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Monstrous Landscapes: The Interdependence of Meaning between Monster and Landscape in Beowulf

Monstrous Landscapes: The Interdependence of Meaning between Monster and Landscape in Beowulf

By Charlotte Ball

Hortulus, Vol. 5, No. 1, (2009)

Abstract: Reading and visualising the landscape in Beowulf is, like most elements of the poem, an ambiguous and dreamlike experience. The narrative both constructs and is constructed by isolated images of specific locations. In this paper I intend demonstrate that the monstrous margins in Beowulf are imbued with more than simply distance from the centre. In order to understand the monstrousness of the margins and their inhabitants we need to look at the symbolic value of these far flung landscapes themselves.

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. 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.

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