The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

12 (May 2009)  |   Issue Editors: Larry Swain

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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The Postmodern Hall in Beowulf: Endings Embedded in Beginnings

Helen T. Bennett
Eastern Kentucky University

© 2009 by Helen T. Bennett. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2009 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  The hall in Anglo-Saxon culture and literature is generally understood to be the locus of social and poetic meaning-making. This paper argues that, on the contrary, the hall, particularly as it (dis)appears in Beowulf, serves to introduce and reinforce themes of limitation and indeterminacy in the human activity of making meaning, as practiced both by the Anglo-Saxon builders and poets and by contemporary scholars.

§1.  In The Postmodern Condition, Jean François Lyotard defines the postmodern as "an incredulity toward metanarratives." He writes, "The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal" (Lyotard 1984, xxiv). But Beowulf, centuries old and clearly containing all these defining narrative "functors," can nonetheless be seen as postmodern in its problematizing of its own story, as well as in the ways the poem has been read, interpreted, and appropriated up to the present time. We can see throughout Beowulf the literal images of metaphors and descriptions prevalent in contemporary theory. The resonances between theory and poetic text are most clearly revealed in connection with the hall. The image of the hall specifically serves to introduce and reinforce themes of limitation as related to the production of human meaning. It becomes the perfect image for the indeterminacy of meaning in general, and of our critical understanding of Beowulf and its historical and cultural contexts in particular. On levels ranging from language to Anglo-Saxon culture to archaeology to literary and historical wish-fulfillment, the hall in Beowulf undermines its own process of meaning-making, as well as the scholarly process of accessing or retrieving that meaning.

§2.  Beowulf's postmodernism and problematizing of meaning-making becomes evident from the opening lines, even before the hall appears, in connection with the poem's interest in and treatment of origins. Foucault contrasts history with "genealogy" in that the latter "opposes itself to the search for origins." The genealogist "finds 'behind things,' not the timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms" (Foucault 1977, 142). Foucault continues, "What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity" (Foucault 1977, 142). Royal genealogies are a staple of Anglo-Saxon historical texts, formulated to trace origins back to deities and/or grant legitimacy to dynastic rule by the existing leader (Dumville 1976). Therefore, genealogies tend to create—rather than discover—origins to satisfy political and ideological agendas. A traditional view of Beowulf describes the poem's interest in "an exploration of origins," including the ancestral lines of Hrothgar, Hygelac, Grendel, and the dragon's hoard (Robinson 2001, 287). But even an un-theorized approach to the poem must confront absence: Hrothgar's line is traced back "to the time when there was no king," and the dragon's treasure is traced back to "earlier races—'gumena nathwylc' ('I know not what men,' l. 2233)—[that] had gathered the treasure before dying out" (Robinson 2001, 287). In fact, the genealogy that begins Beowulf originates in a way especially connected to ambiguity and absence: Scyld Scefing arrives from the void, and his origins are described only as he is about to return to that void in his ship burial. In this passage, the treasures accompanying his body are compared favorably with those that accompanied him on his first arrival:

Nalæs hi hine læssan lacum teodan,
þeodgestreonum, þon þa dydon,
þe hine æt frumsceafte forð onsendon
ænne ofer yðe umborwesende (43–46).1

(No less did they [the Spear-Danes] provide him with treasures, than did they who, at his origins, sent him forth alone over the waves as a child.)

§3.  Translators have taken this comparison at face value, but even earlier in the poem, Scyld is characterized as a successful and aggressive leader after already having been poor: "syððan ærest wearð / feasceaft funden" ("since [he] was first found destitute," 6b–7a). According to Bosworth-Toller, the word feasceaft denotes a lack, most often of wealth. The description of Scyld's material state upon his arrival could then be an example of litotes, underscoring his actual poverty and destitution. Thus, Scyld's initial state can be read in diametrically opposite—disparate—ways. In any case, the arrival and departure of Scyld emphasize the limitations of human knowledge and human ability to create order in the world, a theme repeated throughout the poem.2

§4.  Of course, many Anglo-Saxonists would take issue with a postmodern characterization of Beowulf generally and the hall specifically. In 1972, Alvin A. Lee, in The Guest-Hall of Eden, conceived of the grand narrative in Beowulf as based on clear contrasts:

The poem is an imaginative vision of two kinds of human society, one symbolized by the gold-hall and banqueting and characterized by generosity, loyalty, and love, the other by monsters of darkness and bloodshed who prey on the ordered, light-filled world man desires and clings to (Lee 1972, 173).

