July 13, 2011
stops a moment on a penny
and then lets it go.
One of the great stories of Old English is Beowulf, but it is much more than a story of a hero defeating a dragon. It is a story about being part of a community, and Beowulf, an outsider, came to show by example how to create community.
The enemies of the State in the story are monsters – Grendel and Grendel’s mother – and later, an unnamed fire-breathing dragon. Sometimes it is difficult to think symbolically. We tend to get boxed in by literal meanings and interpretations and remain in darkness. But when you run into monsters and dragons, things that literally have not been seen around these parts, you can bet your bottom dollar that the author is talking in symbols.
The monsters and dragon hoard gold in their hall. Now, what good is gold to a dragon? Dragons have no use for it! And that is the point: In a community, wealth is meant to be used. Compare the monsters and dragon to the hero of the story. Beowulf does not hoard his well-earned treasures. The oft-repeated epithet for Beowulf is perhaps his society’s ultimate compliment: “ring-giver.”
So the story Beowulf, at least in part, is an economic treatise about living in a community. Beowulf does not hoard his riches; he dispenses a good portion of what he has earned. Hoarding, a personal goal of accumulation, is death to community. It does not allow for the life-blood of community, the exchange of goods and services, to circulate in a healthy manner throughout the body politic. When the majority of wealth of a people is in the hands of a few who have no use for it – like the monsters and dragon in this simple story – then everyone suffers.
Hopefully we still have it within ourselves to recognize the need for community, to be modern-day heroes, to be ring-givers.