In the introduction to his translation of the Old English poem, Beowulf, Seamus Heaney describes gold as “a constant element” of the poem. Gold is the currency of the comitatus, the groups of warriors that dominated the heroic society of Anglo Saxon times. Gold glitters menacingly in every corner of warrior culture, and symbolises everything that these warriors strive for, everything that both men and monsters alike yearn for. The Beowulf poet’s view of gold is one that is nuanced and complicated, more complicated than the unfaltering desire the heroes of the story have for the precious metal.
The poet is seemingly full of awe when describing Shield Sheafson’s funeral, the expressive use of the personal pronoun pointing to an inability to refrain from displaying a great admiration; “I never heard before of a ship so well-furbished with battle-tackle, bladed weapons, and coats of mail” (Beowulf, trans. Heaney 38-40); “the most resplendent torque of gold I ever heard tell of anywhere on earth or under heaven” (1194-6). It is the poet himself who conjures up questions about the gold, wondering where the treasure ended up (“No man can tell…who salvaged that load” (50-2)) as if he feels that it was possessed of a spiritual or magical quality, with links to an afterlife. The poet’s apparent wonder is evident in the language he uses to describe the gold; “shining” (214), “radiant” (308) and “dazzling” (896). In The Audience of Beowulf, Dorothy Whitelock writes that “some surviving Anglo-Saxon metal-work is handsome enough to tempt a poet to linger over its description” (92). Was the Beowulf poet truly entranced by the gold or just indulging in writing rich descriptions of it?
A picture of Heorot, the mead-hall built by Hrothgar, where he “doled out rings and
torques at the table” (80-81), is painted in a warm, glowing light- “its light shone out over many lands” (311). In “Gold and its Significance in Beowulf,” Patricia Silber notes that the first half of the poem sees gold “often associated with light, another positive reinforcement [of gold] since light and dark imagery plays such an important role in the development of the themes in Beowulf.” “Gold thread shone in the wall-hangings” of Heorot (Heaney 993-4). T.A. Shippey, in Criticism of Beowulf, writes that “halls are associated with brightness. Heorot is goldfah [gold ornamented]… The hall equals happiness equals light (22).” It is greatly different to the “dark death-shadow” that is Grendel (Heaney 160), as if gold is a glorious substance that embodies the opposite of every dark, evil idea Grendel personifies.
The poet’s attitude to gold can be studied through how he relates it to the monsters in the story. Grendel gravitates towards gold and is almost hypnotised by it; “under the cloud-murk he moved toward it until it shone above him, a sheer keep of fortified gold.” (714-716). 169). The dragon too is “driven to hunt out hoards under ground, to guard heathen gold” (2275-6), and as Tolkien writes in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, “covets gold, not souls” (24). The fact that the monsters of Beowulf have thirst for gold and jewels seems to suggest that the poet thinks of wanting these things as animalistic or barbaric, a primitive desire. However, a gap between monsters and gold is also carved out by the poet. We learn that “[Grendel] was kept from approaching [the gold]; he was the Lord’s outcast.” Here gold is portrayed by the poet as something too heavenly for a creature as monstrous as Grendel to touch. Beowulf also later explains that his armour, with its “close-fitting filigree of gold kept [him] safe when some ocean creature pulled [him] to the bottom” (550-554). The contradictions that come about when one considers how the poem’s monsters and its gold are connected is just one example of the lack of clarity to be found surrounding how exactly the poet views gold.
The word ‘gold’ is repeatedly used to create kennings, compound nouns which, as Alvin A. Lee describes in Gold-Hall and Earth-Dragon, “create a tension between their two parts... the kenning urges us to consider or puzzle over why [these two words have been put together].” (82) “Details…have been selected, removed from their empirical contexts, refashioned in words that avoid direct statement or naturalistic description, and projected imaginatively (Lee 83). Kings were known as “ring-givers” (Heaney 1011). Beowulf addresses Hrothgar as a “gold-friend” (1477), and Wiglaf refers to Beowulf as his “gold-giver” (2652). It is as if the doling out of gold is their primary role. It certainly appears to be the most notable aspect of kings to those who are receiving the gold, as it is the latter group who uses these compounds. The Beowulf poet also forms such kennings “gift-hall” (837), or “gold-hall” (1253), and it is clear that the most hallowed ritual in Heorot is the giving out of jewels and rewards, as it appears to be the primary function of the hall. The poet’s use of kennings to intertwine gold with important characters and the mead-hall that was “a wonder of the world” (70) illustrates how crucial a component of this world gold was, how deeply embedded it was in Anglo-Saxon warrior society, whether alluding to a materialism that lies under its every part, or else celebrating gold’s place in their culture. In the second half of the poem, the poet also ties the dragon to gold, calling him a “treasure-minder” (3133), guarding a “ring-hoard” (920). “The compound words show how tightly men and harps and halls cluster together in the poet’s mind” (Shippey 23). Are these fusions healthy or poisonous?
