Beowulf: The Mere and the Mead-Hall
The description of the two different battle scenes wherein Beowulf slays the monsters are described in great detail, and are both quite different. Beowulf’s battle with Grendel occurs in the Danish king’s mead hall-a civilized and comfortable setting, while the battle with Grendel’s mother takes place in a much wilder and more dangerous locale. The two vastly different scenes are integral to a deeper understanding of the poem and as such, the poet takes pains to describe them to the reader in detail, whereas other, seemingly more important details (such as the monsters and their battles with Beowulf) are more rushed in their descriptions. The places in which the encounters take place are almost as important as the encounters themselves, because although they do not actually contribute to the action, they do provide noteworthy significance to the social and theological trends of the society described.
The scene in which Beowulf battles Grendel occurs in a mead hall. The mead hall is designed by men for the use of men, and as such the penetration of such a place by a very inhuman monster seems even more affronting and his presence more perverse. The mead hall, or Heorot Hall, is erected by King Hrothgar for himself and his people and is described in its glory as, “a great mead-hall meant to be a wonder of the world forever; it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense his God-given goods to young and old…And soon it stood there, finished and ready, in full view, the hall of halls. Heorot was the name he had settled on it, whose utterance was law. Nor did he renege, but doled out rings and torques at the table. The hall towered, its gables wide and high and awaiting a barbarous burning” (Beowulf, lines 69-83). This description illustrates the hall’s greatness and the greatness of the man who dreamt of its possibility. It is a clear example of Hrothgar’s affluence and position in society, but also of his generosity. He built it for his own pleasure, but with the gifts that Hrothgar gives out, it pleases his people as well.
The hall is man-made and represents an escape from the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. In this way, the mead hall assumes a protective role in the minds of the people. More evidence to support this claim can be found in considering what a mead hall is purposed for-the imbibing of alcohol. In a period riddle describing a wine cup, the effect of alcohol on a man is described:
My dress is silver, shimmering gray,
Spun with a blaze of garnets. I craze
Most men: rash fools I run on a road
Of rage, and cage quiet determined men.
Why they love me-lured from mind,
Stripped of strength-remains a riddle.
If they still praise my sinuous power
When they raise high the dearest treasure,
The will find through reckless habit
Dark woe in the dregs of pleasure.
(Beowulf Longman Cultural Edition, pg. 171, Riddle 9)
This describes men, through drinking, being crazed, lured from their minds, and stripped of their strength while engaging in reckless actions. The most popular place, indeed, the place built for such actions, is the mead hall. It would be unwise for a man to allow himself to suffer the effects of intoxicating spirits anywhere that he did not feel secure in his protection.
The breaching of such a grand and secure place as Heorot by something as depraved and evil as Grendel was surprising and disheartening to the Danish people. He came at night to the mead hall, bringing with him chaos and destruction. The Danes could not defeat him and soon became desperate; they “sometimes at pagan shrines…vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid and save the people…that was their…heathenish hope…the Lord God…was unknown to them” (Beowulf, lines 176-183a). The poet of the story is quite demonstrably Christian, and there is a clear allusion of sympathy and condescension towards the pagan Danes throughout the poem. It seems as though the Danes are unable to help themselves because they are ignorant of Christianity in their prayers. Once Beowulf (who is a Christian) arrives, Grendel is easily defeated, which is a testament to his heroism and strength, but may also be viewed as a lesson affirming the righteousness of Christianity among civilized people. The mead hall is a symbol of their civilization, and once Christianity is introduced to it, evil is quickly driven out.
When Grendel’s mother decides to continue the murderous rampage that proved to be the undoing of her offspring, she returns to the newly restored mead hall. She attacks at night and once she has been found out and opposed she wants desperately to escape. This mirrors her son’s mindset when he is set upon by Beowulf. It appears that in these battles of good versus evil, the good side always seems to prevail.