Lee concludes that the "symbols of life and divinely sanctioned human activity are the gold-hall, circulating treasures, and the hero" (Lee 1972, 221). Overall, Lee's analysis relies heavily on Northrop Frye's concepts of myth, romance, and tragedy, all themselves paradigms for "grand narratives."3 Twenty-six years later, in 1998, Lee published Gold-Hall and Earth-Dragon: Beowulf as Metaphor, in which he prefaces his text with the acknowledgement that in the late 1990s "a broader and more fully articulated theoretical inquiry seems more necessary than it did in the relative critical innocence of the early 1970s" (Lee 1998, ix). Yet Lee articulates his theoretical inquiry through what he terms "the still-relevant New Criticism" (Lee 1998, 3). Nicholas Howe's review of Gold-Hall and Earth-Dragon in the University of Toronto Quarterly characterizes Lee as "impatient with Beowulf critics who bring to it their own ideological concerns and biases because they thereby diminish the possibility of directly encountering the poem's language" (Howe 2000/2001, 1). Clearly, Lee still believes in "direct encounters" with the text that have been supposedly subverted by critics who want to interpose themselves between reader and text. Just as in his earlier book he contrasts the fallen world represented by Grendel and his mere to Heorot as "a sacred enclosure, thought of as towering upward, to ensure communication with the heavenly gift-throne and the Prince of life" (Lee 1972, 180), so in his later book does Lee also seem to perceive a fallen world of theory which separates us from the text as Adam and Eve's original sin separated them from God. Theory has marred the "relative critical innocence" of the 1970s when critics could approach the poem "directly" as "a thing in itself" (Lee 1998, 4).

§5.  Lee's consistency in interpreting the hall is understandably attractive to those who believe in structure and its transparent relationship to meaning. The hall is, after all, the Anglo-Saxon physical structure with the greatest socially constructed significance. John Niles, in his exhaustive study of the Lejre hall in Zealand as a model for Heorot, argues for the emergence of the hall as a key indicator for a social "transformation of Northern society . . . during the period ca. A.D. 450–700"; the factors he lists are:

the apparent consolidation of political power in a discrete number of complex settlements ("central places"); the building of great halls as the centers of social life for the elite; the circulation of precious artifacts made of gold, silver, glass, and other precious materials in a gift economy; and ostentatious funeral displays to mark the deaths of notable persons (Niles 2007, 187; emphasis added).

In terms of the hall in Beowulf, Niles writes,

The hall overshadows all other material things mentioned in the poem. It serves as the radiant center of the hero's social world. It is a semi-sacral place devoted to the human rituals of gift-giving, of vows over the mead-cup, of music and song and heightened speech (Niles 2007, 177).4

Similarly, Hugh Magennis describes the hall as "social symbol and power base . . . persisting from the pre-settlement era to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period." Magennis accepts Tacitus' description from the first century C.E. as applicable to Anglo-Saxon England insofar as "the center of the hall culture of the Anglo-Saxons" remains "the personal bond between lord and retainer." Thus, the society in and of the hall is essentially patriarchal, "constructed around male goals" (Magennis 1996, 13). Developing his psychoanalytic interpretation of the men's hall in Anglo-Saxon culture, James Earl says of the hall in Beowulf, "the hall is a house, but it is not exactly a home—men drink and talk there, but they do not live there; they do not eat there (a feast is a gebeorscip, a beer-drinking, or a symbel, a ceremonial feast, and there is no mention of food), and for the most part they do not sleep there. The hall is a meðelstede, a formal place, a ceremonial place, a primitive form of court" (Earl 1994, 116). It provides the site for the male bonding and defining of symbiotic roles in a warrior society. Finally, John Hill sees the hall "as more than a place or center; rather it becomes a fundamental mode of organization," encompassing "both private and public activities, both secular and sacred ones" (Hill 1995, 6–7). Hill argues that Beowulf's cleansing of the hall has a legal and sacred function, an interpretation that conforms to Lee's reading of a conflict between the sacred and the profane. Prominent among the public activities is the creation and recitation of poetry (as noted above in Niles 2007, 187).5 Thus the building of palaces and the emergence of poetry become two related methods of structuring society and experience.

§6.  However, a more politically complex and self-serving connection between hall and civilization, order, rule of law, and poetry used to create and maintain social structures can also be detected within the poem. Foucault, in "The Discourse on Language," talks of "fellowships of discourse," such as rhapsodists of old created, "whose function is to preserve or to reproduce discourse . . . within a closed community," supporting those who created the discourse (Foucault 1972, 225). The poet thus does not simply structure meaning and reflect positive order but supports a power structure in which those controlling the discourse control the society. And the law does not maintain social order and signification but instead, according to Foucault, marks successive stages of domination through sanctioned violence: "Humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination" (Foucault 1977, 151). Order is not necessarily the positive contrast to chaos but rather a legitimized repression of the deaths upon which any society is built. In this reading, the hall society in Beowulf does not necessarily represent an alternative to violence and warfare, but rather a particular rule-governed violence, boasted of and celebrated in the speech-making and poetry of the hall.

§7.  The "constructedness" of the hall and of its social signification is the attribute that most clearly connects it to contemporary concepts concerning how language and meaning are related, and to the ways in which power and discourse are interrelated. Lyotard distinguishes between modernism and postmodernism by the degree to which form and structure are deemed incapable of containing meaning, even the meaning of absence:

modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime [that which is conceivable but not presentable], though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure. The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia of the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable (Lyotard 1984, 81–82).

