Treasuring Words and Admiring Their Weave [ll.2756-2771a] (Old English)

Finding Use for Treasure
A Shining Standard

{Shy of the characters, Wiglaf may have seen a standard just like this one. Image found on Wikipedia.}

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Wiglaf hurries to the hoard, where he is mesmerized by the treasure that he finds.

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“He, the triumphant in victory, when he beyond the seat
went, the young brave thane, saw many precious jewels,
glittering gold lay on the ground,
wondrous objects on the wall, and in that dragon’s lair,
daybreak flier of old, cups stood,
vessels of men of old, now lacking a burnisher,
deprived of adornment.* There were many a helmet,
old and rusty, a multitude of arm-rings
skillfully twisted. Treasure easily may,
gold in ground, overpower each one of
mankind, though one may hide it.
Also hanging he saw a standard all of gold
high over the hoard, greatest of marvels made by hand,
woven by skill of craft; from there light
shone out, so that he might see the surface of the floor,
could look at every part of those ornate objects.”
(Beowulf ll.2756-2771a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Finding Use for Treasure

After the excitement of the battle with the dragon, and Beowulf’s heartfelt summary of his kingship, this passage is definitely something of a rest. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely silent, a point in the story where the poem’s original audiences could entirely rest.

For there is treasure about.

And, along with the treasure comes a very interesting passage: “cups stood,/vessels of men of old,now lacking a burnisher,/deprived of adornment” (“orcas stondan,/fyrnmanna fatu feormendlease,/hyrstum behrorene” (ll.2760-2762)).

What makes this passage more than what it seems is it’s implication about treasure and people’s relationship to it. Because “deprived of adornment” follows “now lacking a burnisher” it sounds as if the burnishing, the polishing, was these cups’ adornment. This makes sense since whatever precious metal they were made of would require maintenance of some sort to keep its shine.

But what’s more is that as this treasure was in the care of a characteristically miserly dragon, it didn’t receive that care that people would have given it. But add to this why people would care to preserve their treasure, especially the sorts of things described here. My own theory is that they would use these things and they would need them to be in their top shape.

Putting this all together you come out with the impression that the passage implies that treasure is ostensibly valuable only when it’s being used by people. And treasure can’t be used by the same person indefinitely, so the best way to keep treasure in use is to give it away. It’s given away to be used by the young, who can then maintain it and then give it away again, thus keeping the cycle going indefinitely.

Not to mention keeping the preciousness of the treasure in tact indefinitely.

However, this reading of treasure as the fuel in a perpetual motion machine of gifting and receiving is troubled by what happens to the treasure hoard that Beowulf and Wiglaf won. It all gets buried with Beowulf.

To be fair, the treasure may well have been buried for a strategic purpose. After all, having great wealth would likely bring down the Geats’ old enemies upon them much more quickly than the news of their loss alone.

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A Shining Standard

Another illuminating part of this passage comes at it’s end. The standard that lights the cave in which Wiglaf finds the hoard is clearly very shiny (being described as “all of gold” (“eallgylden” (ll.2767))), and must have sunlight striking it. But this sparkling standard is also significant because it echoes an earlier light in a cave: That which appears when Beowulf kills Grendel’s Mother in her den (ll.1570-1572).

Because of the parallels – the light appears in a cave, comes from a fantastical source, flares up only after the defeat of a powerful monster of one sort or other – it’s tempting to say that Wiglaf’s assist in slaying the dragon is his own killing of Grendel’s Mother. This reading is also bolstered by Wiglaf’s taking treasures back with him to Beowulf just as Beowulf bore the hilt of the giants’ sword and Grendel’s head back to Hrothgar.

Yet, then, we run into the question: Is that where the parallels end? After the treasure is brought back to Beowulf and Wiglaf is cemented as the new leader of the Geats is he not still on the same trajectory as Beowulf?

Maybe he is, but because he isn’t Beowulf (even if he is, for now, nameless) it’s not his fate for a similar trajectory to land him in the same place as the poem’s lead character.

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Next week, the third and final stanza of “O Fortuna” gets translated (and the whole thing gets posted as a recording), and Wiglaf takes as much treasure as he can back to the waiting Beowulf.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Treasuring Words and Admiring Their Weave [ll.2756-2771a] (Old English)

  1. Pingback: On Requests and Namelessness [ll.2743b-2755] (Old English) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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