Study Guide

Beowulf Wealth

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Lines 1-300

They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean's sway. (34-42)

One of the first scenes in Beowulf is the funeral of the Danish king Shield Sheafson. Buried at sea, the proof of Shield's greatness and his following among his people is the literal boatload of treasures sent out to sea with his body.

Lines 301-606

"Finally I healed the feud by paying:
I shipped a treasure to the Wulfings
and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance." (470-472)

Wealth isn't just a mark of status for the Danes and the Geats; money can also buy them out of blood-feuds and wars. If a member of one tribe has killed a member of another, he can prevent a war or bring about a truce by paying a "blood price" for the man who was killed. Of course, sometimes this isn't enough to soothe the feelings of the man's family, and war happens anyway…

They marched in step,
hurrying on till the timbered hall
rose before them, radiant with gold.
Nobody on earth knew of another
building like it. Majesty lodged there,
its light shone over many lands. (306-311)

There are no points for subtlety or tastefulness in medieval Scandinavian warrior culture. If you're wealthy, you show it by encrusting your hall with gold, so that every visiting warrior and every member of your tribe knows exactly how rich you are, all the time. Ostentatiously displaying wealth is the way these guys communicate.

Lines 915-1231

Then Halfdane's son presented Beowulf
with a gold standard as a victory gift,
an embroidered banner; also breast-mail
and a helmet; and a sword carried high,
that was both precious object and token of honour.
So Beowulf drank his drink, at ease;
it was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts
in front of the hall-troops. (1019-1026)

In return for Beowulf's service, Hrothgar pays him in treasures, armor, and horses. This isn't a special kindness – it's exactly what Beowulf expects. Medieval tribes like the Danes and Geats insure that warriors will be loyal to kings by constantly rewarding those warriors with gold, jewels, and other loot.

Hygelac the Geat, grandson of Swerting,
wore this neck-ring on his last raid;
at bay under his banner, he defended the booty,
treasure he had won. Fate swept him away
because of his proud need to provoke
a feud with the Frisians. He fell beneath his shield,
in the same gem-crusted, kingly gear
he had worn when he crossed the frothing wave-vat.
So the dead king fell into Frankish hands.
They took his breast-mail, also his neck-torque,
and punier warriors plundered the slain
when the carnage ended; Geat corpses
covered the field. (1202-1214)

It's interesting to trace this history of the golden torque, or necklace, in Beowulf. Given to Beowulf by Hrothgar, it is then presented to Hygelac, who will die wearing it. Beowulf will then bestow what seems to be the same torque (although we're not completely certain, since the first torque gets stolen by the Franks at one point) on his only faithful follower, Wiglaf. Along with the golden torque, symbolizing kingship, goes glory – but also suffering and doom.

The cup was carried to him, kind words
spoken in welcome and a wealth of wrought gold
graciously bestowed: two arm bangles,
a mail-shirt and rings, and the most resplendent
torque of gold I ever heard tell of
anywhere on earth or under heaven. (1191-1196)

The exchanges of wealth between different kings and warriors can become extremely complex. In this passage, Beowulf is given gold, armor, and other rewards by King Hrothgar. After sailing home to Geatland, Beowulf presents some of these rewards to his own king, Hygelac. In return, Hygelac gives Beowulf another set of treasures from his own stockpile. Why so many different exchanges? It helps to solidify the alliances and relationships between all three warriors.

The hall ran red
with blood of enemies. Finn was cut down,
the queen brought away and everything
the Shieldings could find inside Finn's walls –
the Frisian king's gold collars and gemstones –
swept off to the ship. (1151-1156)

Looting and pillaging are normal parts of warfare and battle for early medieval warriors. In fact, most warriors are probably only going into battle in order to receive gold, armor, and other precious treasures. That's how they make their living, after all.

The chieftain went on to reward the others:
Each man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf
and risked the voyage received a bounty,
some treasured possession. And compensation,
a price in gold, was settled for the Geat
Grendel had cruelly killed earlier. (1049-1054)

Beowulf's men haven't traveled across the sea and braved a confrontation with Grendel just for the glory of the thing – they also want a reward they can measure in gold. In addition, when one of Beowulf's Geat warriors is killed by Grendel, King Hrothgar negotiates a payment of gold to recompense Beowulf and the Geats for their loss. Hrothgar doesn't do this because he feels bad for the man's family; he does it out of self-defense. If he didn't pay, the Geats might have a reason to go to war against him.

Lines 2712-3182

The old lord gazed sadly at the gold.
"To the everlasting Lord of All,
to the King of Glory, I give thanks
that I behold this treasure here in front of me,
that I have been allowed to leave my people
so well endowed on the day I die." (2793-2798)

As he dies, Beowulf seems to feel conflicted about the treasure that he has won from the dragon. On the one hand, he is glad that he's leaving a great deal of wealth to the Geat people, which should lend power and authority to their nation. On the other hand, he looks at the gold "sadly," suggesting that he doubts whether it was worth sacrificing his life for it.

And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels
and a trove of such things as trespassing men
had once dared to drag from the hoard.
They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure,
gold under gravel, gone to earth,
as useless to men now as it ever was. (3163-3168)

At the end of the epic, the narrator seems to remind us that all the gold and treasures in the world are useless to men in the broader context of life, death, the afterlife, and real human needs. However, maybe what's really useless about his treasure is that it's buried underground with Beowulf, "gone to earth," the way that the gold was before it was dug up and fashioned into treasures. Only when it's in the world, circulating, being used to pay for things or as a reward, can the gold actually be useful to men.

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