§8.  Theorists of linguistic meaning-making have used architectural language to challenge the idea of a stable relationship between structure and meaning. For example, Nietzsche describes the process of constructing meaning in "On Truth and Lying in an Extra Moral Sense" in this way: "man can probably be admired as a mighty architectural genius who succeeds in building an infinitely complicated conceptual cathedral on foundations that move like flowing water" (Nietzsche 1989, 251). Among the binaries that Derrida deconstructs in the tradition of metaphysical philosophy, with its illusions of full and present meaning, is the inside/outside opposition, an opposition necessary for architectural structures to have meaning and utility. Responding to Saussure's view that there is an inner system of language to which writing is external, Derrida says, "The meaning of the outside was always present within the inside, imprisoned outside the outside, and vice versa" (Derrida 1976, 35). Foucault also uses the architectural image in discussing the power relations inherent in "great edifices of discourse" consisting of "verbal rituals, 'fellowships of discourse,' doctrinal groups and social appropriation" which in effect "subject discourse" to serve the purposes of those at the top of the existing hierarchy (Foucault 1972, 227).

§9.  In Beowulf, Heorot is the great edifice of and for discourse. Essential to the indeterminacy of hall as signifier is the structure of the scene in which Heorot is conceived, constructed, and celebrated in a song of creation (67b–114): the hall itself, the hope of social stability which it represents, and the premise of the transparency of the linguistic meaning-making that happens there all disappear upon inspection. The scene begins with Hrothgar conceiving the idea of building the greatest hall ever, for the very reasons Niles and Magennis outline in their analyses of hall culture, as discussed above. Hrothgar intends Heorot to be a structure built by the people for the people, where all goods may be distributed except public lands and the lives of men ("būton folcscare ond feorum gumena," 73). He specifically promises to give out treasure at feasts, and the rejoicing heard in the hall culminates in the poet singing a song of how God created the world. Thus, the consolidation of social human order mirrors and is celebrated by the recognition of divinely created order. Yet within the description of this human creation is the prediction of its destruction:

            Sele hlifade
heah ond horngeap; heaðowylma bad,
laðan liges; ne wæs hit lenge þa gen,
þæt se ecghete aðumsweoran
æfter wælniðe wæcnan scolde (81b–85).

(The hall towered, high and wide-gabled; awaited hostile flames, hateful fire; it was not long yet that the sword-hate for sworn in-laws after deadly hate, was to awaken.)

This foreshadowing refers to internal human destructive forces. The introduction of the external threat immediately follows these lines in the form of Grendel (86–89a), an alien being who, like the hostile flames, awaits (bād, 82) his chance to wreak havoc on the social and the material structure from which he is excluded. The warriors enjoy their security only until Grendel begins his attack:

Swa ða drihtguman dreamum lifdon,
eadiglice, oð ðæt an ongan
fyrene fre(m)man feond on helle (99–101).

(So the warriors lived with joys, happily, until one began to commit crime, enemy in hell.)

§10.  The more traditional interpretation of this narrative section is as a tragic yet triumphant meaning-making moment, the attempt of human (male) society to impose on nature an order that in some way reflects the order God has created in the world and to create a space for a "fellowship of discourse," including boasts and pledges of loyalty, as well as poetic recitations of heroic legends. The more contemporary critical positions have involved questioning the political agenda behind the "nation-building" that both Heorot and the narrative recording its construction represent, as well as highlighting the predicted destruction of the hall even at the moment of its greatest stability. Such readings emphasize how the scene undermines the additional contrasts between creation and destruction, socio-kinship unity and intra-familial betrayal. So, the passage can be used to make contradictory points: Alvin Lee can say, "The creation of Heorot is anticipated from the first line of the poem" (1972, 178), while Eileen Joy and Mary Ramsey, in their introduction to The Postmodern Beowulf can say, "Heorot is therefore destroyed before Beowulf even enters its horn-gabled doors in order to secure it against Grendel's attacks. . . . Moreover, when he [Beowulf] crosses the sea to Daneland he hurries . . . toward an absence that trembles with the last traces of its more vibrant materiality" (Joy and Ramsey 2007, lii).

§11.  Examination of the way words for hall are used in the poem reveals how the poem itself deconstructs Lee's reading of the binary oppositions that align the hall with fullness, meaning, structure, presence, and God, and the beings that are not part of the human society with chaos, profanity, evil, and the like.6 Descriptions of actual halls other than Heorot all contain challenges to their positive signification. The Geatish hall of Hygelac is described as comparably impressive to Heorot, and Beowulf's approach is marked with equal pomp (minus the need to identify himself). Within the opening lines describing the scene between Hygelac and Beowulf upon Beowulf's return from Hrothgar's court (beginning at line 1978) is one of four occurrences of a half-line that joins a preposition to sele þam hean ("the high hall," 713, 919, 1016, 1984). This same half-line formula occurs in parallel contexts which affirm and deny the hall's efficacy as a locus for a stable, secure and peaceful community: one pair of lines appears, first, in the description of Grendel's approach (710–13), when he is about to destroy the security of the hall, and again after his defeat (918b–20a), when everyone at Heorot comes to see the marvel of the vanquished Grendel's arm and hand. The other pair of lines appears within a description of Hrothgar and Hrothulf sitting together (uncle and nephew) where Hrothulf's treachery is forecast (1013–19), and within the description of Hygelac and Beowulf (uncle and nephew) discussing Beowulf's journey, as Beowulf models the behavior of a loyal thane and kinsman (1983b–85a). The message could be that halls—no matter how high—do not guarantee social stability and security from either internal or external threats.

