Epic poems are defined by certain characteristics such as a hero, a villain, tragedy and usually a moral. It is through these characteristics that the literally work can be evaluated, discussed and applied to a culture. Those literally works that are usually deemed by the powers that be as classics, tend to have morals that can transcend time, place and culture. In this epic poem, Beowulf’s belief is that to an honorable person history and culture are ultimately more important to a society than gold or other material riches.
When Beowulf is first introduced in the poem he comes to the aid of the King and his people. Beowulf feels obligated to help rid the town of the dragon. Despite being given special armor as a gift, Beowulf is driven more by the challenge and the honor that goes with being a great warrior. Throughout the poem there is discussion on what makes a good king. Beowulf strives to learn the intricacies of being a great king so when it is his time he will be as successful at ruling as he was as a warrior.
As the poem develops, Beowulf goes from being a great warrior, to being a good king. There is a learning curve that goes with being a king, and like present day leaders many times a leader or king can not be labeled great until well after they are dead and people can retrospectively look to determine how choices made affected the culture. Even on his death bead Beowulf was interested in helping his people and leaving them a better culture.
And so, I have heard, the son of Weohstan quickly obeyed the command of his languisheing war-wary lord; he went in his chain-mail under the rock-pile roof of the barrow, exulting in his triumph, and saw beyond the seat a treasure-trove of astonishing richness, wall-hanging that were a wonder to behold, glittering gold spread across the ground, the old dawn-scorching serpent’s den packed with goblets and vessels from the past, tarnished and corroding. Rusty helmets all eaten away. Armbands everywhere, artfully wrought.
How easily treasure buried in the ground, gold hidden however skillfully, can escape from any man! And he saw too a standard, entirely of gold, hanging high over he hoard, a masterpiece of filigree; it glowed with light so he could make out the ground at his feet and inspect the valuables. Of the dragon there was no remaining sign: the sward had dispatched him. Then, the story goes, a certain man plundered the hoard in that immemorial howe, filled his arms with flagons and plates, anything he wanted; and took the standard also, most brilliant of banners. .. Wiglaf went quickly; keen to get back, excited by the treasure.
Anxiety weighed on his brave heart-he was hoping he would find the leader of the Geats alive where he had left him helpless, earlier, on the open ground. So he came to the place, carry the treasure and found his lord bleeding profusely, his life at an end; again he began to swab his body. The beginning of an utterance broke out from the king’s breast-cage. The old lord gazed sadly at the gold.
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. Now that I have bartered my last breath to own this fortune, it is up to you to look after their needs. I can hold out no longer (Pg 91 lines 2752 – 2777, Pg 91 lines 2783 – Pg 92 lines 2801). ” This passage comes from the end of the text where Beowulf is on his deathbed.
He sends out a warrior (Wiglaf) and tells him where to find all this treasure that Beowulf has collected while he was a warrior. Beowulf has stored the treasure in the cave of a serpent. When Wiglaf arrives he sees what was once magnificent gold. Pieces of armor, table settings and jewelry abound. However, due to the atmosphere of the cave and the fact that no one has taken care of the gold, it is now tarnished, and corroding. The warrior realizes that if Beowulf would not told him where this treasure lay it would not have been found.
Wiglaf gathered as much treasure as he could carry and hurried back to Beowulf. Unfortunately, the King’s conditioned had worsened. As Beowulf uttered his last words he thanked God, the King of Glory, for allowing him to leave his people so well endowed on the day he died. Many people, and probably Wiglaf would argue that what Beowulf left was not such a great treasure. However, the endowment was not the gold itself, but the history that shaped the society during Beowulf’s time as warrior and later as a king.
The treasure that was left by Beowulf was items that had been given to him or won during battles when he was a warrior. What Wiglaf did not realize was that the stories could not be retold now that Beowulf was dead. Those individuals who were alive when such heroic acts took place, such as the swimming challenge, and the dealings with both Grendel as well as his mother were no longer living. One of the reasons Beowulf was such a great king was that he had lived so long, experienced so many things, and had a significant number of stories to tell.
These riches and gold were the items left to remember such events, Beowulf’s idea was that if he left his people something tangible they would tell stories and the history of their culture would be passed from one generation to another. People would go somewhere (such as what we call a museum today) and say, “do you see that shield, and sword, that is the very shield and sword that Beowulf the great warrior and king used to free the town from the evil Grendel that ravaged our people for over 20 years, moons and suns, before us. This is the type treasure that Beowulf was talking about. As an honorable person, he realized that his history and culture are ultimately more important to a society than gold or other material riches. As an honorable king, Beowulf realized that he could do something to preserve not only his honor, but to also make his society and culture a better place.