The Meaning of Rings in Beowulf
Rings are to medieval lords and retainers as medals are to athletes: a reward that is earned through hard work and dedication to a cause that makes them feel both empowered and worthwhile, while at the same time reminding them to work harder and strive to be better in the future. In the epic poem Beowulf, rings, which are often looked at as simple pieces of jewelry, are in fact symbolic of ideas, values, and power; thereby becoming much more than a piece of metal or the image of a circle, but a representation of the promises, prosperity, protection, and authority that are ever-present throughout the text. As the story progresses, readers discover the different lights in which rings are referred to and discussed, showcasing a varied perspective on their importance and symbolism. The ring is symbolic of all the ideals of proper dynastic leadership and the quintessential relationship between a king, his lords, and his retainers.
Rings are symbolic of the promise to uphold the ideals of the land, be a good citizen, and to always follow through when doing so is expected. All through the story, readers are reminded of the relationship between a king and his lords and retainers. The king provides protection and generosity to the lords and retainers, who in turn supply loyalty and power to the king. A way kings show generosity to their subjects is presenting them with spoils of war, namely rings. However, rings represents more than just generosity, and they are more to the retainers and lords than just symbols of loyalty: They represent a promise. Being given a ring from the king, the embodiment of the dynasty, represents not only the leadership’s trust in the recipient, but the responsibility they have to their dynasty. It is important for this honored custom to be both bestowed and upheld. This is clearly displayed in the description of the funeral of greatest ruler of the Danes, Shield Sheafson: “They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,/ laid out by the mast, amidships,/ the great ring-giver” (34-36). Shield is alluded to as their ideal king many times, and he sets the bar to which all other kings are compared. Calling him their beloved lord shows that he is loved and revered by his subjects. This commendation goes hand in hand with naming Shield the “great ring-giver.” He is beloved because he gives rings to the retainers and is a good king, and saying that he is the great ring-giver immediately adds to the positive intention of the phrase because of not only the connotation of the compliment, but also the meaning it carries. This kenning tells readers that Shield Sheafson gives rings to his people as spoils of war, that he maintains the king-lord-retainer relationship through rings specifically, augmenting to the approval the kingdom gives him. In fact, there are many instances throughout the book that this phrase can be spotted; all indicate a positive view of the king because they show the king gives both his trust and a responsibility to his people, and they accept and promise to live up to the expectations that go with each.
But a promise of faith to the king by the lords and retainers is not the only promise represented by the morsels of metal. Kings are not only supposed to give rings, they are expected to. In order to ensure his maintenance of the activity, King Hrothgar, a subsequent king of the Danes, built a great structure named the Heorot Hall in which he could always give rings and other spoils of war to his people, and “nor did he renege/ but doled out rings and torques at the table” (80-81). He maintained the proper relationship cycle and built a permanent reminder of how he plans to sustain it. Both Shield and Hrothgar earned their status as great kings by keeping their promise to be generous and kind as well as giving their people a duty that they could promise to undertake.
Though many deep meanings can be drawn from the symbolism in rings, they still represent the most superficial of implications that accompany the jewelry; rings represent wealth and prosperity. The ability to give rings away without hesitation, and the naming of kings “great ring-givers” shows that a dynasty is doing well enough to have extra wealth and a desire to share it with the population. It showcases the goodness of the king as well as the success and prosperity of the dynasty under his rule. Even in the midst of danger, the narrator never fails to remind readers of the richness in the kingdom. This can be seen as Grendel moves to attack Heorot Hall: “So, after nightfall, Grendel set out/ for the lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes/ were settling into it after their drink” (115-117). Instead of calling the Danes rich or wealthy, they are referred to as the Ring-Danes, meaning they have and give rings. This displays their level of wealth in a mere four letters, and it relates the importance of rings because they were chosen as the piece of jewelry with which to describe all riches. Another place where the ring’s significance and representation of fortune is shown is when Beowulf is presented with a golden torque after defeating Grendel. The history of the torque is told: “Hygelac the Geat, grandson of Swerting,/ wore this neck-ring on his last raid;/ at bay under his banner, he defended the booty,/ treasure he had won” (1202-1205). Instead of being called a necklace, the torque is presented as a neck-ring, because the word “ring” is more significant and symbolic of wealth than “necklace.” This specific artifact was worn by Hygelac when he defended treasure, and now it’s famous for the feat; furthermore, it has become a representation of his bravery and the wealth he preserved by protecting the riches. When used as an adjective, the word “ring” becomes greater than a piece of metal, but a representation of the wealth and prosperity of a dynasty.