§12.  Beowulf's own hall is not mentioned within the brief description of his fifty years of good kingship. We hear of it only when it is burned down by the dragon (2324–27a), and again when Wiglaf is chastising the retainers for their gross dereliction of duty to Beowulf (2864–71). In other words, while Beowulf may have done what a king should do in attempting to maintain the social stability and security of his people, he finally is not able to save his hall or to ensure that the social fabric of loyalties which preserve a people will endure. Is a good king, then, simply one who does as a king should, or one who succeeds in keeping his people strong and united? Has Beowulf always already been without (in both the senses of "not having" and "being outside of") his own hall? Has it always been his fate to enter halls (for purposes of assistance or invasion) or otherwise threaten the sovereigns and keepers of other halls?

§13.  Adding to the semiotic ambiguity of the hall in Beowulf is the use of hall words to describe structures other than large man-made communal buildings.7 Both the mere in which Beowulf pursues Grendel's mother and the barrow of the dragon are called "halls," simultaneously invoking contrast to and commensurability with Heorot through the qualification of the type of hall (e.g., niðsele, "hostile hall" and eorðsele, "earth hall, cave," respectively). These qualifications stress the contrasting antagonist roles of Grendel (anti-thane) and the dragon (anti-king), while still conceding to them a common structure of habitation. But Grendel's mere, termed a niðsele (1513) and a hrofsele ("roofed hall," 1513, 1515), is all the things that Heorot is not: dark, watery, below ground, surrounded by monsters, and not "constructed." Instead of the iron bands that hold Heorot together (774, 998), the entrance to the mere is overhung with thick branches and roots (1363–64). Richard Butts, like Lee, reads the mere in stark contrast to the human (ordered) world:

That Grendel represents something beyond the experience of the Danes—something beyond the natural and social order with which they are familiar—is reinforced by an imagery which suggests that the monster is part of a world which is both temporally and physically distinct from the world of contemporary men (Butts 1987, 113).

Perhaps the very horror of the mere is dependent on its being described by Hrothgar, leader of the Danish fellowship of discourse which he justifiably feels is threatened by Grendel's clan and their foreign culture.8 Yet this clear (and therefore comforting) opposition is undermined by theorizing the liminal nature of the hall in the landscape; Jeffrey Cohen writes, "In the Anglo-Saxon heall, the mighty structure that tames a formless wilderness into representability by establishing a structurating principle at its middle, the giant is already nearby, in some secret place (healh) not far from the threshold" (Cohen 1999, 13). This contiguity is supported by Niles' argument for Lejre as a model for Heorot, situated at the very point where two divergent landscapes intersect: one gentle and giving evidence of continual human occupation, the other "a rugged hinterland consisting of woods, hill, pools, and bogs," and containing no evidence of regular human settlement (Niles 2007, 182).

§14.  While the geographical contiguity of the dragon's barrow and Beowulf's hall is not explicitly spelled out in the poem, the two halls—both identified by the term dryhtsele (2320 for the barrow, and 487, 767 for Heorot; see Orchard 1995, 30)—must be closely situated: Beowulf's hall becomes the first and primary target of the dragon's revenge when his hoard is plundered. The barrow shares characteristics with both the enchanted underwater lairs of the Grendelkin and high halls of Daneland and therefore further blurs the lines of contrast and opposition. Like the mere, the barrow is subterranean and watery; it is a "hlæw under hrusan holmwylme neh, / yðgewinne" ("barrow under the earth, near the sea-surge, the wave-strife," 2411–12a). As "an ancient burial mound" (Lawrence 1918, 548; Klaeber 1950, Fig. 5), the earth-hall is described as having pillars (comparable to iron bands or tangled roots) to support the arched structure (2718–19), a description that may or may not imply "constructedness." Both the mere and the barrow contain treasures connected to a prehistoric legendary past since they are identified as the work of giants (1557–59, 2717, 2773–74, ; see Thornbury 2000). For Cohen, the phrase eald entageweorc ("ancient work of giants") supports the complex relationship he posits of the giant/monster to hall, as both a part of and a threat to structure: "the giant lurks nearby, never far from the threshold of whatever architecture is being built to erect an interiority against a wilderness" (Cohen 1999, 13). Although the weaponry and ornaments in both monstrous halls fail to serve a social function—Beowulf uses the sword he finds in the mere to kill the ruling mere-wife, and the dragon just sits on his hoard, which has been abandoned by human society—the very presence of such treasures testifies to commensurability with, as well as contrast to, halls such as Heorot (see Orchard 1995, 30).

§15.  The difficulty of identifying the good and the evil—by virtue of who is in and outside of the hall—is further revealed when the "hero" and "villains" are described in identical language: the term aglæca ["monster"? "warrior"?] is applied to both Beowulf and Grendel, as is the term renweardas ("guardians of the hall," 770; see Kroll 1986),9 and the term ides ("lady") is used for Grendel's mother (1259), as well as for the queens Wealhtheow (620, 1168, 1649) and Hildeburh (1075, 1117). While Beowulf is unceremoniously dragged to the mere-hall by Grendel's mother and attacked by swarms of wondrous sea-monsters (1506–12a) rather than being subjected to a strict series of ceremonial encounters to gain access to the ruler in the hall, the poet does indicate that "Grendel's mother, like Hrothgar and Beowulf, ruled her mere for fifty years before she (like them) suffered at the hands of an unwelcome guest" (Orchard 1995, 30). Andy Orchard demonstrates a number of instances where roles are defined from the monster's perspective, again resulting in opposing uses of identical terms. Referring to lines 2287–89, Orchard writes:

Here the stout-hearted one (stearcheort) is the dragon and the foe (feond) is the human plunderer of the hoard. An exact reversal is seen in the dragon-fight itself, in which Beowulf, on the only other occasion in the poem on which the word is used, is described as 'stout-hearted' (stearcheort, line 2252), and the dragon is the 'foe' (feond, line 2706) (Orchard 1995, 30).