The outcome of the fight between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf is much less obvious than the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. The setting of the second fight may have had an affect on the closeness of it, almost like a “home field advantage”. The poet spends a large amount of time describing the wild land that the monster lives in and the reader can feel the emphasis of man and man-made objects slip away as the Geats delve deeper into the natural world:
“A few miles from here a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch above a mere; the overhanging bank is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface. At night there, something uncanny happens: the water burns. And the mere bottom has never been sounded by the sons of men. On its bank, the heather-stepper halts: the hart in flight from pursuing hounds will turn to face them rather than dive beneath its surface. That is a no good place. When winds blow up and stormy weather makes clouds scud and the skies weep, out of its depths a dirty surge is pitched towards the heavens.”
(Beowulf, lines 1362-1376a)
The monster’s mere is not man-made, but it is also unnatural. It is a world that occurs in nature, but it possesses eerie characteristics that set it apart from the idyllic and grand view of nature that is described in Riddle 64:
I stretch beyond the bounds of middle-earth,
Shrink down smaller than a hand-worm,
Grow brighter than the moon, and run
Swifter than the sun. I cradle oceans,
Lakes, paths, green plains in my arms.
I dive down under Hell’s way and rise up
Over Heaven’s home, arced over angels.
I form-fill all earth and ancient worlds,
Fields and sea-streams.
(Beowulf: Longman Cultural Edition, pg. 174, Riddle 64)
In the monster’s land, the waters burn and the woods “keep watch”. There is a distinct feeling of disorder felt in the monster’s realm. The tree roots recreate a tangled maze and this image is doubled by the water’s reflection. This imagery depicting disorder is in contrast to the ordered layout of the mead hall. The poet describes Grendel “pacing the length of the patterned floor with his loathsome tread”, thus providing readers with a juxtaposition of monster and man-made order (Beowulf, lines 725-6). Beowulf must go from order into chaos to ensure the continuity of that order for the future.
The environment surrounding Beowulf as he stands on the lake’s edge in preparation for his plunge to meet Grendel’s mother is intimidating and as a result, his confidence falters a slight bit and doubts of his survival surface. He utters the words “if I should fall and suffer death” proving to those present that such a thought had crossed his mind and in doing so been found plausible enough to draw comment (Beowulf, lines 1477-8). In contrast, when he enters Heorot, a place that seems familiar to him as a man, and as he stands among other men, he is confident enough to “renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war-board: hand to hand is how it will be” in his fight with Grendel (Beowulf, lines 436-439).
Beowulf finds that in the lair of the monster, his sword, which had never failed him in the past, is unable to penetrate the monster’s hide. He is now in the same situation in which he faced Grendel but instead of quickly winning a fight against an opponent who wishes only to escape, he finds this contest much more daunting. When he faced Grendel in the mead hall, Grendel wanted to shake him off and run home to the mere. Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother in the mere and Beowulf is the one who is out of his element.
As he is foreign to the wicked environment and has discovered that his blade will not break through the tough skin of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is in a much more vulnerable position. The poet asserts that “the son of Ecgtheow would have surely perished and the Geats lost their warrior under the wide earth” at this point in the poem (Beowulf, lines 1550-1551). However, the fact that God was again on the side of Christianity and those who practice it won the battle for Beowulf. Although he was in enemy territory and at a great disadvantage, “it was easy for the Lord, the Ruler of Heaven to, redress the balance once Beowulf got back up on his feet” (Beowulf, lines 1554-1556).
The decision of the poet to stage the battle between Beowulf and the two monsters in different places allows the reader to see the emphasis that each place has in lives of the characters. The mead hall is a place of comfort and revelry for the Danes. Grendel’s breach of that building incited righteous anger and Grendel met a quick defeat in an easy battle for Beowulf. Likewise, the eerie mere was a place of comfort for the monsters. When Beowulf entered it he was on enemy ground and the battle was more of a struggle for him. The two locations together are similar in that they lack the unification of Christian faith. The mead hall is suffering a demon that the people cannot handle, but Beowulf who is a Christian can. The mere is a place devoid of any religion and is described as an unnatural and evil place. Beowulf represents an ideal Christian warrior pacifying the world of the pagan and opposing the world of the wicked.
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