Monstrous Landscapes: The Interdependence of Meaning between Monster and Landscape in Beowulf–By Charlotte Ball

Introduction

The monstrous characters in Beowulf have attracted more than a little scholarly attention over the years. Their societal liminality, the quality which makes them monstrous in the first instance, is reflected in the spaces they occupy within the landscape of the poem. The argument behind this paper is that these characters are constructed by and inextricable from the landscapes which they inhabit, described by the poet in highly charged symbolic terms. This liminality is more than simply distance from the centre. In order to understand the richness of these descriptions it is helpful to look at the symbolic value of the landscapes, how they build on existing associative imagery in an Old English context and how they interact with one another during the progression of the narrative. For the purposes of this study, there are five main spaces which will be analysed and compared: the central anthropocentric Heorot, the marginal border regions, the sea, Grendel’s mere and the Dragon’s lair. Each of these will be examined in terms of their imagery, and set in the context of the scheme of landscape imagery in the poem as a whole. They will also be compared to existing associative symbols in contemporary Old English narratives. In this case, The Wanderer and The Seafarer, both useful analogues as they examine themes of exile, distance from the social centre and wilderness. [1] The purpose of such a reading is to see more of the nature of the monsters in themselves, and to see them as manifestations of themes intertwined with the setting and the dream like configuration of the narrative.

Visualising the Landscapes

Before beginning this analysis, something must be said of the nature of these imagined spaces. Reading and visualising the landscape in Beowulf is, like most elements of the poem, an ambiguous and dreamlike experience. The places which the poet chooses to describe are not landscapes in the sense that they are views of a larger whole; they are isolated vignettes with little in the way of physical connection to one another. Instead of describing to the reader or listener a realistic, cartographical setting for the narrative, the poet constructs isolated images of specific locations.

Often, these locations are not geographically possible, and visualising them necessitates holding separate and often conflicting images in the mind at once. Grendel’s mere, for example, defies natural geography by incorporating standing water, the open sea, the bare rocks of the Danish headlands and overhanging trees in a configuration which is difficult to realize into one scene even within the mind. Like the descriptions of the places, the descriptions of the landscapes reveal snapshots of aspects rather than an overall impression. Instead of a visual formula, the poet provides a set of signs by which to construct a landscape of meaning to his audience. Richard Butts has advanced the idea that these snatches of detailed and intensely focused description such as that of the mere or Heorot can be seen as analogical in the same way as a dream.[2] It is therefore possible to apply a similar psychoanalytical framework to the poem to that which a psychoanalyst might apply to a dream. This means reading these descriptions as landscapes of the mind, as self contained but associative collections of images which invoke in the audience a particular mood or set of semantic connotations, deepening the meaning of the narrative. Like a dream, the important action in Beowulf takes place on the margins, in the liminal spaces between one setting and the next. Overing has examined the Old English use of these techniques, and emphasises the accumulative layering of meaning onto certain symbols within the poem. [3] These do not necessarily remain constant, but in keeping with the poem’s metonymic mode they change and alter depending on their interaction with other signs and the reader’s own interpretative skills.

These vignette landscapes are integral to the narrative. They are at once a facet of the characters which inhabit them, and at the same time by their marginality or centrality they shape those characters and narrative events. I will now look at the layers of interpretation which can be read into these dreamlike landscapes, and demonstrate this co-existence between monstrous character and setting by their cohesion of meaning.

Heorot: The Antithesis of Monstrosity

One of the first descriptions of landscape within the poem is that of the Danish lands and of Heorot. The descriptions of Heorot are short in comparison to the descriptions of, for example, Grendel’s mere, but they are no less vivid and clear in their interaction with the rest of the text. The poet’s focus when describing Heorot is to emphasise space and height: “Sele hlifade / heah ond horngeap” [(The) hall towered / high and horn-gabled] (ll.81-2). Words like “heahstede” [high place] (l.285) are used frequently and the phrase “sele þam hean” [that high hall] (l.713; l.1016) seems to be a formula.[4] This pre-occupation is not necessarily with the size of the hall; no mention is made of its imposing structure from the outside until the Geats arrive, and even then the focus of the description is not on dimension. The main elements here are space, the relative height of the hall’s position in terms of the rest of the landscape, and most importantly, movement and constant flow of activity. It reflects the later references to the social behaviour of the Scyldings. Wealtheow “ymbeode” [went among/around them] (l.620), again, emphasising the space of the hall and the intermingling of different people, families and allegiances. It is this circulation which defines the purpose of the hall. Its lofty, wide aspects make it an inviting place for these kinds of interconnections between people to take place.

