A literary symbol is something, often an object, that stands for a significant concept or series of ideas. Often a symbol is emblematic of the values of the characters. In Beowulf, some of the most important symbols are Hrothgar's mead-hall, Grendel's cave, Grendel's arm and head, and the dragon's treasure-trove.
Hrothgar's great mead-hall, Heorot ("Hall of the Hart"), functions as both setting and symbol in the epic. It is much more than a place to drink. Symbolically, Heorot represents the achievements of the Scyldings, specifically Hrothgar, and their level of civilization. The hall is a home for the warriors who sleep there and functions as a seat of government. It is a place of light, warmth, and joy, contrasting with Grendel's morbid swamp as well as the dark and cold of winters in Scandinavia. In Heorot, Hrothgar celebrates his victories and rewards his thanes (warriors) with various treasures. The building is like a palace. It towers high and is compared to a cliff. The gables are shaped like horns of the hart. People from neighboring tribes have respectfully contributed to the rich decorations and intricate designs. The hall is also symbolic in that it is the setting of Beowulf's first great battle, the defeat of Grendel. When Grendel invades the hall, he knows that he strikes at the very heart of the Scyldings. That lends special meaning to his victories and to Beowulf's eventual liberation of the hall from the ravages of the ogres.
The cave where Grendel and his mother hide from the world is symbolic of their lives as outcasts. Hidden beneath a treacherous mere in the middle of a dark, forbidding swamp, the cave allows them a degree of safety and privacy in a world that they view as hostile. They certainly are not welcome at Heorot, and they know it.
The cave also represents their heritage. As descendants of Cain, they are associated with sorcery, black magic, demons, ancient runes, and hell itself. When Grendel's mother is able to fight Beowulf in the cave, she has a distinct advantage; his victory is all the more significant. It is not clear whether he wins because of his own ability, the influence of magic (the giant sword), or God's intervention. All are mentioned, probably because the poet borrowed from various influences in creating the poem. The cave itself represents a world alien to Heorot. One is high and bright and full of song and joy, towering as the Scyldings' greatest achievement. The other is dark and dank and full of evil, beneath a mere in the middle of a fen and the symbolic home of resentful outcasts.
Grendel's Claw and Head
Beowulf had hoped to have an entire Grendel body to present to King Hrothgar after his battle with the ogre in Heorot. He has to settle for the right arm or claw, ripped from its shoulder socket, when the mortally wounded adversary flees to the swamp. The claw is hung high beneath Heorot's roof (most likely on the outside beneath the gables) as a symbol of Beowulf's victory.
Grendel's mother also sees it as a symbol, representing her personal loss and mankind's macabre sense of what might be an appropriate trophy. Filled with grief and rage, she retrieves the arm from Heorot and kills another Scylding in the process. When Beowulf tracks her to the mere and ends up in her underwater cave, he has no more interest in the claw. Grendel's head, which he is able to find after a strange, perhaps holy brilliance illuminates the dimly lighted cave, is much more impressive. He ignores the vast treasure in the cave, instead choosing to carry the magnificent, huge head as symbolic of his victory over both ogres.
The Dragon's Treasure-Trove
The dragon's treasure-trove poignantly represents the vanity of human wishes as well as the mutability of time. The dragon's barrow holds wealth in abundance, yet the wealth is of no use to anyone. The ancient treasures in the hoard once belonged to a regional tribe of warriors who were killed in battle some 300 years previously. Only one survivor, who is called the "keeper of the rings" (2244), lived to hide the treasures in the barrow.
Just as the dead warriors cannot use the treasure, neither can the dragon. He devotes his life to guarding a treasure that he frankly has no use for. Beowulf gives his life defeating the dragon and gaining this impressive treasure for his people, but they won't benefit from it either. The treasure is buried with the great warrior in his funeral barrow and, we are told, remains there still, a mighty horde of riches that is of absolutely no use to anybody.