgar’s hall regularly and carries off warriors to devour.

Wasteland

Wasteland. There is no description of farming or herding activities in the land around Heorot; indeed, there seem to be no human inhabitants there. Beowulf and his companions are alone as they pass through it. The great hall contains everything human in this world. Outside, the world is a great wasteland, dark forest, mists, moors, narrow dangerous paths, great, gray crags, and no animals or birds, except terrifying water monsters.

Grendel’s cave

Grendel’s cave. This underwater home of the monstrous Grendel and his mother is the opposite of Heorot. It is home to only two beings, and everything about it is unnatural. Although the entrance to the cave is by way of water, the cave itself is dry. It too is lit by a fire, but its fire is certainly uncanny. After Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, the cave is suddenly illuminated by a magical light. Like the cave of the dragon, it is filled with many treasures; however, they do not seem to be connected with human activity in any way, not even the sword that Beowulf finds there and uses.

Dragon’s lair

Dragon’s lair. The dragon lives in a dark cave from which a dark stream of water issues. He guards a great treasure of precious materials, goblets, bowls, cups, dishes, rings, weapons, and armor. The swords are partially eaten away by time since they are iron, but most of the objects are made of gold. The hoard was accumulated and left behind by the last man of a long-forgotten community. All the treasures were created by men and are thus products of “civilization.” While they seem to give off a kind of light, they are slowly reverting to the darkness of the nonhuman.

Sea

Sea. The waters of the sea are dangerous for travelers, largely because of sea monsters but implicitly because of threat to the ships that carry men. Beowulf tells the story of his dreadful battles with these monsters. He wins these battles, but all bodies of water are nonhuman and perilous as in Beowulf’s terrifying descent into the great pool or mere where Grendel’s mother lives.

Sources for Further StudyBjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles, eds. A “Beowulf ”Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Includes an essay explaining how overtly Christian and Germanic pre-Christian elements are blended in the portrait of the hero and throughout the narrative.Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1073. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: “Beowulf.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection containing important essays by J. R. R. Tolkien and Fred C. Robinson establishing the importance of Christianity in shaping the themes of the poem.Brodeur, Arthur G. The Art of “Beowulf.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. From the starting point of belief in a singular author having written Beowulf, this volume provides a structural and thematic criticism of the work. It discusses diction, unity, setting, and Christian elements. A landmark reference.Davis, Craig R. “Beowulf ”and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England. New York: Garland, 1996. Discusses ways that Christian elements are blended with Germanic religious traditions.Goldsmith, Margaret E. The Mode and Meaning of “Beowulf.” London: Athlone Press, 1970. This book revises earlier discussions of Christian allegory in Beowulf. An attempt is made to prove the text to be an extended Christian allegory. A classic examination of the manuscript’s Christian hero pitted against evil.The New York Review of Books 47 (July 20, 2000): 18. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.The New York Times Book Review 105 (February 27, 2000): 6. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.Nicholson, Lewis E. An Anthology of “Beowulf” Criticism. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. This early volume saves hours of searching through scholarly journals by presenting a comprehensive collection of widely recognized articles. It covers over two dozen aspects of the text from allegory to zoology.Ogilvy, Jack D. A., and Donald C. Baker. Reading “Beowulf.” Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. This work provides a modern and thorough view of the poem. After providing the historical background for the piece, it focuses on a two-part summary of the story and a subsequent analysis of theme, versification, and style. It includes an extensive annotated bibliography as well as many illustrations.Publishers Weekly 247 (February 21, 2000): 84. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.Pulvel, Martin. Cause and Effect in “Beowulf.” Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Interweaves commentary about the Christian elements of the poem throughout a discussion of the forces that motivate characters in the narrative.Staver, Ruth Johnston. A Companion to “Beowulf.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Series of essays providing background on the poem, including one focusing on religious elements.Time 155 (March 20, 2000): 84. A review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of “Beowulf.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1951. A transcription of a series of lectures that concentrates on the poet and audience of Beowulf in their context of early Christianity. There are several references to other scholarly works as well as translations of the actual text. It contains an extensive index.
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