The image of the hall is intimately linked with the idea of society, placing Heorot at its centre. The “stræt wæs stanfah” [street was stone-covered/paved with stone] (l.320), reiterating the firmly manmade anthropocentricity of the environment. When the hall is seen, its description within the landscape is one of stunning beauty such as no natural feature is afforded throughout the poem. It is described as “geatolic ond goldfah [glorious and gold-covered] (l.308), but most tellingly, “Lixte se leoma ofer lands fela” [The light shone over many lands] (l.311). This reference to the bright reflections of the decadent golden roof associates the hall with light, but also casts Heorot as a light source itself. Light is associated with order and culture, as the creation story sung by the scop in ll. 92-98 shows. God “gesette sigehreþig sunan ond monan / leoman to leohte landbuendum” [set up in triumph the sun and moon lamps as lights for the land-dwellers] (ll.94-95). Christopher Mannes has pointed out the anthropocentricity of this statement through which the poem suggests that God created the world specifically to accommodate mankind, and not mankind to fulfill the potential of the world as in some traditions.[5] The light is emblematic of the ordering of chaos into a set pattern, presumably that of society, which, if this creation song is to be read as true, was ordained by God along with mankind even before the earth was made. The association of Heorot with light imbues it with the same ordering power and ordained status; it stands for society as the order of mankind according to God’s will. Thus theBeowulf poet equates the ordering power of the will of God with the ordering power of society.

Heorot represents the culturally signified aspect of the world in Beowulf as defined by society within text. All this will serve to contrast with later descriptions of Grendel’s mere, a place outside of the divine plan, outside of cultural signification, and therefore outside of understanding; a place society cannot engage with or comprehend. The landscape descriptions in Beowulf follow this same pattern throughout, becoming metonymic signs for creation and the ordered world. The descriptions reflect this and imbue the landscape with a multi-layered symbolic significance. For example, the socio-religious values of Beowulf’s original audience are reflected the Dane’s success in building Heorot. Having established the centrality of Heorot, I will go on to examine how the landscapes surrounding it are equally symbolic and integral to the characters around which they are constructed.

Grendel’s Borderlands

Between the bright, lofty ordered Heorot and complete externality are the margins and border areas where the majority of the action takes place. These are the areas of conflict between the anthropocentric order and the chaos beyond, and it is here that the narrative figuratively winds between the two, along the edges between land and water.

Grendel is the source of most of the descriptive language of borderlands in Beowulf. By describing him, the poet defines these edges, and thus it is the edges that define Grendel. Grendel is the “Mearcstapa” [border walker] (l.103) and even “moras heold” [held the moors] (l.103). Like the relationship between the society and Heorot, Grendel is defined in terms of his environment and, in turn, determines his environment. Grendel is inextricable from these borders. His trespassing of these borders causes the violence and conflict in Beowulf. His occupation of these borders is habitual; he continues his crossing of them for years between his first attack and his death at the hands of Beowulf.

These margins are not only geographical but socially signification. The poet communicates this concept of the literal and cultural boundaries via exile imagery. He draws upon imagery, such as the wolf, to invoke the idea of exile. This is a widespread Germanic motif based on references from Old Norse literature in which the children of exiles are named vargdropi, which Ney translates as “something the wolf has left behind.”[6] Hroðgar describes the lands which Grendel and his Mother occupy as, among other things, “wulfhleoþu” [wolf-slopes] (l.1358) and highlights the connotations of exile and the marginality outside of the hall and society. When Beowulf walks the path to the mere, the poet creates a restrictive environment which necessitates solitary passage: “stige nearwe, / enge anpaðas” [narrow ways, / tight single-file paths] (ll.1409-1410). This isolating landscape counteracts the socially unifying function of Heorot.

