Beowulf

Setting

Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, sometime around the year 500 A.D, in the territories of two tribal groups, the Geats and the Scyldings, who really existed and really lived in those areas during the period of the poem. Many of the poem’s figures, including Hrothgar, Hygelac and Wiglaf, may have been real people, and all the poem’s marginal events—such as the death of Hygelac and the feud between Geats and Swedes— may have really happened. However, the landscape of the poem is fictional and symbolic. There’s no evidence in the poem that its poet ever saw Scandinavia. The world of the poem is organized from the center outwards. At the center of each kingdom is a mead-hall, a place of warmth, laughter, friendship, storytelling and celebration. Beyond the mead-hall, the world is cold and dark, getting darker the further you go from the hall. Terrible evils lurk in the outer darknesses. Beowulf is obsessed with these spaces, the borders between civilization and wilderness. Grendel is a “mearc-stapa” (l.103), a “border-stepper,” and all three of the poem’s monsters lurk in the edge-wildernesses. Beowulf, too, is associated with wild border spaces: we first meet him on a beach, and he’s also on the shore when we leave him, in his burial mound.