And if durability is a positive virtue, then the lack of such becomes one more weakness of man-made halls, as the poem records the destruction of only such structures; we do not hear of either the mere or the cave ceasing to exist, even if it may be supposed that they are no longer inhabited or used. If there is some correlation between the monsters and the indigenous Celts whom the Anglo-Saxons had to subdue (or erase from history), what does the endurance of the natural landscape or "a megalithic tomb, not Scandinavian, but more probably Irish or Scottish"10 signify (Keiller and Piggot 1939, 360–61)?

§16.  Even before the man-made halls are destroyed by fire, they are often rendered "empty signifiers," as when Grendel empties Heorot through his attacks. Beowulf defines his reason for coming as an offer of assistance, since "þæs sele stande, / reced selesta, rinca gehwylcum / idel ond unnyt" ("the hall stands, best of halls, empty and useless to each warrior," 411b–13a). Grendel undermines the utility of the hall, not only by emptying it of the social community of thanes but also by forcing it into silence—it is the poetic song that Grendel hears from without that stirs his anger and desire for blood:

Ða se ellengæst earfoðlice
þrage geþolode, se þe in þystrum bad,
þæt he dogora gehwam dream gehyrde
hludne in healle; þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes (86-90a).

(Then the powerful demon with difficulty endured distress, he who in darkness waited, that he each day heard joy loud in the hall; there was the sound of the harp, clear song of the poet.)

Grendel is not part of the fellowship of discourse; not only is he excluded from the community listening to the poetry, but he never speaks in any language anywhere in the poem, although we know he is capable of thought, emotion, and even mentality, for as Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe has noted, when Grendel first approaches Beowulf after bursting into Heorot in the dead of night, "he is angry ('[ge]bolgen,' l. 723; 'yrremod,' l. 726), his heart laughs ('mod ahlog,' l. 730), he shows intent ('mynte,' l. 731), and he thinks ('þohte,' l. 739)" (O'Keeffe 1981, 488).

§17.  Beowulf wants to restore the hall to its fullness of meaning. The battle that takes place between Beowulf and Grendel is a battle for the hall and therefore for human meaning-making. The hall does tremble but survives (767ff), and as the poet says, "Þa wæs wundor micel, þæt se winsele / wiðhæfde heaþodeorum, þæt he on hrusan ne feol" ("that was great wonder, that the wine-hall withstood the battle-brave ones, so that it did not fall onto the earth," 771–72). Significantly, the iron bands that preserve the structure have been placed "innan and utan" (774), concepts which Derrida denies exist except in différance. Of course, although heroic presence and architectural structure have triumphed in this battle, the poet has already indicated the fall of both the social and timbered structures, and therefore, the fight with Grendel is almost beside the point since the hall, as well as the heroic Danish society it houses, has already vanished. Quite apart from any thematic importance, this passage in the poem has attracted much attention since it gives us some of the most specific textual details on actual hall construction (see Cramp 1993, for example). A mainstay of Anglo-Saxon studies has been the symbiotic relationship between literature and archaeology in reconstructing the material and socio-political past.

§18.  "Material culture" has, for some, been able to conjure up the reassurance of "the thing itself, the present thing, 'thing' here standing equally for meaning or referent" of the linguistic sign or word (Derrida 1982, 9). To the degree to which material culture itself is recognized as a type of sign or text to be read and interpreted, it has been viewed as the kind of text that can be "directly encountered" as "the thing itself" (which Lee sees happening through New Criticism, as I outlined above). Excavation sites such as Yeavering offer real-life examples of halls like Heorot, right down to the iron fittings (see Hills 1997, 302) and are read as glosses to descriptions of halls in Old English poetry. Most recently, as mentioned above, John Niles has posited Lejre in East Zealand, not only as an example of the type of hall Heorot would constitute, but as the actual model for Heorot itself. Beowulf and Lejre brings together studies of geographical, architectural, and legendary evidence for the identification. Niles sums up the range of correspondences with the poem: a great hall facing "the hinterland, with the potentially horrid secrets of its bogs"; ancient barrows, one with "a spacious enough interior to accommodate any fifty-foot-long dragon"; "prominent stone ship settings" to connect to Scyld's ship burial; a "bipolar topography suggestive of an axis of good and evil; and the convergence of two kinds of legend—a widespread cycle about the Skjöldung kings, and "a local legend of the haunting of the Skjöldungs' dwelling-place by some kind of savage creature" (Niles 2007, 221). One essay in the book relates efforts to create a virtual reconstruction of the hall at Lejre, and the language in which the success of the project is narrated is very relevant to the present discussion. Author Nicolai Garhøj Larsen singles out the three-dimensional aspect of such reconstructions: "Thanks to the spatial nature of virtual tools, the researcher is in essence building the close equivalent of a real-world life-size reconstruction of an ancient structure" that has "more than a metaphorical relation to the real world" (quoted in Niles 2007, 159). Larsen goes so far as to say "the Lejre Hall has risen from the archaeological remains" (166), as if the modern "recreated" building could be the thing itself: the lost, original hall.

