Material Possessions in Beowulf

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the role played by material possessions in the poem. How important are material goods in Beowulf? What is the attitude of the narrator and of the hero warriors towards material possessions?

In Beowulf, material possessions have a direct relationship with happiness and success. Material possessions are symbols that signify success in battle, and ruined material possessions signify defeat. For example, “many were ready, both women, to adorn the guest-all. Gold embroidered tapestries glowed from the walls, with wonderful sites for every creature that cared to look at them. The bright building had hardly started in all its inner parts, despite its iron bands, and the hinges were ripped off. Only the roof survived unmarred and in one piece when the monstrous one, flecked with his crimes, had fled the place in despair of his life” (992 – 1001). Here, the crimes against the people are represented in the crimes against the material possessions that they hold dear. Since material possessions are used to celebrate and commemorate important feats in the hero story, they have more importance in society than simply their material worth. For example, “men known for their courage came to the benches, rejoiced in the feast; they refreshed themselves kindly with many a mead-cup; in their midst the brave kinsman, father’s brother and brother’s son, Hrothgar and Hrothhulf. Heorot’s floor was filled with friends: falsity in those days had no place in the dealings of the Danish people” (1012-1018). Here, material possessions are symbols of celebration that directly correspond to successes as heroes.

Anonymous.  Beowulf: A Verse Translation.  Translated by Michael AlexanderNew York: Penguin Books, 2003.  Print.

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