Academic journal article Parergon

Returning to Heorot: Beowulf's Famed Hall and Its Modern Incarnations

Academic journal article Parergon

Returning to Heorot: Beowulf's Famed Hall and Its Modern Incarnations

Article excerpt

Probably the best-known architectural work in all of Old English poetry is Heorot, Hrothgar's renowned hall. In the famous passage of its creation, (1) audiences are told that Hrothgar, King of the Danes, planned and successfully built the 'greatest of hall dwellings' ['healaerna maest'] (78). Its fame having spread widely, Heorot was intended to be greater than 'children of men had ever heard' ['yldo bearn aefre gefrunon'] (70), and its attainment of this status is confirmed by the speaker who 'widely heard' of its grandeur ['ic wide gefraegn'] (74). However, in the seventeen lines devoted to the description of its origins, we are given only two actual physical details, and these are quite vague: the hall is 'heah' [high] and 'horngeap' [wide-gabled] (82). (2) Over the course of the poem, we are provided with a few additional features: Heorot is constructed of wood (307; 1317); it is built on the site of an elevated location (285); it is bright and adorned with gold (997, 994, 1800) and has massive doors with iron hinges (998).

While we are provided with only these very limited physical characteristics, Hrothgar's hall is described much more extensively in terms of what goes on inside: it is a 'medoaern' [mead-dwelling] (69), a 'folcstede' [people-place] (76), a 'beahsele beorhta' [bright ring hall] (1177). When such social aspects of built space are viewed in conjunction with physical characteristics, those few selective architectural details provided acquire heightened significance.

For audiences attuned to the visual idiom, the physical and social aspects of the hall work in tandem. Because the mead-hall so consistently served as the setting for heroic activity in Old English verse, references to the hall's physical features doubtless had the power to evoke particular connotations of comitatus ideals most typically depicted within the Germanic hall--specifically, the lord with his loyal retainers, the camaraderie of feasting and drinking, the giving and receiving of treasure, unwavering bravery in battle, public boasting, and fulfillment of such boasts through heroic deeds. What is perhaps more surprising is that despite profound changes to plot, character, and many aspects of setting, the portrayal of Heorot in modern renderings consistently retains those same architectural features present in the Old English poem and, even more significantly, regularly appears in association with a similar set of comitatus ideals. In children's literature, in comic books and graphic novels, and in modern fiction, as well as in the spate of films recreating Beowulf in recent decades, the physical features of Heorot and the particular associations these features evoke are largely consonant with those of the original Old English poem. Clearly, the number of retellings and remakes points toward some deep connection between modern audiences and the Old English poem, even as the very storyline of the narrative is often changed almost beyond recognition. The point of connection in hall imagery thus goes far in helping to explain what particular aspects of the poem continue to be invested with significance for many modern readers and viewers.

I. Traditional Referentiality and Architectural Poetics

The nature of such associative meanings is deceptively simple. While the concept is most typically applied to verbal phraseology, the notion of 'traditional referentiality' can provide a productive way of understanding the complex relationship between particular architectural features and their connotative meanings, meanings that have retained a remarkable degree of stability even in the present day. As defined by John Miles Foley and productively applied to numerous fields of discourse, (3) 'traditional referentiality' refers to 'the resonance between the singular moment and the traditional context'. (4) Through traditional referentiality, 'value-added phrases, scenes, and other patterns resonate in a network of signification, with the singular instance dwarfed--but implicitly informed--by the whole'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.