§19.  Such relatively uncritical scholarly use of material culture remains intact, despite repeated warnings against asserting one-to-one comparisons between literary and historical records, both material and textual, so as to avoid the pitfalls of circular reasoning (see, for example, Thornbury 2000, 91). Roberta Frank has demonstrated the problems of such arguments, specifically in relation to Beowulf and Sutton Hoo, as each has been invoked to "prove" some point about the other. She sees the "mutual affinity of Beowulf and Sutton Hoo" as "inevitably exaggerated" (Frank 1999, 317). Frank writes, "Beowulf is, above all, a work of the imagination. . . . The material culture of Beowulf is the conventional apparatus of heroic poetry" (Frank 1999, 324–25), not an historical record intended to explain archaeological discoveries. Conversely, Sutton Hoo has affected translations of Beowulf in ways that diminish the aesthetics of the work. For example, Frank argues that, in lines 1030–33a:

Ymb þæs helmes hrof heafodbeorge
wirum bewunden wala utan heold,
þæt him fela laf frecne ne meahte
scurheard sceþðan . . .,

(around the roof of the helmet, head-protector wound with wires, a ridge guarded, so that the leavings of files, shower-hard, might not severely injure him),

wala (1031) gets defined as part of a helmet (e.g., "rim" or "roll" in Klaeber) through comparison with Sutton Hoo artifacts and thus loses the "generalizing, metaphorical value of 'wall' as part of [the] overall architectural imagery. In conjunction with the other shelter words in the passage, wala suggests a vault, an overhanging, protecting roof that shielded the man within from the showers raining down upon him" (Frank 1999, 326).

§20.  But even those who warn against reliance on archaeology for recovering the historical accuracy behind the words of poetry have largely focused on the mutual dependence of material culture and literary text to authenticate one another, not on interrogating the reality of the material culture itself. And yet, what is the materiality of the Anglo-Saxon hall? In Timber Castles, an exhaustive study on the subject, authors Robert Higham and Philip Barker describe the "structural evidence" for timber castles in general as "mostly 'negative' or 'ghost' evidence of post-holes and comparable features" (Higham and Barker 1992, 19). Higham and Barker characterize previous studies by saying, "the timber castle offered to the reader has been more or less imaginary, or at least concocted on minimal evidence" (Higham and Barker 1992, 18). Referring specifically to Anglo-Saxon buildings, Higham and Barker state, "the patterns of post-holes, which are all that remain of most timber buildings until fairly late in the Middle Ages, are a poor reflection of the sophistication which carpenters could achieve. Although fragments survive in otherwise stone sites, no timber castle stands above ground for us to study" (Higham and Barker 1992, 31). Even the studies included in Niles' book on Lejre build their archaeological theories on post-holes. In the introduction to the section called "Lejre: Fact and Fable," author Tom Christensen states,

Archaeology had brought us as close to the residence of a chieftain living in antiquity as the post-holes could allow. It is close enough to determine that the tradition according to which Lejre was the Danes' oldest seat builds on realities that are so solid that they can illuminate Lejre's dates and physical appearance. . . . and yet one does not have to loosen one's professional seatbelt all that much in order to hear—through the monotonous stream of housing descriptions, diagrams, and catalogued artifacts—the bard reciting Bjarkamål and verses about Beowulf (quoted in Niles 2007, 87; emphasis added).

Archaeology, however, provides us not with presence but with only a trace, in the literal sense, an absence to be filled in with scholarly hypotheses and desires enabled by the loosening of "one's professional seatbelt"—hypotheses and desires, moreover, that are based on other traces, textual and archaelogical, the relationships between which must always be reconstructed. And this is a reconstruction that, to one extent or another, is a form of fabrication. The empty post-hole is the Derridian trace. Derrida contrasts a "history of being" to différance as "a play of traces": "As rigorously as possible we must permit to appear/disappear the trace of what exceeds the truth of Being. The trace (of that) which can never be presented, the trace which itself can never be presented: that is, appear and manifest itself, as such, in its phenomenon. . . . Always differing and deferring, the trace is never as it is in the presentation of itself. It erases itself in presenting itself, muffles itself in resonating, like the a writing itself, inscribing its pyramid in différance" (Derrida 1982, 23).11

