Gold has many different uses. In John Gardner’s novel Grendel, it is used as a motif to symbolize different aspects of a character. Though it has a constant meaning throughout the novel, it also differs according to each character. Gardner uses gold as a symbol of majesty as well as protection, greed and power throughout the novel especially related to the characters of the Shaper, Hrothgar and the Dragon respectively.
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To the Shaper, gold symbolizes majesty as well as protection. He was “beyond the need of any shaggy old gold-friend’s pay (49).” The Shaper did not merely work to earn his gold; he sang his songs of old because they were his passion and his love. The king supported him, and that was all he needed. He had no desire to obtain the gold, and in turn, he gained more. The gold was also his protector. At the time of his death, the women covered his eyes with gold to keep him from seeing where he went (145). It protected him from seeing the corruption and greed in society. Because of this protection, he was able to keep his focus on the inspiration of his songs.
Then there is Hrothgar, to whom gold symbolizes majesty as well as greed. During the wars between the various kings, they threaten to steal each other’s gold and burn the meadhalls (33). The gold became a symbol to the people of who was the stateliest ruler between the Danes. The gold became their supremacy. To Hrothgar, as well as the other kings, their gold symbolizes their greed for the other’s kingdom and the other’s wealth. Hrothgar coveted the gold of other kings and made it his quest to control what he wanted. Even his own sons did not care about their father. They merely weighed his worth by how much gold he possessed (53). Their greed for power outweighed their desire for justice in ruling. They only wanted money.
To the Dragon, gold symbolizes majesty and power over humans. Gardner first describes the Dragon as “vast and red-golden” with tusks that shimmered as if they were made of gold(57). The dragon is very prestigious. He has the demeanor of a ruler. He understands and he knows the future and sees that as a form of power and control over everything. He persuades Grendel to attack the humans because he knows that he will do it anyway(69). The dragon also knows that he will also perish, so he wants to gather all the gold that he can to display his power while he still lives. For, unlike Grendel, he “covets gold, not souls (1).”
Gold can mean different things to different individuals. To some, like the Shaper, it can cover their eyes from corruption. Yet, for others, like the Dragon and Hrothgar, it can become the source of their corruption. Everything depends on what their desire is.