It is important that rings are looked at past their common physical form; rings can also be impenetrable shapes and boundaries, a forcefield of defense. They can also accompany this defense mechanism in the form of decoration, but they are always present, nonetheless. When Beowulf recounts his fight with sea creatures during his swimming competition with Brecca, he described how rings helped him preserve his life in the heat of the fight: “My armor held me to hold out;/ my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked,/ a fine, close-fitting filigree of gold,/ kept me safe when some ocean creature/ pulled me to the bottom” (550-554). Here Beowulf describes how his chain mail, which is composed of a series of interlocking metal rings, protected him while he was fighting creatures in the ocean. It is because of these rings of metal that he survived the fight; it is with them he was able to emerge from the ocean and take a victorious breath. However, chain-mail is not the only piece of armor that involves rings. A helmet is later described: “An embossed ring, a band lapped with wire/ arched over the helmet: head-protection/ to keep the keen-ground cutting edge/ from damaging it when danger threatened” (1029-1032). The ring is so significantly protective that a practical yet decorative piece of metal was shaped into one and placed over a helmet to protect both the user and the armor itself. It also is a companion to a helmet: a go-to protective piece of armor alone, and when accompanied by a ring, a helmet will become a physical representation of defense.
However, metaphorical rings are just as protective as those that are quite literal. As Beowulf asks Hrothgar permission to fight Grendel, he implores, “And so, my request, O king of Bright-Danes,/ dear prince of the Shieldings, friend of the people/ and the ring of defense, my one request…” (427-429). Hrothgar is named the Shieldings’ “ring of defense.” This means that he is their protector, and he defends them from any harm. This is both a compliment to Hrothgar and yet another example of how rings are protective; they are a metaphorical boundary of safety. Be it metaphorical or physical, rings are impenetrable boundaries that protect people in more than one way.
Rings represent the rules of the land and the willingness of the people to follow them; they are a symbol of authority. Kings and queens wear rings and give them out to their subjects. They are rewards for cooperation and good deeds, given by people who are in authoritative positions. Each is worn on a finger as an infinite reminder of the dynasty’s governing figures who so generously gifted the jewelry to their followers and their people who they protect with all their power. They mark both those with authority and those who have served their authoritative figures well enough to be in possession of a tangible depiction of their gratitude. When Hrothgar threw a banquet for Beowulf’s arrival, his queen, Wealhtheow, filled her role in society as “[she] went on her rounds,/ queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,/ offering the goblet [of wine] to all ranks…” (620-622). Here she is described as both queenly and dignified, and is completing a task that is part of her obligations to society. Furthermore, Wealhtheow is decked out in rings.The connection between being authoritative and proper and wearing rings is clearly drawn in this excerpt, and it perfectly exemplifies the deep representation of authority that rings bear. But rings’ representation of authority goes beyond just a person having the quality; it shows the willingness of people to cooperate with those who hold positions of authoritative power. After Beowulf’s ship lands in the land of the Danes, he explains his purpose to a guard named Wulfgar. In response, Wulfgar says, “I will take this message,/ in accordance with your wish, to our noble king,/ our dear lord, friends of the Danes,/ the giver of rings” (350-353). Wulfgar displays both his admiration of Hrothgar and his eagerness to cooperate and serve him though this variation. He bends to the wishes of his leader because he holds the authority, and Wulfgar knows he will receive rings and other spoils of war if he performs his duty. The quality of authority, whether it be the authority a person possesses or the authority that one knows they must abide by, is marked by rings throughout Beowulf.
Throughout the epic poem Beowulf, rings prove to be as important to lords and retainers as a medal is to an athlete. Their definition evolves from a simplistic band of metal to a symbol of the ideas, values, and power of dynasties present in the tale. Rings come to symbolize promises made by both the kings to their lords and retainers and vice versa, the prosperity and wealth a dynasty has experienced while the pieces of jewelry were given out, the protection a king, soldier, or even a piece of armor offers, and the authority of the leadership of a dynasty. In these key ways, rings can be viewed in much deeper, more sophisticated lights than they have been before. And by expanding on these thought-provoking inferences, rings’ importance to dynasties in the story Beowulf is understood.
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