Beowulf and Material Goods

The characters in Beowulf knew the importance of bling. Watch the video to learn more about the place of material goods in the wonderful world of Beowulf.

LiteratureBeowulf
ThemesIdentity
Morality and Ethics
Religion
The Supernatural
Tradition and Customs
Violence
Wealth

Transcript

00:14

Beowulf recovers items from Grendel's mother's lair.

00:17

Hrothgar rewards him handsomely multiple times.

00:21

And now we have a big trove of treasure

00:23

guarded by - what else? - a dragon.

00:25

So, question - talk to us

00:27

about the importance of material goods in Beowulf.

00:30

What are they? How do they function?

00:32

And how do they get discovered?

00:35

Are their mines that they're digging in?

00:37

And, you know, how does all that work?

00:39

Material stuff has been cropping up, you know,

00:41

throughout this whole story.

00:43

We see goblets all over the mead hall.

00:46

You know, this is the equivalent of, you know,

00:50

having -- what do you call it when you have the gold...?

00:51

- Grill. - The grill! There we go.

00:53

Yeah, Ryan Lochte.

00:53

The equivalent of having a grill is having goblets

00:55

all over your mead hall.

00:56

The men have these, you know,

00:58

tons of armor all blinged out.

01:00

The women are wearing tons of jewelry.

01:01

When Beowulf kills Grendel,

01:03

Hrothgar, you know, in addition to these gnomes

01:06

that we talked about, gives him

01:08

so many things. He gives him horses.

01:10

He gives him a kingly saddle.

01:12

He gives him a sword and a shield

01:15

and all this stuff.

01:17

So, clearly, it's important.

01:18

And again, it reflects the cultural values of the time.

01:22

We look at this and we're like,

01:23

"Oh, they were greedy. Theme of greed in Beowulf."

01:26

But, like, it's not.

01:28

That's just how things worked back then.

01:30

Having these material goods

01:32

were a sign of your success and your wealth.

01:34

Now, if you walked into someone's house

01:36

and they had goblets everywhere,

01:38

you might -- Or like in this case, you know,

01:40

dollar bills, like, making it rain.

01:42

You might think, "Oh, you know. They're greedy."

01:45

But that's not what we're supposed to think.

01:47

We're supposed to think, "Oh, they're successful."

01:49

It's a good thing. It's respected.

01:50

Why do you think that's the case?

01:52

You know, when I think about this era,

01:54

I think about resources.

01:56

Just living, having food reliably,

01:59

and water reliably available,

02:01

and protection from the elements and disease

02:03

and God knows what else,

02:04

it was like an achievement.

02:05

Like blowing out your birthday candles

02:07

was something that came

02:09

because life was so hard. And that was only

02:10

a couple of hundred years ago that tradition started.

02:12

That you still had breath strong enough

02:14

to blow out your candles so you celebrated another year

02:16

of life.

02:17

In this era, my goodness,

02:19

it must have been very hard.

02:20

So I get the materiality mattering.

02:23

And it wasn't dollar bills,

02:23

it was like goblets for water.

02:25

Right. And the materiality matters

02:28

and you have to remember that, again,

02:29

we're not talking about everyday people,

02:31

we're talking about kings here, right?

02:32

So things like a goblet or a sword

02:36

or, you know, jewels,

02:38

were a way for a king to, say,

02:40

make an alliance. Instead of just kind of like

02:42

shaking someone's hand and saying like,

02:44

"Yes. We're good. Gentleman's agreement."

02:46

Like, we don't do that today either.

02:48

We sign contracts.

02:49

And, you know, the way that they did it to have alliances

02:53

was to give gifts among each other.

02:54

Give material things instead of just saying, like,

02:57

"Yeah, we're good."

02:57

And it was important to kind of have that,

02:59

as you brought up earlier,

03:00

that symbol of a connection.

03:02

But, in Beowulf, there's a tension.

03:04

Because, you know, again, reflecting cultural values,

03:07

material things being good and respected.

03:09

But, when the story was written down,

03:11

the Christian values had really come into play.

03:14

And, as we know from the Bible,

03:17

you're not supposed to value worldly things.

03:19

You're supposed to, you know, value the other-worldly,

03:22

not the worldly.

03:23

And so we do see this tension.

03:25

Some of the gnomes that Hrothgar says to Beowulf

03:30

are about, you know, "value eternal life."

03:32

Kind of, "you can't take it with you" idea.

03:35

So we do see the tension,

03:36

and if you're, you know, if you're confused

03:38

while you're reading Beowulf, you're supposed to be.

03:40

Because there is a tension between pagan and Christian values.

03:44

Valuing what's worldly and what's material

03:48

versus completely pushing all that aside

03:51

to value the other-worldly.

03:55

What are some of the material goods talked about in Beowulf?

03:59

What's the purpose of the display of wealth and all the glitzy gifts?

04:04

Why is there a tension between materiality and immateriality in Beowulf?

04:09

How is this tension shown in reading the story?

04:15

Yes, we're good.