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Treasures and gifts are an important part of the plot in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. Despite its English origins, the poem is a story about the main character's numerous heroic exploits and is set in Scandinavia (Beowulf 107). The epic recounts Beowulf's encounters with three major foes: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon protecting the hoard. On the surface, the subject of treasure will undoubtedly link to the economics and riches of the civilization depicted in the epic. This apparent worth of tributes and gifts, however, is only a smear on the surface of the significance these have in the social workings of the societies shown. To derive a generalized definition of the role treasure plays in the poem, an understanding of what constitutes these valuable items is necessary. The mode of acquisition is moreover important in developing the idea of the centrality of treasure in the societies in the Beowulf epic. These points of contemplation on the part treasure fulfills in the poem will inform a possible generalization of its role in the context of the poem.
The association of treasure with items of wealth and riches is partly the case in the epic too. In the framework of this analysis, though, the treasure will explicitly include: swords, helmets, war shields, armor, chain mail, neck torques armbands, and jewels. Many of these items under consideration were gold or had fittings and finishing in gold metal and precious jewels. These treasures in their many forms are in constant transmission within and between communities by different means. Without the exchange of these treasures, their value would not be apparent in the context of the poem. The distribution and acquisition of gifts and treasures in Beowulf occur in some ways. The principal way in which these come into possession of people in the era under description is through triumph in battle. An example is the golden hilt of the giant’s sword that Beowulf uses to slay Grendel’s mother. He retrieves this booty after killing Grendel and his mother and presents it to King Hrothgar ( (Beowulf 150-151).
The king or queen in occasions expressing gratitude to their warriors or Thanes also gave treasures. For his service in repelling Grendel’s attack in their first encounter, Beowulf is rewarded handsomely (Beowulf 134-135). Another method of treasure acquisition is through giving it as a loan or gift out of friendship. Unferth loans Beowulf his sword Hrunting “a rare and ancient sword” (Ln. 1458) for his battle with Grendel's mother. Beowulf on departing from the land of the Danes gives “a sword with gold fittings” (Ln.1901) to the coast guard he met previously on arrival. In other instances, the passing of treasure from one generation to the next infers a passing on of power and authority. Further, this giving of wealth as a sign of power handover receives confirmation in Beowulf giving Wigalf “the collar of gold from his neck” (Ln. 2810). In the poem treasure changes hands in two other ways: the fleeing slave steals ”a gem-studded goblet” and the dragon who went into a rage because of the theft just found the treasure hid by an ancient people (Beowulf 162-163).
The role of treasure is decipherable in its prime function in the poem. Though swords, chain mail, body armor, shields, and helmets have practical uses, they are also of value in the social economy of the Scandinavian tribes in the epic. As the poem elaborates the gifts, Hrothgar presents to Beowulf include “breast-mail and a helmet and a sword carried high” (Beowulf 135). These are typically items of warfare rather than treasures. Moreover, the gifts Hrothgar and his queen Wealhtheow give Beowulf, and he, in turn, gives to his king Hygelac and Hygd, his queen. In this give and take of treasures, two roles of gifting emerge. The first function is a demonstration of the king’s relationship to his warriors or Thanes. Beowulf earns the prize for his service for the Dane’s King Hrothgar but does not keep it to himself, rather he presents it to his King Hygelac as a tribute. The king rewards the warrior with other gifts from his hoard reciprocating this action. The second function of treasure is the creating of stronger alliances between families and among tribes; Hrothgar gifts to Beowulf upon presentation to Hygelac draws the two nations together. Furthermore, in the instance of a feud between tribes and families, there occurs the use of treasure as the peace price. Beowulf’s father is beneficiary of this wergild (man price); it is a payment to the victim’s relatives to achieve peace with the killer’s kin (Beowulf 123). An important function of treasures is in the stirring of emotions of revenge or courage. An example of this use of valuable objects is Hunlafing’s availing of the sword “dazzle the duel” to Hengest; the gesture initiates a surprise attack on their captor King Finn of the Jutes, who had slain their own King Hnaef. The power of treasure to evoke such strong emotions adds to its central role in the story (Beowulf 136-139) . The negative uses of treasures are observable in the hoarding habit of the dragon and Grendel’s Mother. These creatures both keep the gold and valuables to themselves without giving. The treasure here functions as the source and nourishment for these evil character’s greed and selfishness.
The gold and riches in this story come into the possession of the characters through many ways, but the most notable is through victory in war. It underpins the importance of treasure in the poem. In all its forms treasure is the principle theme governing the relationships in the epic. In this story, there is an explicit reference to the king as the “ring-giver”, and his warriors owe allegiance to him through the gifts he awards them for victory in battle. The society in the poem is dependent on the king-thane relationship for security and economic empowerment. The treasure moreover is more than wealth; issuing it to the king's warriors is assurance of their loyalty. When the retainers plunder wealth from opponents they present it as a tribute to the king who gives it back, apportioning each warrior according to their achievements. Swords and armament in the possession of families and exchanged between soldiers act as the social glue that binds the community.
Treasure acquires new meaning in its value within the context of the epic. Gold and jewels far from representative of evil in this narrative; rather they portray a system of loyalty and duty that binds nations, families, and individuals to a way of existence that stresses on generosity, courage, and honor. The instances of association of evil with the treasures serve to prevent too much greed in the acquisition of wealth. Ultimately, the treasure is not to blame for the evil but greed in men’s hearts.
"Beowulf." The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner. Trans. Seamus Heaney. 3rd. Vol. B. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, Inc, 2012. 107-183. Book. 10 November 2015.
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