There was a mass of treasures, wealth brought there from far-away lands. Nor have I heard of a ship more splendidly laden with weapons for battle and dress for war, with swords and shirts of mail.
Treasure is a thematic golden thread that the poet weaves through almost every scene of Beowulf. This passage from the Prologue describes the funeral ship of a great hero and king. The excerpt shows that treasure had far more than monetary value in Beowulf’s world. The king had rewarded his followers with treasure; in death his people used treasure to honor his memory. Ships, weapons, and armor were highly prized by the warrior society, so the Beowulf poet added details about them to enrich the tale.
I heard that Beowulf gave Queen Hygd a neck-ring wondrously ornamented, given him by Wealhtheow, now his gift to royal Hygd, with three graceful horses bearing shining saddles.
The poet describes Beowulf as he returns to his own land, bearing the treasures he earned by defeating Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Beowulf presents the neck ring given to him by the Danish queen to his own king’s wife. The episode shows the ritual significance of treasure: Wealhtheow rewarded the hero “from our people’s treasures.” By passing the treasure on to Queen Hygd, Beowulf is strengthening the bonds between the two queens and their people.
They brought to the barrow precious rings and jewels, all such adornments as the brave-spirited men had earlier taken away from the enemy’s hoard. They left the treasures of earls in the earth for keeping, the gold in the ground, where yet it still lies, as fruitless to men now, as it formerly was.
This passage is the poet’s concluding, and rather cynical, comment on the theme of treasure. The quip about “brave-spirited men” reminds the audience that all but one of Beowulf’s men had fled in fear, leaving the aging hero to fight the dragon. The men had then shared in the treasure once the dragon was defeated. Now these same men are being asked to return the treasure for burial. Leaving the treasure buried—and presumably still to be rediscovered—is an imaginative and dramatic final flourish. The last line is enigmatic: It suggests that men might still find buried treasure useful.