Topic-Treasure in Beowulf and how each king exhibits great power.
Beowulf's society revolved around treasure because of its importance to the tribe. Treasure is the main element in the nature of man. Economists have stated repeatedly that the reason why society is able to stay intact is because of self-interest; it was no different in the time of Beowulf. The reason why the Anglo-Saxons invaded England in 450 is because they wanted more land. According to Greenblatt's introduction, "The Anglo-Saxon occupation was no sudden conquest but extended over decades of fighting against the native Britons. The latter were, finally, largely confined to the mountainous region of Wales, where the modern form of their language is spoken alongside English to this day" (6). There are many other things such as culture, technology, and war, but Beowulf's society believed that treasure was the most important thing an individual can have. They believed this because wealth and treasure equals power and soldiers like Beowulf who were willing to die for it. The ship burial of Shield Sheafson, gift giving of Hrothgar, and the death of Beowulf prove that all three kings exhibited great power and brought wealth to their tribe.
The poem is introduced by Shield Sheafson who inherited the throne and was not rich. He accumulated wealth through conquering and instilling fear in other tribes to receive tribute. This is important because Beowulf is motivated by obtaining treasure for the himself and the Geats. Sheafson's tribe has accumulated so much wealth that it could afford to bury their beloved king, Shield Sheafson, in a boat filled with very useful amour, weapons, and actual treasure. The poem reads,
"A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbor, /
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince. /
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, /
laid out by the mast amidships, /
the great ring-giver" (32-36).
Although this passage differs from modern society, especially here in the United States, it is significant to the Danes in this time period. Many Americans, wealthy or poor, would generally think it is a waste to bury someone in a boat. There is no size or brand that would be considered cheap by the modern American because we do not use boats for funerals. This must have been the first great king because the poem does not mention any specific king except describing the good times of their tribe by referring to the leaders as "kings and princes" but not any individual person like Sheafson, "So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness (1-2). In the poem, Sheafson's burial is described,
"they decked his body no less bountifully /
with offerings than those first ones did /
who cast him away when he was a child /
and launched him alone out over the waves" (43-46).
This proves that Sheafson did not have wealth when he became king, but died a wealthy man. This is important because the previous kings had never accomplished what Sheafson did in one lifetime. He is described as the "scourge of many tribes" while others used words like "courage and greatness" but nowhere in the text does it say these kings successfully obtained tribute from other tribes like Sheafson. In fact, he was such a great king that "they set a gold standard up / high above his head and let him drift / to wind and tide;" (47-49). This is because Sheafson brought his tribe to great wealth, his people honored him with a lavish ship burial.
The second use of treasure is the gift giving of Hrothgar to Beowulf in honor of dealing with Grendel and his mother. The first gift is the feast at Heorot which also introduces Beowulf to the Danes. Beowulf received his own bench, as much mead as he had wanted, the benefits of having a servant for his meal, music, and was the guest of honor. This is given to him immediately because he is here to slay the Grendel. Because of the severe destruction to Heorot caused by Grendel's attacks Hrothgar lost power,
"Grendel ruled in defiance of right, /
one against all, until the greatest house /
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead. /
For twelve winters, seasons of woe, /
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under /
the lord of sorrow; and so, before long, /
the news was known over the whole world" (144-150).
Although this passage talks directly talking about the physical occupation of the mead-hall, it is indirectly talking about how Hrothgar inherited a wealthy kingdom and was at the brink of destruction. Americans might relate this to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where America spent trillions of dollars on provisions, logistics, weaponry, healthcare, insurance, and much more. We know that Hrothgar gave rings to others before Beowulf arrived and the reason was special because Beowulf was the best of the best because he accomplished what king Hrothgar and his people wanted done. After Beowulf's first encounter with the Grendel, the first thing Hrothgar did is announce that Beowulf is his adopted son. In these words,
"So now, Beowulf, /
I adopt you in my heart as a dear son. /
Nourish and maintain this new connection /
you noblest of men." (945-948).
This is a significant, non-material gift in this culture because it gave Beowulf prestige. Hrothgar described previous heroes as warriors, "I have often honored smaller achievements, / recognized warriors not nearly as worthy" (950-951). Beowulf not only was more worthy than treasure in general, but immortal, Hrothgar said, "But you have made yourself immortal / by your glorious action" (953-954). On top of every non-materialistic gift, he was such a great hero that Hrothgar convinced the whole tribe to restore Heorot and have the first feast in honor of Beowulf, "Then the order was given for all hands / to help refurbish Heorot immediately" (990-991) "The king himself would sit down to feast. / No group ever gathered in greater numbers / or better order around their ring-giver" (1009-1011). It was at this return that in the mead-hall,
"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 honor. /
So Beowulf drank his drink, at ease; /
it was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts /
in front of the hall-troops. There haven't been many /
moments, I am sure, when men exchanged /
four such treasures at so friendly a sitting" (1028).
