The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is not only a great story of valor and honor but a reflection of the customs and traditions of the day. Of course we know that one of the practices was the honoring of thanes with gold rings and other gifts of gold given by the king. This giving was used as a reward but was also a practice in keeping with the idea that these men were constantly at the ready to give up their lives in feats of valor.
Because the Anglo-Saxons believed that their lives were in the hands of Fate (Wyrd), they were fierce warriors who pledged their loyalties to their king. In turn, the king wisely inspires his men with gold, an act which both expresses his gratitude and ensures the continued loyalty of his warrior-friends.
In the beginning of the story, then, we see a traditional use of gold. It is an item of value which is used as a reward, as a gift, and as a symbol of honor. In fact, in one of the opening descriptions in the poem we read about Shield Sheafson, the beloved Danish king who has died:
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean's sway.
This tribute of gold sets the scene for other references to gold in the first part of the story. Gold is used as wergild, a kind of man-price which is paid as a compensation for any kind of injury or even a death, and after Beowulf kills the marauding Grendel, Hrothgar rewards him richly, including a gold standard. Hrothgar also rewards all of Beowulf's men with lesser gifts of gold for their willingness to come and help his countrymen.
When Beowulf is about to jump into the water and confront Grendel's mother, he asks Hrothgar to make sure his king, Hygelac, gets all of Beowulf's gold and treasures if he is killed in this battle. Again, this is an indication that gold has value as a show of honor and gratitude. When he arrives home, Beowulf ceremoniously presents him with gifts of gold.
Things change by the time Beowulf has become king. After reigning for fifty years, Beowulf is faced with his final foe--and all because of a misuse of gold. The servant who stole the gold cup does what he should not have done, and in this case gold is used as an attempt to buy his master's pardon. Rather than a sign of honor, then, gold has become something more venal, and the servant hopes to regain his master's favor by offering him the trinket of gold.
The most obvious misuse of gold is seen in the dragon, of course. The dragon has been hoarding gold for centuries, and his miserly view of gold is in sharp contrast to the liberal giving of gold at the beginning of the poem. Beowulf does eventually win the gold hoard, but it is a somewhat hollow victory.
The old lord gazed sadly at the gold.
"To the everlasting Lord of All,
to the King of Glory, I give thanks
that I behold this treasure here in front of me,
that I have been allowed to leave my people
so well endowed on the day I die."
While he is glad to leave such a legacy for his people, Beowulf looks at it sadly, no doubt wondering whether his sacrifice was worth the reward. This time, the gold gifts do not bring him the same kind of honor. They are not given as a gift or as a reward; instead they are the spoils of a battle to the death.