In the Anglo-Saxon society, weapons and treasure show power and wealth, and in Beowulf the loss of the importance of weapons and treasure parallels the downfall of the Anglo- Saxon society.
Throughout the poem, the scops tell of the giving of treasures and ancient weapons to warriors as part of the comitatus code. The comitatus code is the giving of gifts from a king to his warriors for the good deeds they do. Hrothgar promises to give Beowulf much treasure if he defeats Grendel, saying that he will make sure Beowulf’s ship is filled with treasure when he leaves for the land of the Geats, and again he promises to reward Beowulf if he defeats Grendel’s Mother. Hrothgar gives Beowulf many gifts after Beowulf defeats Grendel.
He receives treasure and ancient weaponry from Hrothgar including Hrothgar’s own helmet, which he uses against Grendel’s Mother. Beowulf also displays the comitatus code. As Beowulf returns to his ship to head home he rewards to Danish soldier who watches his ship with a golden handled sword. This shows that Beowulf learns from Hrothgar the importance of giving gifts and treasures.
The first evidence of the importance of treasure is in the prologue, as the scop tells the story of Shild and Beo. After the time of his passing, Shild’s men place his body
on a ship with all of his treasures piled around him. In the Anglo-Saxon society this was an honorable form of burial. The Sutton Hoo, a burial ship once found by archaeologists contained many ancient treasures and armor, including “a helmet-cum-mask…a coat of mail…a magnificent sword and the harness belonging to it complete with a great gold belt-buckle…and a elaborately mounted shield that measured almost a yard across”(Tuso, 92). Gold coins are also found on the ship. This shows the importance of treasures and weapons because the King on the Sutton Hoo cherished his treasures and armor and so he was buried with them. Shild found his treasures important and thus had them buried with him.
As Beowulf prepares to battle with Grendel’s Mother, he puts on the ancient helmet Hrothgar gives him for defeating Grendel and then Unferth, Hrothgar’s courtier, gives Beowulf his old sword named Hrunting. The scop describes Hrunting as
a fine / hilted old sword…it had / an iron blade. Etched and shining / and hardened by blood. No one who’d worn it / into battle, swung it in dangerous places, / Daring and brave, had ever been deserted. / Nor was Beowulf’s journey the first time it was / taken / to an enemy’s camp, or asked to support / some hero’s courage and win him glory. (1459-1464)
Beowulf knows the importance of Hrunting and its history, and thus is honored to accept the gift and use Hrunting in battle. Unferth offers Hrunting as a gift of forgiveness of the drunken lecture he gives to Beowulf when they fist meet, thus showing the importance of the weapon.
Wiglaf, a young Geatish warrior, and the son of Wexstan, helps Beowulf slay the dragon. To do that, he uses an ancient weapon that his father wins from Onela’s nephew. Wexstan won that sword and other armor from Onela’s nephew, and when he tries to return it, Onela say nothing, but gives the armor and sword to Wexstan who saved the armor for Wiglaf because Wexstan wants him to wear the armor respectably as he did. Wiglaf never uses armor and sword before joining Beowulf in defeating the dragon. Wiglaf later kills the dragon with that sword. The ancient sword is a symbol of the power of Wiglaf’s family.
At the end of the epic poem, Beowulf battles with the dragon not only save his people, but to also win the treasure that the dragon protects. As he is dying in Wiglaf’s arms, he asks to see the treasure that he wins. After he sees the treasure, he says to he says that he spent his life well earning He then gives Wiglaf his gold necklace, helmet, and mail shirt, showing that he thinks they are important. After Beowulf dies, the Geats burn his body.
Wiglaf decides to not only burn Beowulf’s dead body, but also burn the treasure the Geats bring out of the dragon’s tower, saying that “The fire must melt more / that his bones, more that his share of treasures. / Give it all of this golden pile / this terrible, uncounted heap of cups / and rings bought with his blood”(3010-3014). Wiglaf believes that none of the Geats deserve the treasure, and because he knows that Beowulf sells his life for that treasure, so Wiglaf sees fit that Beowulf be burned with it. After his cremating, the Geats build a huge monument to Beowulf, and under monument all the treasures that Wiglaf and Beowulf win from the dragon.
Again Wiglaf knows the importance of the treasure that they earn from defeating the dragon and the necessity to have the treasure buried in the sand with him.
The beginning of the downfall of weapons starts when Beowulf battles Grendel’s mother. During Bewulf’s battle with the greedy she-wolf, he attempts to kill her with Hrunting. “Then he saw / the might water witch, and swung his sword, / His ring-marked blade, straight at her head…But her guest / Discovered that no sword could slice her evil / skin. That Hrunting could not hurt her, was useless / Now when he needed it” (1518-1525). Beowulf says that Hrunting becomes useless and a non-factor in the battle verses Grendel’s Mother. The scop tells says that in Hrunting’s history the sword never fails men in battle. Important because the battle with Grendel’s Mother is the first time Hrunting fails to accomplish its task.
While Beowulf is battles the dragon, yet another weapon fails him. This time Nagling, Beowulf’s ancient sword breaks when he swings it to kill dragon, but the ancient sword shattered to pieces in his hands. Nagling fails Beowulf at the worst time possible. By calling Nagling an ancient sword, it shows that it old and used many times and never breaks. So Nagling, like Hrunting against Grendel’s Mother, is useless and a non-factor in the battle verses the dragon.
As far as the downfall of the importance of treasure, it is very apparent in the epic catalog of treasures and armor in the tower that the dragon protects:
No one is left / to lift these swords, polish these jeweled / cups…These hammered / helmets, worked with gold, will tarnish / and crack; the hands that should clean and polish them / are still forever. And these mail shirts, worn / in
battle, once, while swords crashed / and blades bit into shields and men, / will rust away like the warriors who owned them (2252-2260).
No men were there to care for the treasure and forget about the treasure. There is no giving of the treasure through the comitatus code, and so it has lost its importance.