Gold was the ultimate status symbol. The coastguard is “given a sword with gold fittings, and in future days that present would make him a respected man at his place on the mead-bench” (1900-3). Beowulf, because of his great courage and achievements in battle, is told “there’ll be nothing you’ll want for, no worldly goods that won’t be yours” (947-9). To have gold, it seems, is to have everything. Wealhtheoew, Hrothgar’s queen is defined by her being “adorned in gold,” (614) as if she is merely ornamental. She is never mentioned without being mentioned alongside the gold she wears. However, we must not mistake the characters’ opinions of gold for the poet’s. We must look through the cracks of the characters’ speech and the poet’s awestruck descriptions, which are likely to merely be skilfully emulating the gold-obsessed mindests of the Anglo-Saxons, to see what it is the poet thinks of gold.
Hints as to the poet’s negative view of gold gradually accumulate throughout the poem. The line “It was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts in front of the hall-troops” seems to indicate or foreshadow that it might indeed be a shame in some way that might later be revealed. In The Hero in the Earthly City, B.F. Huppé cites Patricia Silber, who noted that “after line 2200, [gold] never appears in the context of festivity or victory” (Huppé 59). Heorot, the golden symbol of safety, is always “awaiting a barbarous burning” (82-3), and is wrecked by an enemy tribe, who raided the hall for gold, greed for gold wrecking their heroic culture from the inside out. When Grendel attacks, the poet is somewhat disturbed to recall that everything was destroyed, even the gold, the “gold fittings and all” (777), surprised that it is not an invincible metal.
The poet's opinion of gold is thrown into relief when he opens up a speech of Hrothgar's by saying "Then everyone hushed as the son of Halfdane spoke this wisdom." He thinks that what Hrothgar proceeds to say is wise, and what Hrothgar proceeds to say is Beowulf must learn to "understand true values” (1722), and choose “eternal rewards” (1760), to not give in to the empty glint of gold and to remember what it is to be truly noble, and to not be like Heremond, who “grew bloodthirsty and gave no more rings” (1719). That said, the poet still admires gold and calls Beowulf “glorious in his gold regalia” (1882). He still sees value in gold. The reason behind this contradiction is seemingly revealed with the line “Beowulf's gaze at the gold treasure when he first saw it had not been selfish” (3074-5). Beowulf seeks gold for the ‘right’ reasons. “Though Beowulf is careful to collect his winnings, he shows little interest in keeping him... [he] gives nearly all of them away,” to Hygelac and Hygd (Shippey 18). The poet seems to think that the system through which gold is distributed by kings and leaders in their heroic society to men who have shown great bravery is an honourable one. “Throughout the poem he has vilified the hoarding of wealth (Huppé, 39), but it is only this kind of greed and what he sees as the maltreatment of gold that he appears to have disdain for.
Towards the end of the story, the dragon’s hoard is discovered. “Some forgotten person had deposited the whole rich inheritance of a highborn race in this ancient cache.” “The hard helmet, hasped with gold, will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner…decays with the warrior” (2255-2260). The gold doesn’t last, after all that, it is just as mortal as men. It all melts away and doesn’t matter in the end, according to the poet.
Beowulf trades his life for the gold, as is stated by the poet more than once (“I have bartered my last breath to own this fortune” (2799-800); “The treasure had been won, bought and paid for by Beowulf’s death” (2832-3); “it was bought at heavy cost” (3012); “at a grave cost” (3085)).The repetition of this point suggests that the poet is truly trying to display how futile all that fighting for gold was, and how useless it is in the end. The gold is buried, and it becomes just as good as gravel, and even the word must have sounded so similar to the poet; “gold on greote.” (3167). It is with pity that we are made to look on Beowulf at the end, because all he wants to do is look at the gold. “I want to examine that ancient gold, gaze my fill on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier for having seen the treasure” (2747-50).
In Hero and Exile, Stanley B. Greenfield explains that the poet’s attitude towards
gold cannot be labelled as either positive or negative, noting that "such assignations conveniently polarise into favourable or unfavourable, good or evil. Quite so, but this reductive categorisation does scant justice to the range of proposed symbolic values" (33). The poet does not completely criticise gold. He reminds us that gold “was mined from you first by honourable men” (2248-9). Being enchanted by the way it shines and glimmers is not a sin. It is not the metal itself that is inherently demonic and criticised by the poet, but the harmful meanings that heroic society has stapled to it, and the poisonous greed that spirals around it. Beowulf’s funeral still glitters.
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of
English Literature, vol. 1, 2000.
Greenfield, Stanley B. Hero and Exile. Bloomsbury Academic, 1989.
Huppé, B.F. The Hero in the Earthly City. State University of New York at Birmingham,
Lee, Alvin A. Gold-Hall and Earth Dragon. The University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Shippey, T.A. Criticism of Beowulf. Edward Arnold Ltd, 1878.
Silber, Patricia. "Gold and it's Significance in Beowulf." Annuale Medievale, vol. 18, 1997.
Tolkien, J. Beowulf. The Monsters & The Critics. Oxford University Press, 1971.
Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of Beowulf. Oxford University Press, 1951.
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