§21.  In his essay, "Anglo-Saxon England and the Postcolonial Void," Nicholas Howe addresses the cultural significance of the traces of a bygone presence in the impermanent timber structures that replaced the enduring stone buildings that the Romans left in England. Gildas, in Howe's view, interpreted the destruction of masonry buildings as "the inescapable sign that his world had been vanquished." According to this reading, the transition from Roman to Celtic culture constitutes the reverse of the exemplary model of progress, in which "stone replaces wood as a building material because it is more permanent and fire-resistant, as well as more costly and thus more prestigious" (Howe 2005, 27).12 Bede, following Gildas's lead, uses the idea of stone-built structures to connect Rome to Anglo-Saxon Christianity: "traces of empire were for Bede evidence of a void that had been filled through a new and more enduring connection with Rome, one that returned Christianity and Latin to the island" (Howe 2005, 30; emphasis added), an answer to the elegiac sense of transience and loss expressed in Old English poetry. Howe sees the phrase "work of giants" (enta geweorc) as referring to "the past imperial grandeur of Roman Britain," and as part of a desire on the part of Anglo-Saxon writers to establish "a scale of material history by identifying the use of stone with a past age of superhuman accomplishment" (Howe 2005, 32; see also Thornbury 2000).13 So we are faced, again, with the binary oppositions stone versus wood, lasting versus transient, sophisticated versus primitive, civilized versus barbarian.

§22.  But Howe begins his study by admitting that "historiography loves a void because it can be filled with any number of plausible accounts. . . . The interpretative problem of the void lies in identifying the traces left behind in their texts and structures by the inhabitants of the period, as well as in the more retrospective interpretations of those who wrote or built later in the Anglo-Saxon period" (Howe 2005, 25–26; emphasis added). And Higham and Barker offer a reversal of the hierarchy which Howe describes:

Building stone is not rare in England, though it is not uniformly distributed across the country. The builders of churches exploited it . . . . However, the secular building tradition [in Anglo-Saxon England] remained almost exclusively one of timber. The inescapable conclusion, drawn from extensive excavation, is that timber was the preferred material of society as a whole. Had kings, in particular, wished to build residences of stone on a regular basis, they could have done so; the craftsmen, the raw materials, the directive power and wealth were all available. Although Asser spoke of halls and chambers built by Alfred of stone and timber, the palaces at Yeavering and Cheddar (in its early phases), as well as numerous rural settlements, bear witness to the cultural ascendance of timber (Higham and Barker 1992, 31).

Furthermore, the binary scheme of "Roman-masonry" versus "Germanic-timbered" is undermined by the fact that "Anglo-Saxons employed timber and earthwork fortifications, modified by survival, reuse, and repair of Roman stone walls." Higham and Barker conclude, "Anglo-Saxon adherence to timber building resulted not from restrictions of resources or limited outlook but from a positive commitment to a deeply-rooted cultural tradition, a literary reflection of which can be seen in the halls of Beowulf" (Higham and Barker 1992, 31).14 So we have come full circle (or is this a mise-en-abyme?)—the transient, fire-prone timber castle, whose existence is attested to by the traces of empty post-holes, has become the positive evidence of a cultural tradition that was itself looking back to unrecoverable origins.

§23.  I am of course not arguing that the Anglo-Saxons "committed" to timber construction because it suited their anachronistically postmodern sense of absence and indeterminacy. But the elegiac tone of much Old English poetry is compatible with the enterprise of much contemporary theory. In fact, we see an Anglo-Saxon version of what Allen Frantzen has described as today's scholarly activity—creating a totality of origins out of a fragment—in the poem The Ruin (see note 2). Looking at what today would be categorized as an archaeological site, the speaker describes mounds of (stone) rubble where before (he speculates) stood meadhalls and bathing halls, locations for feasting and treasure-giving and social bonding. All exists only until (oþþæt) it crumbles or disappears. Presumably the ruins the speaker is looking at are Roman, but the past he describes resembles his own Germanic present.15 The poem's speaker reminds us that there have always been later generations looking backwards for traces of presence and unity and recreating fellowships of discourse to validate, or perhaps make more stable and palpably there, their own dreams of origin. And up to the present time, in halls of academia, new fellowships of discourse are being created and validated through reference to and interpretation of an ancient text—itself damaged by fire—which begins and ends without a social structure or a hall in which it is believed its meaning could be, somehow, fully visible.


1.   All citations of Beowulf are from the Klaeber (1950) edition. All translations, unless otherwise noted, are mine.  [Back]

2.   In Desire for Origins, Allen Frantzen draws upon Derrida's thought to undermine the Anglo-Saxonist's search for origins, himself using architectural language:

The lost origin is conceived of as a totality; deconstruction attacks this notion of totality, of a self-contained complete unity from which all else derives. No Anglo-Saxon scholar believes that such an origin could be recovered, of course. To do so would be to return to a prelapsarian world, or something equally unimaginable. Rather, one finds that Anglo-Saxonists—Renaissance, romantic, and modern—believe in the fragment, or part, as that from which the system of the whole can be reconstructed. That is, we find Anglo-Saxonists seizing a text—a homily by Ælfric, Bede's Ecclesiastical History—as a fragment from which the entire civilization of early England can be deduced. The fragment thus serves as the center or origin of the structure exterior to the origin and built around it. Derrida illustrates that this opposition between center and structure is contradictory. He denies the possibility of identifying that which is exterior to the origin, since the origin itself is exterior and is found only in the structure given to it by those who are in search of it. Without a fixed origin, the structure supposedly centered on and governed by the origin cannot be said to be grounded on an absolute and unchanging point; interpretation cannot cease in the identification or reclamation of the origin. As a result, interpretation cannot reach a final ground. The center or origin cannot be separated from the structure built around it, even though, in order to be identified as "the center" or "origin," it was initially assumed to be independent of structural identification (Frantzen 1990, 110).

