I enjoyed hearing the late Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf on the radio the other week. There’s something wonderfully taut and muscular about the language of this epic poem.
One phrase stuck in my mind. A good king is described as a ‘ring giver’. As to where the rings come from the authors of Beowulf are completely unabashed. A good king wrecks the mead halls of other kings and extracts tribute from their people.
Nothing very much has changed. Political leaders are still judged by whether or not they have made us better off, and, though we’re a lot more squeamish these days about where wealth comes from, it still has to come from somewhere. As a character observes in Ann Leckie’s excellent novel Ancillary Justice, ‘luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish.’
Other people’s mead halls are still being wrecked to provide rings for the supporters of the powerful, but recent news items remind me that there are always additional options: stealing from the poor, stealing from previous generations (which is what is really happening when publicly owned resources are sold off at prices far below their real value) and of course stealing from our descendants, which is what is being done when efforts at mitigating climate change are dismissed as being too costly.