Grendel’s main areas of occupation are those where water meets land. As Kelley Wickham-Crowley has highlighted, the landscape of the British Isles and much of north-western Europe was subject to rising sea levels and consequent water table rises during the migration period.[7] The historical landscape familiar to Beowulf’s original audiences, then, could have been riddled with such places as the “mistig moras” [misty moors] (l.162) and “fenhleoþu” [fen-slopes] (l.820). One only needs to look at the anonymous Life of Saint Cuthbert to see how these places were imbued with supernatural qualities and served as divisions between humanity and the supernatural.[8] In Beowulf, as in other Anglo-Saxon literature, these places provide a setting for conflict or contact between the two worlds. The water and land are not separate but are interlocked. The lack of clarity between landlocked water and the sea is also present in descriptions of the mere as discussed above, and serves not only to create multiple connotations within one landscape but also to emphasise the undefined edges between the borderlands and the disordered chaos of the water, which will be demonstrated later in this paper. Like Grendel, the path to the mere is “uncuð” [unknown/uncertain] (l.1410), undefined and subject to change. Grendel reflects this mutability in the sense that he is not described physically in any detail within the poem. In fact, he seems to alter in size between being able to pick up and eat thirty thanes in his hands and wrestling on almost equal terms with Beowulf.

The border between these marginal areas and the ordered areas of creation and society are very distinct. For example, the doors of Heorot implode at Grendel’s touch which demonstrates the explosive contact between order and chaos. In terms of landscape, the descriptions of the Geats arriving at Denmark demonstrate this as well. The beach, representing a marginal area, is the place where Beowulf and the Geats confront Hroðgar’s thane. On one hand, the vessel “seomode on sale” [rode on the sand] (l.302) suggests the gentle movement of the shoreline and a mutable boundary. On the other hand, the description of the Danish cliffs marks out a clear delineation between the beach and the social landscape of the Scyldings: “brimclifu blican, beorgas steape, / side sænæssas” [bright sea-cliffs, steep walls, / wide headlands] (ll.222-223). Again, the imagery of height, light and spaciousness characterise the descriptions of Heorot and its setting. This is almost the very same “wlitebeorhtne wang” [bright shining plain] (l.92) which is described in the aforementioned creation song. At Beowulf’s return to Geatland, the imagery of height and space is reiterated. The shore is described as “wide” [wide] (l.1964) and illuminated by a “Woruldcandel” [world-candle] (l.1965). The familiar motifs of space and light again demarcate this place as a place of social interaction and, most of all, divine order. On the other side of the fluid, uncertain divide which manifests in Grendel and delineates both the ordered world of man from what lies beyond, is the sea. The ocean is a constant presence in Beowulf and can now be analysed in the light of the study so far.

The Sea

Water is the element around which most of the Beowulf narrative revolves. It is necessary at this point to examine its function in order to later grasp the relationship between Grendel’s mother and the mere. Other than the mere, water is mainly represented by the sea, the opposing element to the ordered landscape surrounding Heorot. As a constant presence in the narrative, it drives the plot forward by introducing characters from across the sea and provides a setting for the main action of the poem by creating the borders on which it depends.

It follows that water’s main function within the narrative is that of chaos. Readers are introduced to this fundamental aspect of its nature early on, when the scop in Heorot sings the creation song: “se Ælmightiga eorðan worhte, / wlitebeorhtne wang, swa wæter bebugeð” [the Almighty wrought the earth, the bright shining plain bounded by water] (ll.92-93). It was the earth which God made, not the sea. The sea is presented as the chaotic matter out of which God ordered the earth. The sea remains as disordered and untouched by divine intent as it is untouched by society in The Wanderer.[9] It is by virtue of this association with chaos that water performs its narrative function. In the creation song, the chaos of water prefigures the creation of order and thus life, but it is also a hazard and a destructive element, as will become clear in the discussion of Grendel’s mere below. It is the medium for travel and communication but also volatile and filled with monsters which are as inextricable from its nature as mankind from Heorot or Grendel from the margins.

