Beowulf - Introduction


One fascinating part of the poem, from a historical perspective, is where barrows are mentioned, When the wounded Beowulf is dying, he sits by the dragon's treasure trove barrow and observes how the earth-cave is held up by giant stone pillars, "solid forever".(Chickering p213) This reflects the construction of barrows such as those found at Stoney Littleton and West Kennet, referring to a form of construction dating back thousands of years that was still being followed by the Anglo-Saxons. The story may also suggest that Saxons had looted many barrows built by the indigenous Britains.

The wealth of the Anglo-Saxons is mentioned throughout the poem. All the Northern European warrior tribes were dedicated to pluder but the value of their hoards still shock. For example, the Geat king, paid Wulf and Eador "with immense treasure - one hundred thousand in land and rings." (Chickering p 229)

Even at the point of death, Beowulf has to look at the dragon's treasure. He says to Wiglaf that he will be happier to die if he can see extent of the treasure, he has lost his life to achieve. So, Wiglaf enters the barrow and collects armfuls of gold plates and cups and the dragon's standard.

Once past the seat, the victorious thane
- brave young kinsman - saw red gold, jewels,
glittering treasure lying on the ground,
wondrous wall-hangings; in the den of the serpent, the old dawn-flier, stood golden beakers,
an ancient service, untended, unpolished,
its garnets broken. Helmets lay heaped,
old and rusted, and scores of arm-rings
skillfully twisted....a golden standard
hanging over the hoard, intricate weaving
of wondrous skill; a light came from it
by which he could see the whole treasure-floor,
gaze on the jewels
(Chickering, p215)

These treasures are exactly what one would find in the barrow of a very prosperous Anglo-Saxon nobleman. The description of the treasure could be applied to the finds at Sutton Hoo for example. The objects are desirable though both the value of their materials - gold and gems remaining desired objects to the present day - and the skill of their manufacture.

Beowulf expresses thanks to God for the fantastic treasure that he would have been able to leave to a son -if he had had one - to give to his subjects. He passes his golden necklace to Wiglaf and entrusts him with the future care of his people. He orders his funeral pyre to be built here, at the cliff edge, so that the barrow will be known as Beowulf's Barrow by sailors for ever afterwards.

After Beowulf's death, Wiglaf takes the opportunity to castigate the cowardly warband with the huge extent of the treasure Beowulf gave his life to get for them. The ornaments were later returned to the barrow, described in the poem as "the treasure of princes, gold in the ground, where it lies even now, as useless to men, as it was before" (Chickering page 243)

There are several possible ways to interpret this part of the poem. I'll present some of them here:

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