Earth, air, fire, and water in Beowulf
By Grant McColl
PhD Dissertation, University of British Columbia, 2012
Abstract: In this thesis, I explore the intersection of nature and human society in the poem Beowulf. Taking an ecocritical approach to the material, I look at previous attempts by other scholars to locate Anglo-Saxon poetry within the ecocritical sphere and build upon their arguments by examining the ways in ways the Anglo-Saxons, through the context of Beowulf, would have perceived the natural world around them, and how they incorporate it into their daily lives. As my framework, I utilize the four basic elements, earth, air, fire, and water, to examine the way in which the Beowulf poet shows how Anglo-Saxon society, and more specifically warrior societies, interact with nature.
For Earth, I examine the Halls in the poem and the ways in which the societies identify the landscapes which surround them in the poem, focusing on how the description of the earth changes depending on the word used, and then focusing on how they use the earth itself to establish their distinct societies.
For Water, I examine the ways in which water acts as a boundary marker between societies, and how they represent a liminal space between different groups of people that is used as not only a connecting road that belongs to no particular group, but also as a testing ground for competitions between societies that is not based on land acquirement.
For the Fens, I synthesize earth and water in order to dissect the role that Grendel and his mother play throughout the poem, since they occupy a vague boundary that crosses both humanity and nature. Finally, I examine the role fire plays in the poem, not just as a destructive force, but also the way in which the people in these societies utilize fire to survive in the harshness of nature.