The natural world is usually invoked for a distinct purpose. The representations of nature is not merely used as an illustrative feature but rather a method in which to understand and explain human issues and concerns, such as the monstrous, exile, and religion. The function of the natural world can be seen to have both contrasting and reflective purposes. In my own opinion, I believe that the nature in Old English represents the contrast while the reflective can be seen in Middle English.
In Beowulf the natural world is represented as a cold, harsh, dark, and desolate environment. The descriptions we get of the natural world revolves around the hellish marshlands,
“This ghastly demon was named Grendel, infamous stalker in the marshes, he who held the moors, fen and desolate strong-hold; the land of marsh monsters,” (Beowulf, lines 102-104)
and in the underground cave,
“…a dangerous passage over the fen-waters, where mountain-stream under the darkness of the headlands descended downward…..over it hangs frost covered groves,…overshadows the water;” (Beowulf, lines 1359-1364)
in which Grendel and his mother inhabit.They are pushed out into the wilderness to the very boarders of what Anglo-Saxons would have considered the known and civilized. Nature was where they considered the barbaric and the monstrous to reside. Nature is seen as alien and dangerous in relation to man. This type of environment is depicted as a threat that surrounds the human race. Grendel embodies the nature of the landscape, harsh, wild, vengeful, and dangerous. He is a mirror image of the negative, destructive forces that nature represents.
The Seafarer and The Wanderer both deal with the figure of the exiled individual. The natural world in both of these texts is represented as a hostile, frigid wintery environment, with churning, wild seas. Nature operates as a mirror into the speakers emotions and their state of mind. The sounds of the roaring, crashing waves and the seabird calls are used in contrast to what they actually crave which is the companionship they took pleasure in within the Mead Hall,
“dwelt a winter on the ice-cold sea on the paths of the exile, deprived of dear kinsmen, hung round with icicles; hail flew in storms…the seagull singing in the place of mead-drinking.” (The Seafarer, lines 14-17, 22)
They crave the drinking, the laughter, and the male company of the Hall. The harsh, isolated natural world is not a suitable substitute for what they had experienced from society. Towards the end of The Wanderer, nature once again becomes a destructive force ‘attacking’ men and their man-made buildings,
Walls stand blown by wind, covered with frost, the buildings snow-swept.
This represents how nature has the power to destroy man and what they create. It reflects how powerless men are in the face of the natural world. These representations of nature give the reader the sense that men do not belong in the natural world. Where one looks on nature as tranquil and serene, in these texts it merely reflects the Anglo-Saxon fear and the emptiness that they associate with nature.
As for the Middle English Texts, nature is represented as bright, vibrant, surreal, reguvinitive, and divine. These texts seem to represent the divine through nature. The natural world has transformative quality which can be seen in the changing of seasons and regrowth of new plant-life. The spiritual in essence is transformative and perhaps this is why it is represented in literature by nature. The natural world is just one aspect of the poem that goes through the process of transformation. In the beginning the dreamer describes the process of regeneration in nature. The cycles in nature reflect human life cycles. The flowers bloom into brilliant vibrant colors as through the dreamers infant daughters death,
“With yellow flowers and blue and red, That shine so bright in suns clear ray. Flower and fruit can ne’er be dead, Where that Pearl slipped into the clay, For grass will grow from seed once shed-” (line 27-31)
She has become part of the natural world itself. This can be seen as a kind of rebirth that we come to see later in the otherworldly garden. Through his sleep the dreamer is transported to an otherworldly garden. Nature is significant here as it soothes the dreamer upon him entering this spiritual place as it grounds him in a sort of reality, it is something that is recognizable to him, he can identify with his surroundings. Beautiful surreal descriptions of this spiritual garden.The natural elements of the landscape like the cliffs, trees and pebbles are depicted in a dreamlike and wondrous way. The trees are a vibrant indigo color with silver leaves, while the pebbles are portrayed as precious pearls. The mundane and ordinary are presented as surreal. This dreamlike landscape is what lets the reader know that we are no longer on an earthly plane but that we have travelled to a divine, spiritual world. The heavenly garden reflects the earthly one. The spiritual state is made real by placing it in a real world place.
In conclusion, in the Old English corpus nature is represented in a negative light while in the Middle English texts it is usually represented in a positive light, especially when dealing with the divine. Nature serves different purposes in each of the texts. In the Old English texts the natural world is seen as a place for the monstrous and the individual who have been exiled from the society. Men appear to not be welcome in this sphere, the mead hall is their recognized sphere. In the Middle English texts nature represents the divine and spiritual. Nature is used as a way for the reader and character to recognize that they are in a spiritual place.
Beowulf online translation: http://www.heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html
Old and Middle English c.890-c.1450, an anthology, Third edition, Edited by Elaine Treharne, Wiley-Blackwell, pg. 57-61, 63-67.