Beowulf Old English poem, circa eighth century.
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, 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. On the other hand, loss of treasure symbolizes a fall from power. The kings of Beowulf also use treasure to solidify their most important bonds: 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: 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.
In Beowulf, treasure simultaneously has an eternal and an evanescent quality. Amidst the general veneration of treasure, though, come some discordant notes.As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 75, lessons in math, English, science, history, and more.
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View Test Prep - Beowulf Test Essay Example from SCIENCE at Wheeler High School. 3. Throughout the epic of Beowulf, Beowulf fought in three different battles. For each of his battles, Beowulf. Start your hour free trial to unlock this + page Beowulf study guide and get instant the poet humanized Beowulf—for example, Douglas D.
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