This means that Hrothgar is in control of the wealth and decides who to give treasure to. After this, Hrothgar gave him eight exorbitant horses, "Next the king ordered eight horses / with gold bridles to be brought through the yard / into the hall" (1034-1036). One of the saddles was given to him was dear to Hrothgar, "The harness of one / included a saddle of sumptuous design, / the battle-seat where the son of Halfdane / rode when he wished to join the sword-play" (1036-1039). The next gift that was non material to Beowulf but still had monetary value was that king Hrothgar gave each person that sailed with Beowulf to his land treasure, "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" (1049-1051). This meant that Beowulf did not have to share any of his newly received treasure with his men. King Hrothgar has to pay a poet in labor and he is referred to as "the king's poet." The king's poet performed for Beowulf, "the king's poet performed his part / with the saga of Finn and his sons, unfolding / the tale of the fierce attack in Friesland" (1066-1068). After slaying the Grendel's mother, Beowulf receives a second treasure "Then the earls' defender furnished the hero / with twelve treasures and told him to set out" (1866-1867). Beowulf took his treasure, gathered his men, and sailed back to his homeland.
Beowulf was the greatest king and exhibited the greatest power of all because of the value he brought to Heorot, what he did with his fortunes, and how he treated his men. He is remembered in a special way, unlike any other king because of these reasons. His burial would have meant nothing to the Anglo-Saxons if he was like Heremod in which he is the opposite of. This is why he received special treatment because he could bring freedom to the Danes by slaying the Grendel. Wealth is relative and what the tribe really wanted was not material goods, but rather a service. Shield Sheafson was considered a great king, but Beowulf was better because no other man on earth could have defeated the Grendel. He went above and beyond, "he dived into the heaving / depths of the lake" (1494-1495). Because of his bravery, Aeschere was attacked by Grendel's mother, "So she lunged and clutched and managed to catch him / in her brutal grip" and he killed her (1501-1502). He brought the Danes the head of Grendel which ended the terror.
Treasure was used as a method of control, by convincing other humans to do whatever he or she wanted them to do. In this case, Grendel's mother was very powerful considering she had an extensive amount of treasure,
"The Geat captain saw treasure in abundance /
but carried no spoils from those quarters /
except for the head and the inlaid hilt /
embossed with jewels" (1612-1615).
What is special about Beowulf is that he set out on this journey to build his own prestige and wealth, yet he never took any treasure from Grendel's mother. He possessed a rare relic that symbolized not only the Anglo-Saxon people, but human kind as a whole, "It was engraved all over / and showed how war first came into the world / and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants" (1688-1691). He unselfishly presented it to Hrothgar. When Beowulf returned home, he shared his fortunes with his king, "These, King Hygelac, I am happy to present / to you as gifts. It is still upon your grace / that all favor depends (2148-2150). Beowulf shares much treasure, but in return, he gained prestige,
"He had been poorly regarded /
for a long time, was taken by the Geats /
for less than he was worth: and their lord too. /
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall" (2183-2186).
Beowulf was so loved and cared or by his accomplishments and how he shared his wealth, he was given seven thousand hides and became royalty (2196). He eventually became king of the Geats and was in an alliance with the Danes. After hearing news of how the dragon burned his throne room, "he was destined to face the end of his days, / in this mortal world, as was the dragon, / for all his long leasehold on the treasure (2342-2344). After he slays the dragon, Beowulf orders Wiglaf to bring him treasure"Go now quickly, / dearest Wiglaf, under the gray stone / where the dragon is laid out, / lost to his treasure;" (2743-2745) "I want to examine / that ancient gold, gaze my fill" (2747-2748). After everything Beowulf went through, his life mission is summarized,
"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" (2794-2798).
After his death, Beowulf is described by Wiglaf similar to King Hrothgar,
"disdainfully and in disappointment: /
'Anyone ready to admit the truth /
will surely realize that the lord of men /
who showered you with gifts and gave you armor /
you are standing in-when he would distribute /
helmets and mail-shirts to men on the mead benches, /
a prince treating his thanes in hall /
to the best he could find, far or near- /
was throwing weapons uselessly away. /
It would be a sad waste when the war broke out" (2863-2872).
Beowulf gave gifts and was in control of the wealth similar to Hrothgar. This is a crucial thing a king must do in order to rule over his people. Although King Heremod did evil acts such as murder, because he did not share his fortunes, nobody respected him as king, "he grew bloodthirsty, gave no more rings / to honor the Danes. He suffered in the end" (1719-1720). As a result of Beowulf's death, his tribe was going to be overrun and the vast majority knew for certain they were going to be either slaves or murdered. The people could have deserted their tribe individually and some could have gotten away, but most of the tribe gave everything they had to cremate Beowulf with gold and put him on a boat to sail away. "The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf, / stacked and decked it until it stood foursquare" (3137-3138). This symbolized their culture, happiness, dreams, and that is why "a Geat woman too sang out in grief; / with her hair bound up, she unburdened herself / of her worst fears" (3150-3152). The reality of one becoming inferior is so horrifying that people, especially the Geats, would rather give up everything they had than trying to escape. Beowulf gave his entire life, not for himself, but for others. He risked his life in the mead-hall, in Grendel's lair, and the Dragon's lair. He unselfishly put his people first and because he cared so much for his people until death, his people buried him with everything they had. He was the greatest king in the Anglo-Saxon period.
Although treasure was an important part of the ship burial of Shield Sheafson, gift giving of Hrothgar, and the value of Beowulf, it was only a mere incentive for Beowulf to fight Grendel. Beowulf, has a change of heart of his life mission as he progresses through the poem. The main turning point was when he did not take any of the treasure from Grendel's lair. Sheafson and Hrothgar exhibited great power, but Beowulf was the most influential because of his burial. His people could have easily dumped the treasure into the ocean and prepared for war, but to them, Beowulf was the treasure. This proves that the whole society of Heorot relied on Beowulf for protection. His death marked the end for the entire people.