Beowulf is a heroic epic poem written in old English that isconsidered to be an important example of early Anglo-Saxonliterature. The poem, which is named after the main character andcomprises of about 3000 lines, is set in Denmark where the anonymousauthor describes the adventures of a great Scandinavian warrior ofthe sixth century named Beowulf. The warrior travels from the modernday Sweden to modern day Denmark to help the Danes fight against anold enemy in the form monster. The tale thus takes the commonapproach of good trouncing evil with Beowulf being a hero among hispeople and the monsters being evil. The evil depicted in this poem isnot easy to overcome as Beowulf has also to battle Grendel’smother, and another fire-breathing dragon that finally kills Beowulfbringing to an end his heroics. The poem employs symbolism throughoutand to a great extent showcases the manner in which symbolism shouldbe employed in literature. This essay discusses the manner in whichsymbolism is employed in this poem.
One of the most iconic symbols in the poem is the Hrothgar`s greatmead-hall. This hall, also named Heorot ("Hall of the Hart")in modern English, functions both as a hall and a symbol forsomething else. As a hall, Heorot is where the warriors gather todrink and feast and where the king holds court. The warriors alsosleep at the same place and important discussions and debates aboutthe society take place there. As such, the hall also functions as apalace, a cafeteria, a bar, and a barracks all rolled up in one. Thehall also functions as a form of government where the king displayshis gold and wealth and where heroic soldiers are also honored.
Symbolically, the hall represents the level of civilization among theScandinavian people and specifically the Scyldings and Hrothgar. Thishall captures the life, the warmth and humane aspects of the peopleunder the leadership of king Hrothgar. The hall also captures theunity of the people and shows the joy that they share together in dayto day lives. The warmth is further captured through the culture ofthe Scyldings who have decorated the hall in different ways. This isin sharp contrast with the swamp where Grendel and his mother livein. By living in a swamp or mere, Grendel is portrayed as evil andcold. His attack on the civilization is thus an attack on the warmthand identity of Scyldings as a tribe. The swamp is also dangerous andinhabited by other similarly devious animals.
The underwatercave and the swamp are located far away from where the people live.As such, the swamp symbolizes the place of the monsters in society asoutcasts or unwanted parties. The cave is located beneath a swamp andkeeps the monsters away from a hostile world that perceives them asenemies. The small monster family recognizes that they have a uniqueheritage in black magic, demons and sorcery. The fact that the swampis located beneath a swamp further symbolizes the evil in Grendel andhis mother. Ideally, ancient societies believed that God representswhat is good and is assumed to dwell in the heavens or higher placessuch as mountains while the devil, who represents all that is evildwells in dark places usually underneath the surface such as wherethese two monsters live.
The description of the mere highlights the evil in the swamp. Firstof all, the swamp is portrayed as a dark, gloomy and even evil placethat should be feared. The waters are infested with sea dragons,serpents, water daemons and worms that slither in and out of thewaters. The water is also described as dark and dour. While the caveand the swamp were scary to the ordinary mortals, they were alsoscary to Grendel. He at one time questioned his mother why they hadto live there. However, the mother did not offer any explanations. Infact, Grendel believed that the cave was better suited to animals andnot them. The cave’s scary elements and the refusal by Grendel’smother to answer why they had to live there also symbolizes theirhopelessness. The whole situation depicts them as victims of fate andtheir heritage in black magic and sorcery.
The water in the mere or swamp symbolizes the unknown and othermysteries of the world then. While water in some cases may be used toallegorize life but in this case, it is used to symbolize theunknown. This is because swamp is home to Grendel, Grendel’s motherand the dragons. The waters also hold the treasures from the 300years ago. It is also in these waters where Grendel has hidden theirsorcerer and black magic paraphernalia. It is also interesting tonote that it is these dark waters that Beowulf came to learn of othercapabilities of Grendel’s mother as her head illuminates the cavein an unnatural way.
When Grendel attacked Heorot, he was defeated by Beowulf and in theprocess lost his arm which was ripped from the shoulder. However,Beowulf had hoped for something more. Because he fancied himself asthe savior of the Scyldings, he would have preferred to haveGrendel’s claw and head. According to Beowulf, Grende’s claw andhead would have been better war trophies. These war trophiessymbolize his victory against Grendel. The claw was to be hung at theHeorot alongside other cultural symbols of Scyldings.
At the same time, the Grendel’s head and claw are symbols of theevil of nature of human beings in the eyes of Grendel’s mother. Thetwo would also represent the loss suffered by Grendel’s mother as aresult if the death of her offspring. Losing her son to such amacabre killing and the fact that his son’s body art would be usedas a trophies and the death viewed as a victory symbolizes the levelof animosity exhibited by human beings. When Grendel get to defeatthe ogres in their cave, he ignores other forms of treasures that hefinds in the cave and instead chooses to carry Grendel’s head,which has a strange capability of illuminating the dimly lit cave.
The treasure in Grendel’s cave symbolizes the vanity of humanwishes. While Beowulf longed to have treasures and trophies thatwould ultimately make him a rich and famous, he ignores thesetreasures when he visits the cave. The treasure head in the dragon’scave is not useful to Beowulf, the dragon or even the Scyldings. Thetreasure had been obtained from regional warriors who had died duringa battle fight about three hundred years ago. These tribesmen mighthave lost their lives trying to defend their treasure. However, theylost their lives and thus have no use for the treasures. One of themen, called keeper of the rings" (2244), who was said to havesurvived this ancient battle long enough to hide and burry thetreasure also failed to make use of it. The Scyldings also do not getto inherit and enjoy the treasure as it is buried deep down in thecave beneath the swamp. Thus in one way or another, the wishes ofhuman beings are vain and temporary (Orchard 102).
