Ruminations on “Beowulf”, Treasure, and Generosity

My OE prof was personal friends with Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and told him to his face that she hated his translation. It is, naturally, the only translation I've read all the way through.

Hwæt!

Today, I feel like talking about Beowulf.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Beowulf is that it is essentially a pagan heroic epic, yet it was written by a Christian for a Christian audience.  Naturally, there is an unmistakable contrast between the pagan themes inherent in the story and the Christian themes that are worked into the grain by the poet.  The theme of wealth, in particular, is one which both Beowulf and other Christian theological texts of the time period speak frequently about.

Christianity, by its very nature, focuses attention on the afterlife.  What we do on earth is important insomuch as it pleases God, works His will, and prepares our souls for Heaven. Especially in medieval Christianity, the presence of wealth was often seen as a distraction from spiritual things and a promoter of greed.  The monastic orders forsook all but the basic necessities of life in order to focus their minds and hearts on God, and the Protestant Reformers would later note how the luxuries of the papacy had perverted the office to something that was spiritual only in name.  Material wealth is of little use, said the Christians, for it cannot accompany you after death and is troublesome in life.  As Boethius pointed out,

“Money has no inherent property such as to stop it being taken away from those who possess it, against their will.”

The poet of Beowulf might consider Boethius’ statement a point well taken, as the poem is filled with battles in which the loser’s treasures invariably go to the one who defeated him.  Prowess in war is the most prized virtue, and it is assumed that the stronger man has earned the right to take whatever his strength allows him if the battle was justified for any reason.  Yet wealth serves another, vastly more important role in the society and Beowulf – it enables generosity.  Noble kings and thanes are often called ring-givers, because aside from valor in war, their honor and reputation is built on the hospitality they show to others and the ways they reward their loyal followers.  When Beowulf saves the hall of Heorot from Grendel, King Hrothgar not only lets him loot Grendel’s lair, but also heaps numerous other treasures on him and his soldiers to show the magnitude of his thankfulness and the greatness of his soul.  The poet remarks consistently how this giving of gifts marks the greatness of Hrothgar’s honor.  Beowulf then proceeds to reward his faithful followers with more gifts, not even neglecting the man who stayed on the coastline to watch their ship the whole time and was not present at any of the fights.  And when he arrives home in Geatland, Beowulf shows his appreciation to his king at home by giving him some of the treasure as well.  By such generosity, as well as fighting prowess, are men considered great in this world.

Wealth is seen as something to be used, not hoarded, and, I think, as a sort of vindication that the battle was worth it after all.  If the victor does not reward those who have helped him, he will reveal his arrogance and end up with enemies.  Those who do hoard wealth in this world inevitably lose it – in a curious affirmation of Beothius’ rule.  Grendel and Grendel’s mother have apparently raided and looted human settlements for centuries, and they lose all to Beowulf.  The dragon, too, has a hoard of treasure that does not belong to him, and so he too loses it to Beowulf.

Yet neither can Beowulf keep his winnings in the afterlife. Dying from the dragon’s wound, he commands his servant Wiglaf to find the monster’s treasure hoard for him, saying, “My going will be easier for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go of the life and lordship I have long maintained” (Heaney, 185). Why? Not for himself, but for his people. His wealth is only good so long as it strengthens the people of his kingdom, and the hero recognizes that it is to his honor to leave his loved ones better off after his passing.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

14 thoughts on “Ruminations on “Beowulf”, Treasure, and Generosity”

  1. I translated Beowulf, along with passages from several poems for my OE class in my last postgrad degree and it was such a delight. Translating is incredibly soothing work, which is probably why Middle Welsh translations has been my favorite course here at Edinburgh Uni. Heaney’s translation is good in that it has the original version on one side so that you can go back and forth between them for reference on particular words and phrases, but it really isn’t that great of a translation, I have to agree. Try Crossley-Holand’s The Anglo-Saxon World for a good translation, plus the poems.

    Also, if you really want to have fun, get the Cambridge Old English Reader and do some translating. It is a fabulous book for translation work.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I haven’t studied Heaney’s translation versus others, so I have to take my prof’s word on it. It is, however, an eminently readable translation, clear to the modern ear while aesthetically pleasant, and retaining the Old English-style alliteration. It’s probably comparable to the NIV or even “The Message” Bible in that regard; a translation suited for casual reading especially by non-scholars, but there are better ones if you want to do actual study.

      I agree, translation is relaxing. I really enjoyed translating “The Dream of the Rood” at St Andrews Uni. Still have Prof. Duncan’s primer on Old English, but he doesn’t have much of a glossary, so I may check out that Cambridge one.