The creative forces of water are related early on in the poem when Scyld Scefing is brought to the Scyldings rather miraculously from across the sea. The sea is first figuratively named as “hronrade” [whale-road] (l.10). The use of this kenning is not random; it suggests a productive fluidity of movement both for a literal sailor and for the narrative, which relies on the sea as both a means of travel and as an unknown by which to define the known. Once again, at Scyld’s death, the sea is referred to as “flodes æht” [rule of the flood] (l.42) which attests to its power. In this instance, the power of sea is once again a productive force that takes Scyld’s body and his gold away and becomes the fabric from which the Beowulf poet weaves Scyld’s figurative journey into death. This dynamic contribution to the narrative is compounded by the sea’s inherent connotation of disorder and lends it a literal and figurative fluidity which is at one moment a bringer of fortune and at the next a pathway away from life.

Of course, the sea also brings Beowulf to Denmark. The description of the sea during his arrival highlights movement, likens the ship to the “fugle” [bird] (l.218) and emphasises the dynamic motion of the waves with such phrases as “streamas wundon, / sund wið sande” [streams wound, / sea with sand] (ll.212-213). Instead of danger, the productive traits of the ocean are emphasized which prevent the narrative from stasis. Beowulf’s crossings of the sea provides a literal journey which figures a psychological one. This function is echoed in the two seafaring elegies, The Wanderer and The Seafarer in which the hardships of a journey on the sea provide a literal, real aspect to the spiritual and psychological journey of the travelers.[10] Similarly, Beowulf must undergo a psychological journey before his battle with Grendel and the horror of Heorot. The same is true of Beowulf’s account of his swimming contest on the open sea. As in the aforementioned lines, 212-13, the water is again described in terms of its dynamism with short paratactic sentences which give the impression of movement in the rhythm of the poem: “wado weallende, wedera cealdost…” [water welling, coldest of weathers] (l.546). The addition of coldness in the sea’s description recalls the seafaring elegies. The function of the water here is much the same. It is a place outside of human or divine control – a chaos which in this instance provides a place for challenge. In the case of The Wanderer and The Seafarer this challenge is a spiritual one. There is evidence in The Seafarer that the decision to go into solitary exile on the sea is a choice, because it is only outside of the hall and the culturally signified world that the journey to heaven is possible. The Land may have been ordered by God, but the water retains His essence. In Beowulf, the intent is slightly altered; the goal is not spiritual but heroic. In any case, it is the disordered sea which provides the appropriate chaos for the race against Breca. As the contest goes on, the imagery of chaos and disorder becomes more intensely layered. The “Nipende niht” [darkening night] (l.547) brings another aspect of the raw chaos which existed before God’s will imposed light. The presence of water monsters solidifies the danger of chaos in physical form, as though the disordered ocean itself is attempting to consume the swimmers. One even drags Beowulf to the bottom, so that he is enveloped in the unsignified matter. Relief only comes with the return of the sun and light which the poet specifically aligns with the creation story by using the kenning: “beorht beacen Godes” [God’s bright beacon] (l.570). In a sense, this episode is a precursor to the poem as a whole. It reveals Beowulf’s will to prove himself through his journey, descent into chaos and battle with the creatures outside of society. The water in this episode also provides both literal and figurative journeys and drives the poem forward with the dynamic, fluid movements of the disordered sea. With this in mind, I will proceed with the most vivid and intensely described occurrence of water in Beowulf, that of Grendel’s mere.

Birth, Death and the Mere: Primordial Chaos

The first reference to Grendel’s mere is in Hroðgar’s description in fit 20 (ll.1321-1382). In contrast to the dynamic productiveness of the open sea, Roberta Frank points out that the mere signifies a body of standing water.[11] The ambiguity of Old English and the fact that the sea creatures can journey out to sea from it complicates the issue. The effect of this seemingly double perspective of the mere is that it retains the aforementioned connection to the dynamic sea while also retaining its own particular, separate brand of chaos.

