What does architecture symbolize in the poem Beowulf?

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Architecture, which includes mead-halls and burial mounds, is an emblem of power. It also represents mankind's control over a hostile nature.

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Architecture in Beowulf, which can loosely be described as any structure that is made by man rather than nature, has several emblematic meanings. First, architecture—most often represented by mead-halls—is a ruler's seat of power and is synonymous with a leader's throne room, that is, his right to rule.

Second, it represents mankind's control over a generally hostile nature: the "fens and fastness" in which Grendel and his mother live, the hostile sea in which Beowulf and Breca fight sea snakes, and the barrow in which the dragon lives and in which Beowulf is mortally wounded. For example, even though Grendel and his mother are able to penetrate Heorot, the hall of the red deer, the hall itself is still standing after their onslaughts—proof that the architecture of man can withstand whatever evil nature creates.

The importance of architecture as a ruler's seat of power is made explicit at the beginning of the poem:

Often Scyld Sheaf-child scattered his enemies,
captured their mead-halls and cowed their leaders. (2.4–5)

Because the mead-hall represents a warrior-king's center of power, its destruction or occupation by a victor is the ultimate sign that a new warrior-king has taken control of the tribe and its lands. In a culture in which tribal strife is endemic, the mead-hall is both a stronghold and a liability: it is built to be defensible, but it is also an important target for an enemy because of what it represents.

It is commonplace for cultures to think of their architecture as symbols of power—consider the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Brandenburg Gate, the Sphinx, the Coliseum—and the Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons have their (albeit) more humble mead-halls as their symbol of power over other tribes as well as a defense against hostile nature.

That the mead-hall is the ultimate symbol of power in the Scandinavian/Anglo-Saxon belief system, whether pagan or Christian, becomes quite clear when the poet describes Hrothgar's great mead-hall, Heorot:

...To his mind it occurred
that he would have a longhouse raised,
a greater mead-hall made by men
than any man-child ever had heard of. (2.67–70)

Significantly, the poet focuses on two important elements of Heorot: it is "made by men," not nature, and it is the best that men have "heard of"—a hall befitting a king, Hrothgar, and the people he leads.

A mead-hall, however, is just a building until it becomes, in the world of Beowulf, the center of the community and, more important, the distribution point of wealth for Hrothgar's men:

He [Hrothgar] broke not his vow,
but dealt out rings and treasure at feasts. The hall towered high and horn-gabled. (2.81–82)

This piece of architecture is central to the Scandinavian/Anglo-Saxon feudal system, which begins with the warrior-king distributing wealth to his loyal retainers, with the best warriors receiving the greatest share of captured valuables from their latest fight with another tribe. In a warrior society, loyalty is valued as highly as gold, and this loyalty is created on the battlefield and in the mead-hall.

The significance of the mead-hall as a permanent and powerful fixture on the landscape is made clear when, after Beowulf's struggle with Grendel, in which Grendel has his arm and shoulder severed by Beowulf, we read:

That was a clear token,
after the warrior [Beowulf] laid down the hand,
arm and shoulder: there in one piece
was Grendel's grasp, under the great roof. (2.833–836)

It is altogether fitting that the emblem of Beowulf's victory over the monster who plagues Hrothgar's mead-hall is displayed under the gabled roof of Heorot—a triumph of mankind and his architecture over evil.

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In Beowulf, the most significant piece of architecture is Heorot, Hrothgar's mead hall. Heorot is painted in terms of various contrasts: it is a place of warmth, while outside is cold. It is a place of light, while outside is dark. It is a place of friendship, while outside is isolation. It is a place a safety, represented through arms and armor. Outside is danger and monsters. It is a place of art and civilization, while outside is wilderness.

We can question the extent to which these attitudes are fair. Is not nature full of beauty? And aren't there people all over the land finding ways to keep warm and find food? It is not that the inside of civilization are the only place these things exist. Rather, it is a hallmark of the kind of civilization represented by Beowulf that all else is viewed as barren, ugly, dangerous, and monstrous.

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As the other answers have mentioned, architecture, particularly the mead hall Heorot, represents civilized humanity and community bonds. In Beowulf, community is the most important thing, so it makes sense that architecture plays such a major role thematically.

Heorot's being highly decorated with art and craftsmanship also relates to its representing civilization. Art is a human phenomenon, one found in every human culture, and we see that in the ornate gold fixings and drinking horns used within the mead hall. We also see it in the music played at night.

When talking about architecture in this poem, one should also contrast it against the dwelling place of Grendel's mother, which is in a cave. It is described as ugly and dreary, lacking the warmth or beauty to be found in Heorot. By showing us this contrast, the poet is making a point about human life in general: it is other people and a sense of belonging to a culture that give life its ultimate meaning.

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Architecture is primarily displayed through the Hrothgar's mead hall Heorot. We learn:

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

We can discern a good deal about the cultural values at the time from the idealized Heorot. It is a place of warmth, and abundant food, which contrasts with the cold, hungry world beyond its gates, and shows how important heat and nourishment are in that world. Beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, it represents safety and friendship. In the large mead hall, one no longer faces a hostile wilderness alone but joins a caring community. Its abundance offers protection: it is filled with jewels, armor, and gold. Men can sleep there next to their armor. It is a place where order and civilization flourish in sharp contrast to forces of darkness and disorder represented by Grendel. To attack Heorot is to attack the heart of civilization itself and, therefore, the joy, community, light, warmth, and abundance that make life worth living.

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The best way to ascertain what architecture represents in Beowulf is to closely analyze the poem's most important architectural structure: Heorot, Hrothgar's celebrated mead hall. 

Overall, Heorot is described as being an elegant structure built of wood and decorated with gold. It is an important gathering place for Hrothgar and his most trusted allies, and it primarily serves as a space for eating, drinking, celebrating, telling tales, and sleeping. More importantly, it is noted to be a place of light and joy, especially at night, and these latter qualities are ultimately the characteristics that anger Grendel. 

In short, we can see Heorot as a valuable community space in which members of a society are (supposedly) safe and secure from the dangerous wilderness. By extension, we can hypothesize that Heorot (and architecture in general in Beowulf) represents the safety and security of civilized society set apart from the chaos of the wild. As such, it's hardly surprising that Grendel's attacks are so subversive. They are not only acts of violence, but also attempts to undermine the order and stability of civilization itself. 

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