Beowulf: Cycles/Rings

Beowulf: Cycles/Rings

BEOWULF To many, life seems to be one straight, narrow path but in Beowulf the notion of “rings” appears to be overwhelming. These rings can represent such diverse things like the course of existence, a hero’s glory, and vengeance. Through literal and figurative examples, rings in the poem represent reacquiring sequences and endless cycles. The idea of rings in Beowulf eludes the common thought of a “circle of life”. There are several situations within the poem where things return in a way in which they came. Beowulf opens with the story of the great Spear-Dane, Shield Sheafson.

The poem reveals that he was abandoned as a child and found floating in the ocean. After his death, Shield’s people honor him with a lavish funeral and “decked his body no less bountifully with offerings than those first ones who cast him away when he was a child”(43-45). In this way, Shield (who has come from the sea) has completed his ring of life by returning to it. Shield’s plunder and treasures have also traveled full circle, as they were returned to him in death: Far-fetched treasures Were piled upon him, precious gear… The massed treasure

Was loaded upon him: it would Travel far out into the ocean. (36-42) It was unknown if this was the Danish king’s request, but it is evident that the bold warrior Beowulf would want something similar to Shield’s final send-off. “If the battle takes me, send back my breast-webbing that…Hrethel gave me, to Lord Hygelac” (452-454) is what Beowulf tells the Danes before facing Grendel, one of the wretched spawn of Cain. By saying this it is clear that Beowulf would prefer his armor returned to its point of origin, similar to Shield and his possessions.

Grendel’s Mother also wished for her son’s arm to return back from where it came when she broke into Heorot to retrieve it. This repeated representation of people and objects involved in cycles is another way Beowulf hosts the idea of continuous rings. Rings as a literal form are also present in Beowulf. As actual objects, they form a circle, which is in fact never-ending. Rings also create a continuous legacy for their wearers. Throughout Beowulf, kings are repetitively called “ring-givers” or “giver of rings” (353).

This is because in medieval times kings would give their most valiant warriors treasure. When Hrothgar is notified of the arrival of Beowulf he declares, “This is my hope; and for his heroism I will recompense him with a rich treasure” (384-385). Treasure would sometimes include neck- or arm-rings as tokens of gratitude for the warrior’s noble deeds. In fact, Beowulf received “two arm bangles…and rings” (1903-1904) for smiting Grendel and freeing Hrothgar’s people from his reign of terror.

When worn these rings would be seen by many and would have the wearer recognized for their heroic feats. In Beowulf, recognition and fame are two themes that go hand and hand. By becoming well known from one’s actions, fame would be achieved. And in fame, comes eternal glory and a continuous place in history; much like the continuous structure of a ring or loop. A halo of vengeance is embodied within countless characters in the poem. This omnipresence surrounds individuals and monsters alike and drives them to an endless ring of revenge.

It first starts when Grendel attacks the Danes in Hrothgar’s mead-hall, Heorot. His reign of terror lasts for 12 years. He “grabbed thirty men from their resting places” (122-123), took them to his lair, and brought back their butchered bodies. None other than the hero, Beowulf, could continue this early cycle of payback. Once he arrived in Heorot, he decided to face the monster unarmed. Even so, the mighty Geat ripped the outcast’s limb off, causing the “sinews to split and the bone-lappings to burst” (816-817). Accordingly, Grendel’s mother did not take the death of her son lightly.

She too wreaked havoc on the mead hall by killing one of Hrothgar’s favorite warriors. At this, Beowulf stroke back and killed her. This ceaseless cycle of vengeance is another expression of “rings” in Beowulf. Again and again, the idea of an eternal, continuous, “ring” is presented in Beowulf. Through life and death, people and objects seem to return to where they once came. In the course of a hero’s career, kings have the power of providing him with undying fame. And finally, a cycle in also found through vengeance and abiding feuds.