The language which Hroðgar uses to describe the mere is also stagnant and internalised. For example, the lake “standeð” [stands] (l.1362) and the trees are “hrinde” [covered with rime] (l.1363). The connotations of rime in Old English are similarly portrayed in The Wanderer, when the speaker’s limbs are “forste gebunden” [bound with frost] (l.9), which also indicates restrictive, static associations. In contrast to Heorot’s spacious height, the mere is a place which can only be reached by descent: the stream travels “niþer” [downward] (ll.1360). The presence of the overhanging trees creates darkness, another feature of uncreated existence before God “gesette sigehreþig sunnn ond monan” [set up in triumph the sun and moon] (l.94).

The water in the mere is far from static. The description of movement here is quite different from that of the sea, but it is movement nevertheless. The mere is fluid, but it is “weol” [welled] (l.1422) and is described as “sundgebland” [surging waters] (l.1450) which suggest a churning, almost internal motion that conserves power and is fraught with conflicting currents. It is easy to see why Richard Butts has come to the conclusion that this represents the deep subconscious landscape of the mind.[12] This welling, churning movement reflects the ruminations of its monstrous occupant, Grendel’s Mother, who “yrmþe gemunde” [brooded in mind] (l.1259). The mere represents the parts of the mind which are outside of conscious control, and therefore outside of society and its order of cultural signifiers. Grendel’s Mother is inseparable from the mere. Terms such as “merewif” [mere-woman] (l.1519) and “brymwylf” [sea-wolf] (l.1599) connect her to the image of the mere. The mere, with its internal welling and potential violence, is inextricably linked with Grendel’s Mother. In this sense the name Grendel’s mere is a literary misnomer. It is never referred to as such in the poem, and a connection is only established between him and the mere after his death. The association of the place with his mother is manifest. Grendel, the border-walker, is a denizen of the margins.

In her book Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf, Overing has analysed the place of women within the Anglo-Saxon society, and draws the conclusion that they cannot in fact be signified.[13] The feminine is without identification in a psychological sense, and therefore outside not only of warrior society but culture as a whole. This is an extreme position, but one which finds abundant evidence in the constant failures of women in the poem to be peace-weavers. The traditional Anglo-Saxon role of peace-weaver within a society based on a currency of violence appears to have been doomed to fail. The inability to fulfill this role placed women, like the mere, beyond the reaches of cultural signification within the narrative. Moreover, Grendel’s mother is estranged from the divinely ordered world because she survived God’s purging flood: “se þe wæteregesan wuinian scolde” [she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (ll.1260). Grendel and his Mother, then, are anomalies of creation; they are outside of God’s plan for the world, and live accordingly in the chaos of the mere. The waters of the churning mere reflect the violent thoughts of this estranged female.

This is a real landscape of the mind. Like the sea, the imagery works on two levels. Beowulf’s dive into the mere is a dive into the literal unknown, the alien depths outside of his understanding. But this is more than a literal pool of water, it is an invocation of the unconscious mind. The fact that the water is imbued already with these descriptive churning motions and blood suggests the brooding and violent thoughts of Grendel’s Mother. This representation of this kind of mental state through the water creates a recognisable aspect of the human psyche as disordered thoughts beneath the surface. This unsignified and primal place exists not only as an external challenge for Beowulf, but as an internal one for the listeners and readers, for whom the fear of the unsignified self is invoked by the dream-like landscape. As James Hala has established a connection between the fear of collapsing back into the oblivion from which life comes and the fear of the mother; the mother figure signifies both life and dead. [14] Grendel’s mother’s status as a mother is therefore vital to her construction as a threat. She and the water are one and the same, the raw matter before the Father of the patriarchal psyche imposes order and creates life. This is the same chaos to which life, both in the physical reality of decomposition and the psychological reality of death, will succumb again.

The Dragon’s Lair: Fire, Earth, and Stagnation

The connotations of water in the landscape of the Anglo-Saxon culture contrast with the function of the earth. While the first section of the poem revolved around landscapes of movement and change, the last section is set in a landscape of stone.