For an extended discussion of Foucault, origins, and discourse as power, see Frantzen 1990, 108–22.  [Back]

3.   For example, in Anatomy of Criticism, Frye writes, "Two principles of some importance are already implicit in our arguments. One is a conception of a total body of vision that poets as a whole class are entrusted with, a total body tending to incorporate itself in a single encyclopaedic form . . . . The other principle is that while there may be a great variety of episodic forms in any mode, in each mode we may attach a special significance to the particular episodic form that seems to be the germ out of which the encyclopaedic forms develop" (Frye 1957, 55–56).  [Back]

4.   Michael Thompson, in The Medieval Hall, a study of the architectural and social history of the hall, similarly defines its main characteristics: it "belongs to an individual with authority and may be used for a variety of purposes, principally feasting or entertaining and to meet any other needs that may arise. It is not normally inhabited but can be pressed into service as sleeping accommodations as occasion may require" (Thompson 1995, 4–5).  [Back]

5.   See also Niles 1993.  [Back]

6.   We are not even really sure of the exact meaning of the word heall in relation to Anglo-Saxon architecture. According to archaeologist Rosemary Cramp, "settlements with large buildings show clearer signs of planning and are often focused on a major central building—a large central building that would no doubt have been called a hall (heall)," but a few lines later, she continues, "we do not know whether the term heall is an appropriate term for the small as well as the large type of rectangular Anglo-Saxon structure" (Cramp 1993, 337–38; emphasis added). Among the multiple Old English words for "hall," including heall, sele, reced, ærn, bold, must be distinctions in meaning beyond their usefulness within different metrical and phonological environments, distinctions we can no longer access.  [Back]

7.   Earl A. Anderson identifies as a key feature of the "uncarpentered" world of Old English poetry that "buildings may be homologized to natural structures such as mounds and caves, and conversely, natural structures may be described in architectural terms" (Anderson 1991, 69).  [Back]

8.   For Hrothgar as a source of pattern and structure in the description of the mere, see Frey 1977, 296–303.  [Back]

9.   Carol Braun Pasternack, in her essay "Post-Structuralist Theories: the Subject and the Text," analyzes the situation in the poem where "the hero and opponent are one and the same." She lists instances of the ambiguous use of aglæca and aglæcwif as applied to both heroes and monsters. That aglæcan are also wreccan leads Pasternack to an etymology pointing to "an oral-heroic paradigm in which hero and opponent fall within a single concept, the fierce outsider who is the subject of song." From wrecan, variously glossed as "drive out," "recite," and "avenge," Pasternack concludes that "[e]xile and revenge . . . are the conditions worth recounting in tales" and "wrecan and its related terms imply that the exile and the hero of a story are dangerously close to being the same thing" (Pasternak 1997, 186–87).  [Back]

10.   Alfred K. Siewers has argued for the idea of "Beowulf's foray into the Grendelcyn's mere as the exorcism on an earlier indigenous culture" (Siewers 2003, 14), since "Grendel and his mother function as stand-ins for residual 'native' Celtic populations in areas such as the fenlands" (Siewers 2003, 33).  [Back]

11.   Compare with Frank: "Another scholar is so eager to have the iron stand of Sutton Hoo resemble the golden standards of Beowulf's kings that he invents for the former a gold-embroidered banner, concluding, 'Indeed the royal standard—though of course the gold embroidery of the Sutton Hoo exemplar has left no trace—. . . . (Unfortunately for this parallel, the one thing we can be sure about in connection with the iron stand of Mound 1 is that there never were any gold threads associated with it)" (Frank 1999, 329; emphasis added).  [Back]

12.   See also Higham 1991, 8–9. In fact, Gildas was incorrect in his chronology of the building of a British and a Roman (stone) wall (Higham 1991, 5).  [Back]

13.   "Superhuman" here is associated with superior culture and not with actual giants, as Cohen argues (Cohen 1999, 13–16, discussed above.) Both interpretations are relevant to how we read the dragon's "hall," which in the poem is described thus: "enta geweorc, / . . . ða stanbogan stapulum fæste / ece eorðreced innan healde ("the work of giants / . . . the eternal earth-hall held the stone arches firmly with pillars," 2717b–19). The arches of the hall are of stone and are enduring, but the whole structure belongs to the dragon, not a higher past civilization.  [Back]

14.   Similarly, Cohen argues that "stone in their [the Germanic tribes'] sign system was associated with the primitive and inert. Wood was a living substance to be carved and joined, the raw material of community; stone was recalcitrant and dead, good for etching runes but otherwise impossible to transform. Like their forebears, the Anglo-Saxons contrasted wood's modernity with the ancient, elemental harshness of stone. Men built with wood. Giants, the vanished race who had ruled the earth in its larger-than-life, Paleolithic days, were architects of stone" (Cohen 1999, 5).  [Back]

15.   In her essay "On the Hither Side of Time: Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul and the Old English Ruin," Eileen Joy writes that The Ruin "is a poem about being bewitched by Otherness and a missed encounter with the foreign past, while also writing that strange past into the present in order to hold it and fix it and render it heimlich" (Joy 2005, 187–88).  [Back]

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