Beowulf’s Great Hall
John D. Niles reports on the search for the real location of the Heorot, the hall where Beowulf feasted before fighting the monster Grendel.
Readers of Beowulf will be familiar with the moment, early in the poem, when Hrothgar, the reigning king of Denmark in the Scylding line of kings, orders that a great hall be built. Soon, the poet says, it was completely finished, ‘the biggest of halls’:
Then, as I have heard, the work of constructing a building
Was proclaimed to many a tribe throughout this middle earth.
In time – quickly, as such things happen among men –
It was all ready, the biggest of halls.
He whose word was law
Far and wide gave it the name ‘Heorot’. (lines 74-79)
The hall stands high, a visible sign of the wealth and stature of the Scylding kings: ‘The hall towered up, high and wide gabled’ (81-82). It is a bright counterpart to the dark, watery nether-regions where the demonic Grendel-creatures make their home. Between these two opposite poles, associated with human civilization at its most cultured and subhuman life at its most horrific, the action of the main part of Beowulf takes place.
Later we are told more about the hall, its setting, and its appearance. It is located not more than a few miles inland. It literally shines with gold, as we are told when Beowulf and his men first approach it:
The men did not dally; they strode inland in a group
Until they were able to discern the timbered hall,
Splendid and ornamented with gold.
The building in which that powerful man held court
Was the foremost of halls under heaven;
Its radiance shone over many lands. (306-11)