The dragon’s lair, like the mere, is an extreme elemental setting. Like the mere and the swamps which were Grendel’s environment, it is situated in the margins, “wæteryðum neah / […]be næsse” [near the water waves /[…]by the headland] (ll.2242-2243). In contrast to the mere, the lair stands “on wong” [on the plain] (l.2242) and is described frequently as being a “stanbeorh steapne” [steep stone barrow] (l.2213). Height and openness have until this point been associated only with Heorot and with the great halls of mankind. The poet recalls these notions in the context of the Dragon’s home, which he further links with the halls of men by naming it an “eorðsele” [earth-hall] (l.2410). What this landscape constructs for the audience is a kind of anti-hall, a place which is of the world of men and shares its qualities but does not fit in with the divine order of society. The Dragon’s lair is full of the “deore maðmas” [dear treasures] (l.2236) of an unknown people, something inextricably bound up with the treasure-giving society of the Anglo-Saxons. But in the lair, there is no free flow of treasure, alliances and speech as there was in the epitome of a good hall, Heorot. Instead, the descriptive language surrounding the lair denotes stasis: “nearocræftum fæst” [fast/secured by difficult craft] (l.2243) and is a guarded place, to the extent that any movement of the hoard incites wrath and causes destruction for society.

Another feature of this earthen parody of a hall is the heat which originates from the dragon. Earlier in the poem, the description of the mere as “heaðofyrum hat” [hot with deadly fire] (l.2547) is reminiscent of the fire which the poet predicted would envelop Heorot in the tulmult after Hroðgar’s death (ll. 82-85). This destructive fire now emanates from the dragon, which is the “hordweard” [hoard-guard] (l.2254) who preserves the stony stasis of the hall by guarding against the free movement of treasure and people. In both cases, the reductive power of fire is invoked alongside the antithesis of social order. Water also flows out from the hall. The imagery emphasises movement: “stream ut þonan / brecan of beorge” [the stream flowed out from there / breaking out of the barrow] (ll.2245-2246). The violent outburst of the water from the barrow recalls the associations of disorder and chaos which were implicit in the “fyrgenstream” [mountain stream] (l.1359) that descended to Grendel’s mere. The dragon’s lair, then, is representative of the stagnation of hall life. The stasis of the dragon’s lair is reflective of the whole mood of the end of the poem which is concerned with inevitability of Beowulf’s imminent death.

The poem ends with the description of the length of the Geatish coastline after the death of Beowulf and the dragon. Beowulf is cremated “on eorðan” [on the earth] (l.3138), recalling the facets of earth as a static and inevitable element. The death of Beowulf contrasts the death of Scyld Scefing at the opening of the poem. Whereas Scyld was consigned to the sea and his death is associated with the dynamics of a journey, Beowulf is cremated, so his death invokes the destructive, reductive properties of fire. His funeral barrow is built “on hoe” [on a headland] (l.1357) in the marginal landscape to which the narrative returns. This barrow has a dual function within the text. Firstly, the poet’s description of it on the cliff demarcates a division between the chaos of the sea and the ordered world of mankind: “se wæs heah ond brad, / wegliðendum wide gesyne” [it was high and broad, / widely visible for wayfarers] (ll.3157-3158). The images of height recall the clear boundary of the cliffs which literally marks the Danish coast. The stasis of the dragon’s lair figures the inevitability of Beowulf’s demise just his barrow figures the end of the Geats. Like the dragon’s lair it is “beworhton” [encircled] (l.3161) and gives the immediate impression of enclosure. In response to the hopelessness of the situation, the Geats re-inter the treasure with Beowulf so that the dragon’s lair is almost re-created:

forleton eorla gestreon eorðan healdan,
gold on greote, þær hit nu gen lifað
eldum swa unnyt swa hit æror wæs.

