What is the role of treasure in Beowulf?
In our culture, preoccupation with material goods usually connotes shallowness, and the pursuit of riches is often seen as incompatible—or at least difficult to reconcile—with our moral convictions. In Beowulf, however, the Danes, Geats, and Swedes’ collective reverence for treasure is not represented as a shortcoming or moral weakness. In fact, the poem often uses treasure as a symbol of the Scandinavian people’s most cherished cultural values.
In Beowulf, kings, heroes, and other powerful men must continuously establish their reputations, both those they have inherited and those they have earned. Characters accomplish the former by reminding listeners of their famous ancestors and the latter by collecting treasures. The magnificent rewards Beowulf receives from Hrothgar testify to the Geatish warrior’s valor and prowess, just as the majestic Heorot signifies Hrothgar’s power. Sometimes, a splendid object is enough to gain a man respect, even without his having earned it through brave 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 place 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 end of a glorious Geatish era by noting that “no follower” will wear the treasure Beowulf wins from the dragon in his memory, “nor lovely woman / link and attach [it] as a torque around her neck.” Treasure symbolizes prosperity and stability; without these attributes, the Geatish clan can no longer be seen in jewels and finery.
The kings of Beowulf also use treasure to solidify their most important bonds: those with their followers, and those with other nations. Each king has a duty to give his most loyal thanes riches, a responsibility indicated by the frequent use of royal epithets such as “ring-giver,” “gift-lord,” and “gold-friend to retainers.” The act is not only a matter of custom, but also of honor. Among his other crimes, the wicked Heremod is accused of giving “no more rings / to honor the Danes” (1719–1720). In this culture, treasure is not for hoarding but for circulating in socially useful ways. On an international level, the kings use treasure to strengthen alliances and avoid conflict among the various Scandinavian tribes. Friendly tribes may exchange gifts, while hostile nations may pacify one another with gold or with the paying of blood tributes. In this scheme, women represent the most valuable token of exchange, as kings often betroth their daughters to foreign rulers for political gain. The constant mention of the gold and jewels that adorn Wealtheow suggest her political value: The queen not only wears treasure, in a sense, she is treasure.
Finally, treasure also symbolizes the contradictory feelings the Geats and Danes have toward death, a constant presence in this dark, brutal era. Though the poet writes from an explicitly Christian perspective, the Geats and Danes seem to lack a notion of a divine afterlife. In this world, human existence remains limited to the mortal lifespan. However, people have the opportunity to achieve some kind of afterlife by accruing wealth, prestige, and glory while they live: Owning significant treasure increases the likelihood that one’s name and reputation will live on after death. At the same time, the Geats and Danes realize that treasure remains earthbound, unable to accompany its owner into the hereafter. Both of these notions figure into the Scandinavian funeral ritual of sending a king off to sea in a burning ship filled with treasure. The more rings, swords, and coats of mail piled upon the ship, the greater the king’s glory; however, those riches eventually burn away or become otherwise lost to the king’s people. In Beowulf, treasure simultaneously has an eternal and an evanescent quality.
Amidst the general 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 was not enough to gain a lasting legacy, and the treasure only enhances the survivor’s terrible loneliness, as he is “left with nobody / to bear a sword or to burnish plated goblets / put a sheen on the cup” (2252–2253). Just a few lines earlier, Beowulf had imagined how the sight of the Danes wearing “glittering regalia” and “burnished ring-mail” originally belonging to the Heatho-Bards would provoke the Heatho-Bards to viciously attack their guests. And after Beowulf’s death, the poet bitterly describes how the treasure left in the dragon’s lair is “as useless to men now as it ever was” (3168). As the poem looks ahead to both the Danish war with the Heatho-Bards and the Geatish devastation following Beowulf’s death, the creeping disillusion with wealth hints at the darkness looming on the horizon.