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Gold and its Significance in Beowulf

Gold and its Significance in Beowulf

By Patricie Silber

Annuale Medievale, Vol. 18 (1977)

Shoulder clasp from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, British Museum.

Introduction: The gold and treasure in Beowulf are so much a part of the texture of the poem that the reader tends to dismiss them as another commonplace of the heroic age, like mead-benches and armor, included by the poet to set his scene. ┬áThe centrality of the hoard in the second part, however, demands that all of the references to gold in the poem be examined carefully to determine the metal’s symbolic value, and to uncover the relationships between the dragon’s hoarded treasure and that distributed so freely by Hrothgar, since it must be assumed that a poet of such subtlety and allusiveness would use the one as a referent to the other.

There is a prismatic quality in Beowulf which enables the poet to sustain several angles of vision concurrently by allusions that escape the bounds of sequential time. Connotative words, shifts in narrative point of view, and references to past and future events allow us to catch glimpses of the end from the beginning as well as to look back at earlier events when we have reached the conclusion. It is the application of this quality to gold that I wish to examine.

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