Popular Imagery in the Old English Poem Beowulf
Some popular elements of imagery in Beowulf are the mead-hall, the sea, swords, armor including shields. Let us discuss these items and, where applicable, the archaeological support for them.
Remaining true to the Anglo-Saxon culture’s affinity for mead (ale/beer/wine), the characters of Beowulf partake frequently of the strong beverage. And the mead hall was their home away from home, with more entertainments than just fermented beverages: “gold and treasure at huge feasts … the words of the poet, the sounds of the harp.” Needless to say, with “the world’s greatest mead-hall … Hrothgar’s people lived in joy.” “after a mead party the Danes … knew no sorrows.” When Grendel “moved into the [mead] hall,” that was an indescribably torturesome pain for everyone: “Hrothgar was broken … the Danes forgot God … [they were] in great distress … they wept and seethed.” When the hero and his men arrived they immediately “came toward the hall … then sat down on benches … pouring sweet drink.” They came “to cleanse Heorot [the mead hall],” to stop the “humiliations in Heorot” where men are “over their ale-cups.” Beowulf predicts: “When I get done with him, anyone who wishes may happily go into the mead hall.” Unferth, in his battle rune at Hrothgar’s feet, was insulting to the hero because Unferth was “drunk on mead.” When Queen Wealhtheow entertained the Geats, she first bid the king “joy in his mead drinking,” then “went around to each … sharing the precious cup.” When the hero began fighting the monster, “many a mead bench … went flying.” The next day the queen “walked among the mead seats,” and everyone “drank many a mead cup.” References to this subject are too numerous to enumerate. In the hero’s last days the fire dragon brought death to the Geats; the “wine hall” was “abandoned …the surging fires burned his house, the mead hall of the Geats. That was … the greatest of sorrows.” Wiglaf, in censuring the ten who deserted their chief, said, “At the ale-bench he often gave you … helmets and armor.” In this classic poem, can there be anything more vital or essential to joyful living, or to conducting business, than the mead-hall?
T. A. Shippey in “The World of the Poem” (45) says:
Some objects in fact reach “mythic” status – most obviously halls. What the poet thinks about these can be derived most immediately from his run of twenty to thirty compound words for describing them. Halls are for drinking in winehall, beerhall, meadhall; they are filled with people in guesthall, retainer hall; in them worth is recognized in goldhall, gifthall, ringhall. They are also the typical, though not only, setting for festivity and poetry.
“The only archaeological evidence of what Heroic Age royal halls in England were like, comes from the Yeavering in Glendale in present-day Northumberland, where the site of one of the royal townships of the English kings of Northumbria...