Beowulf through Symbols
Beowulf Through symbols Beowulf, the first written story (that we know of), was written during a time of social tension. There was a shift in religious beliefs, as well as constant wars. The shift, as well as other themes, are seen in Beowulf. Beowulf follows the story of a fellow named Beowulf, who strived to be the best hero of all, by killing sea monsters, gremlin-like creatures, and even a dragon. Beowulf was such a great hero (originally anyways) since he followed the Grace of God and fate. Beowulf is not only a hero story, but it also demonstrates the vanity of man through symbols.
Basically, the symbols in Beowulf are under-linings of the tragedy of man through symbols of greed, power, and general pride. The story Beowulf can be represented through three symbols; gold, the hall, and the dragon. ! Gold followed Beowulf throughout the story, and led him to his eventual death. Gold everywhere is a symbol of power and wealth. Gold, however, in Beowulf represents more of the bond between people. Then, as the story goes on, gold represents the greed that comes from power and wealth. Beowulf helped Hrothgar kill Grendel, since Beowulf owed allegiance yo him.
Beowulf became Hrothgar’s retainer since, “I [Hrothgar] healed the feud by paying: I shipped a treasure to the Wulfings and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance” (470-72). This was what brought Beowulf to Hrothgar in the first place. Here gold represents the seal of loyalty, as well as the solution. Gold was seen once again as a symbol of Jennifer McCloskey Tuesday, October 15, 2013 12:56:48 AM Eastern Daylight Time McCloskey 2 loyalty when Wealhtheow gifted Beowulf with the golden torque. Regarding the cup; “The cup was carried to him, kind words spoken in welcome and a wealth of wrought gold graciously bestowed” (1191-1194).
The golden torque within itself is a symbol for the bonds between Wealhtheow, Beowulf, and her people. Soon after this, gold begins to represent greed, sin, and power. Beowulf grew obsessed with gold and pride. When Beowulf went after the dragon, he did not fight the dragon from loyalty or honor as he had before with Grendel and his mother. The fight with the dragon for the gold was for his own material gain; although for his country. The Fate and “Grace of God” that had beforehand followed Beowulf, did not get mentioned.
Without the Grace of God, the dragon bit Beowulf, and he saw that he was going to die. From when he knew, he realized what the gold had done to him. “The old lord gazed sadly at the gold… I give thanks that I behold this treasure here in front of me” (2793-2796). Basically, Beowulf realized that the gold was not worth as much as he would be to his people, and the only thing they would remember him by was the gold. Gold holds power, drives sin into heroes, and was the self destruction of Beowulf. As he died, he realized that the gold was not really that important after all.
The hall represents community, brotherhood, and power. “He [Hrothgar] handed down orders for men to work on a great mead-hall meant to be a wonder of the world forever” (68-69). The hall was a symbol of community; it was built by everyone, and was the place where people met. As time went on, the hall became a symbol of power, a place for kings to display their wealth, and for people to come together and drink and be merry. However, communities eventually fall. After the hall was built, “The Hall towered, its gables wide and high and awaiting a barbarous burning” (82-83).
This quote, although never specifically explained, shows Jennifer McCloskey Tuesday, October 15, 2013 12:56:48 AM Eastern Daylight Time McCloskey 3 that the Hall, being so large attracted everyone, even demonic goblin gremlin things such as Grendel. Grendel could not stand the harp playing and the poet proclaiming the story of the “Almighty Creator”. This is a symbol for the entire story, which is the introduction to Christianity. Past superstitions and maybe important creatures (whatever Grendel actually is) tried to stop the new thought (Catholicism) from spreading.
After Beowulf eventually kills Grendel, the community is restored. They rebuilt the hall and celebrated the victory of Beowulf. Another symbol, the dragon, represents the sin and eventual destruction of humanity. As Christianity began to spread, the book of Revelation did as well. Revelation usually includes a monster of some sort (a dragon) that wipes out humanity. It is no coincidence that Beowulf gets killed by a dragon. It was not until “Until one began to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl from the steep vaults of a stone roofed barrow where he guarded a hoard” (2211-2214).
So all of a sudden, after more than 50 years of (what we assume to be) simple kingly years for Beowulf, darkness fell. The dragon becomes the symbol of the self-destruction of Beowulf. It was the gold that caused Beowulf’s pride and greed to get the best of him. When the dragon came, “There was a hot glow that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger would leave nothing alive in his wake” (2313-2315). Here the dragon symbolizes the “judgement of the people” in which no one is good, so a rebirth is necessary. The dragon kept on attacking, revenging the person that stole his gold. After those words in the dragon again and drove it to attack, heaving up fire hunting for enemies, humans it loathed” (2669-72). This can symbolize Revelation in the Bible and the end of the World, the End of time, and the death of humanity. However, the dragon does get killed, which can be considered the Salvation. Jennifer McCloskey Tuesday, October 15, 2013 12:56:48 AM Eastern Daylight Time McCloskey 4 Gold, the hall, and the dragon together can form the story of Beowulf from only three symbols. Gold represented the greed that came from power and wealth.
It also represented the loyalty and bond of others and brotherhood. The Hall in Beowulf represented community, brotherhood, and power. Although, it goes through the changes of power in the hall. The dragon marked the sin and death of Beowulf. Beowulf’s symbols make Beowulf have deeper meaning than other stories told at the time. The story Beowulf shows the sin of man even in the strongest people, and that monsters can be people too. Jennifer McCloskey Tuesday, October 15, 2013 12:56:48 AM Eastern Daylight Time