How is the subject of gold and treasure handled differently in Beowulf than in "The Pardoner's Tale" by Chaucer?
Are there any similarites or differences between how gold and treausure are treated in Beowulf and "The Pardoner's Tale" (in Chaucer's The Cantebury Tales)?
In the story of Beowulf, gold and treasure play an important part in the last section of the story, when as an old man, Beowulf goes to fight the dragon—which has unleashed its fury on the people of Beowulf's kingdom—because a thief has stolen a flagon (goblet) from the dragon's hoard of treasure.
...one dragon began to rage. It guarded a hoard high upon a hill in a steep barrow of stone...it was seldom traveled by men. One man, however, chanced upon that cave and saw the heathen's hoard. While the watcher slept, he took in his hand a golden goblet and did not give it back.
Beowulf does not hesitate to fight the "serpent," and goes into battle. When he arrives at the dragon's barrow and enters the cave, he is overcome by the strength of his enemy. All of Beowulf's men flee except Wiglaf—a young warrior who refuses to leave his King in his time of need.
Alas, for his band of comrades, the sons of princes, did not stand armed about him with a battle-stance, but they ran off to the woods to save their lives. But one soul was burdened with care, for true kinship can never be marred in a noble mind!
Beowulf is fatally wounded by the dragon's venom, but with Wiglaf's help, he finally kills the beast. Beowulf is dying, and he instructs Wiglaf to bring him gold from the cave so that he can see the reward of their gallant fight.
...go in haste. I would behold the magnificent treasures, the store of gold, and have joy in the jewels and gems; I would resign the life...I have long held with more ease when I look upon this splendid hoard.
In this story, the gold is disgraceful when stolen by the thief, but it is considered Beowulf's just reward when it is won in fair combat.
Gold (treasure) plays a very different role in Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale." The Pardoner tells the other pilgrims about the sin of greed: an irony in that the Pardoner is a very greedy and dishonest man himself—a fact that is not lost on the author, who is finding fault with this "man of the Church."
In "The Pardoner's Tale," three men find that their friend has died at the hand of "Death." The men, drunk from the night before, go out looking for revenge. They meet an old man along the way and, berating him, they ask why he is old and still alive. The old man says that no one younger will take his place in old age—even Death will not take him. Then he scolds the three men for their disrespectful behavior towards him:
But, sirs, in you it is no courtesy
To speak to an old man despitefully,
Unless in word he trespass or in deed. (128-130)
The three men have no concern for the old man and disregard his words, but because he has spoken of Death, they demand to know where they can go to find "him." (Some critics believe the old man actually is Death.)
“Now, sirs,” said he, “if you’re so keen, in brief,
to find out Death, turn up this crooked way... (149-150)
See you that oak? Right there you shall him find." (154)
The men run to the tree, but find instead a stash of gold. They plan to take the gold, forgetting all about Death. Two of the men stab the third and take his share...but he has planned to kill them with poison for their share. The last two unknowingly drink "tainted" wine, and die—all for greed—though they do finally "find Death."
In this story—unlike that of Beowulf—the gold is not a reward, but something that inspires the wicked characters in Chaucer's story to commit murder—it is a tale of warning told by the hypocritical Pardoner.