This second encounter prompts a change of scene in the poem, drawing the hero out of the safety of the mead-hall and into the dark, alien, suggestive world of his adversaries. The advantage of fighting on familiar terrain within the boundaries of human society—an advantage that Beowulf enjoys in his encounter against Grendel—is now lost. This time, Beowulf must struggle against a resistant natural environment in addition to a ferocious monster. The reader already has been prepared for Beowulf’s superhuman swimming abilities by the earlier story of the contest with Breca. However, the mere, or lake, in which Grendel’s mother lives is no ordinary body of water. It teems with blood and gore, as well as with unsavory creatures of all descriptions. It is an elemental world of water, fire, and blood, and one with an extremely unholy feel to it.
Imagery of darkness and light is important in this underwater world. The darkness of the lair symbolizes evil, and it leads to Beowulf’s general disorientation in this unfamiliar environment. The first glimmer of light that he sees signifies his arrival at the very heart and hearth of this den of terror. Once he defeats Grendel’s mother, her lair is illuminated more thoroughly: “A light appeared and the place brightened / the way the sky does when heaven’s candle / is shining clearly” (1570–1572). Because light bears the implication of Christian holiness and salvation, with these words, the poet suggests that hell has been purged of its evil and sanctity restored. Additionally, it seems clear that by the time Beowulf gets back onto land, he has undergone a sort of rebirth, a transition from a brave but somewhat reckless warrior into a wise and steadfast leader. Indeed, the remainder of this section is dominated by elaborate formal oratory detailing the characteristics of successful participation in society. In particular, Beowulf receives earnest advice from Hrothgar, by now a father-figure, about how to comport himself both as a man and as a ruler.