Beowulf’s descent into the swamp and the cave to slay the dragonallegorizes Christ’s battles with the devil. The common aspect ofChristianity here is achieved by the fact that Beowulf choose toignore the other treasures in the cave the same way that Christignored the promises of wealth that Satan offered him in return forhis loyalty. Although Grendel never offered the treasure to Grendelin return for his life, it is can be assumed that as a human being,Beowulf might have been distracted by the treasures given that he hadalready tasted its power through the holy sword. However, thiscomparison does not make Beowulf “another type of Christ”(Goldsmith 74). On the contrary, the descent into the cave has alsoanother philosophical and moral angle. The descent in way or theother allegorizes the sacrifice and struggles one has to make toachieve certain goals. One has to overcome the fears allegorized bythe murky and dour waters of the swamp. Temptations that may distractone from his goals or moral path are allegorized by the treasureburied in the cave.
Several swords are repeatedly mention in the poem that makes itnecessary to assess whether these swords symbolize anything else.While many scholars of this literary piece may be tempted to assumethat swords play a phallic role, it is not necessary the case. Infact, these swords symbolize the vanity of war weapons at war. Thefirst sword introduced in the narration is when Hrothgar awardsBeowulf with a sword after he kills Grendel. The second sword is onenamed Hrunting that Unferth lends Beowulf in the fight againstGrendel’s mother. This sword, however, does not achieve what it isintended for as it fails to injure the monster. Beowulf thus seeksanother sword obtained from the treasure in the cave. It is thisthird sword that manages to injure Grendel’s mother and also meltwhen it gets onto contact with the monsters blood. The blade is alsocovered in markings that tell the story of old times and even talksof ancients floods.
Other bodies of waters are repeatedly mentioned in the poem.Throughout the poem, water is portrayed as an important aspect in thelives of the Scandinavian people. However, all these bodies of waterare mentioned in different contexts. The main water body mentionedmany times is the swamp where Grendel and his mother lived. At thevery beginning, Beowulf also sailed across the dangerous seasouthwards from geatland to Denmark. Beowulf also participated inswimming contests and in the process fought many sea monsters. In allthese cases, water is portrayed to harbor dangerous things (George49). From the worms and serpents in the swamp to the monsters livingin a cave in the swamp, the narrator in the poem differs from thecommon assumption that water represent life but in this case watersymbolizes danger. Water thus also reminds these tries of the dangerthey face in life. In fact, before Beowulf lost his life, herequested to have a monument in his memory constructed on thecoastline such that it is visible to sailors at sea. He said,
Order my troop to construct a barrow on a headland on the coast,after my pyre has cooled. It will loom on the horizon at Hronesnessand be a reminder among my people – so that in coming times crewsunder sail will call it Beowulf`s Barrow, as they steer ships acrossthe wide and shrouded waters" (Beowulf 2802-2808)
This monument wouldremind the sailors and the people of Denmark that despite the dangerthey face in life, they can take courage and challenge these dangersin the same way that Beowulf did.
All these battles that Beowulf is involved in represent his journey,growth and maturity in life. He starts off as an energetic young maneager to chase fame and glory such that he leaves his people andtravels far south in search of adventure and glory. He approaches theDanish King, Hrothgar and seeks his permission to fight the monster.In the first battle, Beowulf is still an adolescent and his skills inbattles are still green and thus he ends up only ripping off themonster arm. In the second battle, Beowulf fights off Grendel’smother when she attacks heorot. Grendel allegorizes Satan and allthat is evil. His defeat thus symbolizes the triumph of good overevil and the maturity of Beowulf as a man who can candidly make hisway in life by addressing the challenges on the way. In some way, thebattle with the monsters symbolizes a rite of passage into adulthoodthat he goes through successfully.
After the success of the battle in which Beowulf, as symbol of goodtrumping over evil the people get to reconstruct their lives. Thisreconstruction and renewal is symbolized by the reconstruction of theheorot after it is destroyed in part by Grendel’s mother. Thepeople of Scyldings had suffered for long at the hands of themonsters and their togetherness as a society repeatedly tested by theattacks. The arrival of Beowulf as a great warrior ready to confrontthe monsters offered them hope for peace. However, it is his arrivaland his attacks of Grendel that evokes the fiercest reaction fromGrendel’s mother who attacks heorot. Remember that heorot was thesymbol of this society achievement and civilization. Therefore, anattack on heorot was not just an attack in a building but rather thecore structure of society. Thus with the monsters slayed, thereconstruction of the heorot symbolizes the healing and renewed hopefor the future.
All in all, the Beowulf makes an interesting read. The messageintended by the poem may be unclear but there are different themesand issues covered by the literary piece. To address these issuesother than the life and heroics of the main character, the authorsused symbolism to address different topics in a unique manner. Theissue of swords, the monsters, the swamp, the waters and even theburied treasures all present different ideas other than what theyrepresent on the surface. Nonetheless, the interpretations on some ofthese symbols is largely informed by the readers own experiences forinstance, the argument that Beowulf’s descent to the cave to fightthe dragon is symbolic of Christ’s descent to hell or earth tofight evil is largely informed by a reader’s experience inChristianity and the story of Christ in the Bible. Thus, symbolismsin Beowulf may be subject to a readers own experiences hencedifferent interpretations.
George, Jodi-Anne,Beowulf. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Goldsmith, Margaret,The Mode and Meaning of `Beowulf`. New York A & C Black.2014.
Orchard, Andy, Acritical companion to Beowulf, 2003, Print.