The Elusive Term
The word "ring-giver" is slippery because it does not stick to its logical
meaning. Once researched and defined, it is known that a ring-giver is a king or overlord.
Not just a king can be called a ring-giver. A person in an administrative
position can be referred to as a ring-giver. The thanes who received this award
of arm-ring or neck-ring proved their battle-worthiness and were held in high
respect by their kinsmen. Therefore the warriors kept close watch of their rewards. After research,
one also finds the term "ring-giver" is a kenning; or Anglo - Saxon metaphor.
Ring-giver is an elusive word. Separately, "ring" is defined as an ornamental circular band worn
on a finger, and "giver" is defined as to hand over something. Putting those two definitions
together, ring-giver implies the act of giving rings. However, this is not at all the case.
A ring-giver is a king or overlord. Someone in power is also referred to as being the ring-giver.
In the Norton Anthology we read "in heroic poetry at least, a principal form of currency
was the gold arm ring; which had the advantage of being valuable, portable and showy; hence the
king always being referred to as 'ring-giver.' " (28).
Although it was usually the king who was given the name "ring-giver," anyone in power,
could be given the title. In the "Grendel, Beowulf's most famous enemy" site, we see another
occurrence of a ring-giver being born: "When the retainers [soldiers] returned from battle, they
were expected to turn over their bounty to their chief, who would then redistribute it according
to the performance of each retainer during battle. Thus, we often find the dryhten [overlord]
being referred to as the 'gold-giver' or 'ring-giver.' Usually the king had the power to
distribute bounty or rewards, but here we see that anyone in the leadership position might have
been given the illustrious title of "ring-giver."
The king or overlord gave out arm-rings or neck-rings to promote valor and fighting for
land and king. The individual who received the ring was honored by his fellow soldiers. These
rings worn on either arm or neck, gave the wearer recognition and instant envy in others. They
were symbols of strength and courage; there must have been many attempts to steal such objects
of monetary and social value. However, it is doubtful that the brave men who received such
awards ever gave the opportunity to lose their trophies.
Having past the logical meaning of the word "ring-giver," it has been discovered that it
means king or overlord. Anyone in power would give out awards ( usually arm-rings or neck-rings)
to warriors who proved their valor on the battlefield. Once given these items of great social
value as well as great sums of money, the warrior never let them out of their sight. These men
also were held in high-esteem by their fellow warriors and civilians. Thus knowing the
definition and background of "ring-giver," this term "ring-giver" is a kenning. A kenning is a
term that acts as a metaphor.
By: James Thannickal
Abrams, M. H.ed. et. al The Norton Anthology of English Literature. vol. 1. 6th ed.
New York: Norton and Company: 1993, 28.
Massi M., J. "Grendel, Beowulf's most famous enemy." Online. Internet.
Available HTTP: http://www.jetlink.net/~massij/germanic/index.html