In our culture, preoccupation with material goods commonly connotes shallowness, and the pursuit of riches is frequently viewed as incompatible—or at least tough to reconcile—with our moral convictions. In Beowulf, however, the Danes, Geats, and Swedes’ collective reverence for treasure is no longer represented as a shortcoming or moral weakness. In fact, the poem frequently uses treasure as a image of the Scandinavian people’s most cherished cultural values.
In Beowulf, kings, heroes, and other powerful men have to continuously establish their reputations, both those they have inherited and those they have earned. Characters accomplish the former through reminding listeners of their famous ancestors and the latter via accumulating treasures. The awesome rewards Beowulf receives from Hrothgar testify to the Geatish warrior’s valor and prowess, just as the majestic Heorot signifies Hrothgar’s power.
Sometimes, an extraordinary object is sufficient to reap a man respect, even barring his having earned it thru courageous deeds—the Danish guard who watches Beowulf’s ship, for example, gets a sword “with gold fittings” that in the future will make him “a respected man / at his vicinity on the mead-bench” (1901–1903).
On the other hand, loss of treasure symbolizes a fall from power. After Beowulf dies, the poet announces the stop of a superb Geatish generation through noting that “no follower” will wear the treasure Beowulf wins from the dragon in his memory, “nor beautiful woman / link and connect it as a torque around her neck.” Treasure symbolizes prosperity and stability; except these attributes, the Geatish clan can no longer be considered in jewels and finery.
The kings of Beowulf also use the treasure to solidify their most important bonds: these with their followers, and these with different nations. Each king has an obligation to supply his most loyal thanes riches, accountability indicated by way of the common use of royal epithets such as “ring-giver,” “gift-lord,” and “gold-friend to retainers.”
The act is now not solely a depend of custom, but additionally of honor. Among his different crimes, the wicked Heremod is accused of giving “no greater rings / to honor the Danes” (1719–1720). In this culture, treasure is no longer for hoarding however for circulating in socially beneficial ways. On an global level, the kings use treasure to reinforce alliances and keep away from fighting amongst the a variety of Scandinavian tribes.
Friendly tribes may additionally trade gifts, whilst opposed international locations may additionally pacify one any other with gold or with the paying of blood tributes. In this scheme, girls characterize the most precious token of exchange, as kings regularly betroth their daughters to foreign rulers for political gain. The regular mention of the gold and jewels that enhance Wealtheow endorse her political value: The queen no longer only wears treasure, in a sense, she is a treasure.
Finally, treasure also symbolizes the contradictory emotions the Geats and Danes have toward death, a steady presence in this dark, brutal era. Though the poet writes from an explicitly Christian perspective, the Geats and Danes seem to lack a idea of a divine afterlife. In this world, human existence stays constrained to the mortal lifespan.
However, people have the opportunity to gain some variety of afterlife via accruing wealth, prestige, and glory whilst they live: Owning full-size treasure increases the likelihood that one’s name and recognition will stay on after death. At the same time, the Geats and Danes understand that treasure remains earthbound, unable to accompany its proprietor into the hereafter.
Both of these notions figure into the Scandinavian funeral ritual of sending a king off to sea in a burning ship stuffed with treasure. The more rings, swords, and coats of mail piled upon the ship, the larger the king’s glory; however, these riches in the end burn away or turn out to be otherwise misplaced to the king’s people. In Beowulf, treasure concurrently has an everlasting and an evanescent quality.
Amidst the widespread veneration of treasure, though, come some discordant notes. In one of the poem’s most mournful moments, the narrator describes “some forgotten person” burying the collective riches of his entire, equally forgotten race. In this case, the accumulation of glorious wealth used to be no longer adequate to reap a lasting legacy, and the treasure only enhances the survivor’s horrible loneliness, as he is “left with no one / to bear a sword or to burnish plated goblets / put a sheen on the cup” (2252–2253).
Just a few strains earlier, Beowulf had imagined how the sight of the Danes carrying “glittering regalia” and “burnished ring-mail” originally belonging to the Heath-Bards would provoke the Heath-Bards to viciously assault their guests. And after Beowulf’s death, the poet bitterly describes how the treasure left in the dragon’s lair is “as vain to guys now as it ever was” (3168).
As the poem appears in advance to both the Danish hostilities with the Heatho-Bards and the Geatish devastation following Beowulf’s death, the creeping disillusion with wealth recommendations at the darkness looming on the horizon.