[They left the wealth of earls in the hold of the earth, gold in the dirt, there it still lives now as useless to men as it was in older times.] (ll.3166-3168)

The juxtaposition of gold and dust combines the inertia of the element of earth with what should be a highly mobile form of currency and contract and thereby makes the statement of its uselessness all the more poignant. Here the earth, previously a symbol of confinement and stagnation surrounding the dragon, is actually cast as a personified element which keeps the treasure. The dragon is far from dead. As a manifestation of its landscape of enforced enclosure, restriction, avaricious solitude and the consequent breakdown of society, it is more powerful than ever at the poem’s close.

Conclusion

Throughout Beowulf, the poet creates landscapes from the meanings of the monsters, and constructs the monsters around the meanings already implicit in the landscapes. The poet describes isolated scenes with limited scope but immense semantic layers. The associative power of each landscape builds as the poem goes on and as the poet imbues each element of the settings with further connotations. Thus water develops layers of reference as the poem progresses from image to image which creates a dichotomy of creativity and destruction. Similarly, fire’s reductive power in association with the mere and the apocalyptic association of fire and water culminates in the final dragon fight. The stasis of the rocks and earth elements of the landscape in Beowulf’s old age, the final days of the Geats, is contrasted with the fluidity of the connective seafaring aspects of water and the social fluidity in Heorot earlier in the poem to create an association of stagnation and breakdown at the poem’s close. The borders between the anthropocentric ordered world and the chaos outside are continually transgressed throughout the poem, both by their marginal denizen, the exile-like Grendel and by Beowulf himself. All these themes act as continuous threads which become more complex as the layers of meaning build and as they interweave with different aspects of the narrative in new ways. Taken as a whole, the effect evokes complementariness; the descriptions connect the poem’s monstrous themes. It pulls them together and sets them up as symbols in the story of Beowulf. These symbols reveal more about the monsters which embody and are embodied by their landscapes. As with the physicality of such monsters as Grendel and his mother, we do not know the physical shape of the landscape, but we do know its nature, and its nature is defined by the psychology of monstrosity.
Charlotte Ball

Charlotte Ball is writing up an MPhil thesis at the University of Birmingham. Her subject is the mythic context of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf, particularly the association of maternal femininity with aspects of primordial chaos, death and regeneration. Her broader interests include the study of myth and literary tropes, especially within Anglo Saxon and wider Germanic contexts.

Creative Commons Licence
Monstrous Landscapes: The Interdependence of Meaning between Monster and Landscape in Beowulf by Charlotte Ball is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

References

  1. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, eds., A Guide to Old English 6th Edition (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1964), pp. 268-82. All further references are taken from this edition. Line and page numbers are given in the main body of the text. Both these poems fall into the genre of elegies, a category defined by modern scholarship. Both The Wanderer and The Seafarer are found in the Exeter Book, composed in alliterative verse. Both are meditative and cathartic in content, dealing first with the psychological torments of exile and ending with a transgression into consolation in God.
  2. Richard Butts. “The Analogical Mere: Landscape and Terror in Beowulf ” English Studies 68 (1987): 113-21.
  3. Gillian R. Overing. Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), pp. 48-57.
  4. George Jack, ed., Beowulf: A Student Edition” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). All further references to “Beowulf” are taken from this edition. Line and page numbers are given in the main body of the text
  5. Christopher Manes. “The Substance of Earth in Beowulf’s Song of Creation” English Language Notes 31.4 (1994): 1-5.
  6. Agneta Ney. “The Edge of Water in Old Norse Myth and Reality” (15. April 2009) [1]
  7. Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley. “Living on the Ecg: The Mutable Boundaries of Land and Water in Anglo-Saxon Contexts.” In A Place to Believe in: Locating Medieval Landscapes, edited by Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), pp. 85-110.
  8. The Venerable Bede. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. Bertram Colgrave. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940; Reprint 1969).
  9. Mitchell and Robinson, 268-82.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Roberta Frank. “Mere and Sund: Two Sea-Changes in Beowulf.” In Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature: Essays in Honour of Stanley B. Greenfield, edited by Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton, and Fred C. Robinson. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), p. 153-66
  12. Butts, p. 115.
  13. Overing, pp. 88-101.
  14. James Hala. “The Parturition of Poetry and the Birthing of Culture” Exemplaria 10.1 (1998): 29-50.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s