  2. ‘Beowulf then proceeds to reward his faithful followers with more gifts, not even neglecting the man who stayed on the coastline to watch their ship the whole time and was not present at any of the fights’. reminds me of the generosity of God who rewards us even when we are not worthy…

    1. Good thought. God is, of course, unbelievably more generous than even that; Beowulf would never sacrifice himself for his enemies’ salvation! But (as Urania says below) even though he is flawed, there still is some of God’s goodness reflected in him. I think his generosity is part of that.

  3. These are some great observations that hadn’t occurred to me when reading the poem.

    While Beowulf is not greedy for worldly possessions, what do you make of “lofgeornost” (most eager for fame) as the last word in the poem? Is this a good or not so good thing? Not that this takes anything away from the virtues you have noted in him, but it seems that Beowulf is still a flawed man whose desire for fame and honor seems holdover from the pagan era. But flaws are part of what makes him (or any other great literary character) human and interesting.

    1. I do think it is a flaw in him, as it is a flaw in the culture, for he does greatly desire the praise of men (as opposed to despising what men think in favor of what God thinks). Yet there is still a noble edge even to that. It’s not just fame Beowulf desires, but being worthy of it. He would never lie about his exploits just to seem more impressive (as he does in the 2007 movie, which is the main reason my OE prof despised that movie so much). That would defeat the purpose. I think what he desires so keenly is to be recognized as a man who can be relied upon to do great things whenever great things are called for. And the fame he wins isn’t for him alone, but also for his kingdom and family name. There’s still an element of sinful pride in it, I think, but tempered by the selflessness with which Beowulf so eagerly gives his possessions and himself away to his friends and people

  4. I take it it’s nothing like the most recent movie adaptation, then? i was always curious about Beowulf, until seeing that movie. Now the thought of it rather sickens me. Please tell me I have been egregiously mislead.

    1. Hohoho, YES. Egregious is putting it lightly. The general consensus is that people who love Beowulf loathe the movie. Okay, sure, there are probably some students who enjoyed the movie on a campy level, but no, it barely represents the story at all.

      “Beowulf” the epic poem is one of the masterpieces of English literature, and the closest thing England has to an epic of its own in the Homerian tradition. Tolkien’s academic career centered largely around Beowulf and similar tales; he loved the poem greatly and revolutionized its academic study.

      So all the stupid stuff of the movie? Hedonism in Heorot, Grendel’s mother turning into Angelina Jolie and sleeping with the “hero,” Beowulf being a no-good liar and stupidface…that was all “artistic license” by the filmmakers. The actual Beowulf of the poem is flawed, but still a strong model of manly honor, generosity, and integrity. And the dragon was not his illegitimate child with a monster-lady, it was just a dragon. A really fierce old dragon.

      1. O_o holy wiggermaruffin… I have not seen the film, and this makes me very, very glad that I have not. It sounds about as similar to the epic as two highly dissimilar things are to eachother. Brain hurts…
        On your essay-except: I always found the concepts of gift-giving in this poem fascinating, and they helped me to understand a lot of the themes that run through Tolkien’s writings. I had also seen the hoarder themes rising in Tolkien, but you have made me think about the contrast between the gift-givers and the hoarders. And then, of course, there is the evil ring-giver Sauron, who seems generous, but is truly selfish… hmmm.

      2. Ugh. Everything I hated about it. A story that corrupted is unforgivable. It’s like plagiarism, but instead of taking someone else’s work and putting your own name on it, you’re taking your work and putting someone else’s name on it. In fact, it kind of feels worse than plagiarism.

        1. I agree. I would be angry if someone stole my work and called it their own, but I would, I think, feel so much worse if someone took it and butchered it so. I pity authors who are subject to fan-fiction, which today is pretty much every author who is still read. >_<

  5. Beowulf is one of those fascinating amalgamated texts–pagan and Christian, pre and post written communication. It’s an odd hodgepodge of Anglo Saxon culture and Christian beliefs that’s all the more delightful for having them rammed together. I have always imagined the monk who heard this justifying the time, ink, and vellum it took to write it down had a wicked good time taking the tale and adapting it for his purposes. I love reading this little snippet of a much larger work, and I truly enjoyed teaching it each and every year I was in the classroom.

    1. And it’s so much fun to read aloud! In the original or, presuming you have a translation that preserves the Anglo-Saxon alliteration, modern English.

      Hwæt we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum…

      Just rolls off the tongue. (I’m not even joking. So much fun!)

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