Wiglaf's Speech (l. 2633-2660)
||1 “I remember the time that we took mead together,
2 when we made promises to our prince
3 in the beer-hall – he gave us these rings –
4 that we would pay him back for his battle-gear,
5 these helmets and hard swords, if such a need
6 as this ever befell him. For this he chose us from the army
7 for this adventure by his own will,
8 thought us worthy of glory, and gave me these treasures –
9 for he considered us good spear-warriors,
10 proud helmet-wearers, even though our prince,
11 shepherd of his people, intended to perform
12 this act of courage all alone,
13 because he has gained the most glory among men,
14 reckless heroic deeds. Now the day has come
15 that our noble lord has need of the support
16 of good warriors; let us go to it,
17 help our warlord, despite the heat,
18 grim fire-terror. God knows for my part
19 that I would much prefer that the flames should enfold
20 my body alongside my gold-giving lord.
21 It seems wrong to me that we should bear shields
22 back to our land, unless we first might
23 finish off this foe, defend the life
24 of the prince of the Weders. I know full well
25 that he does not deserve to suffer
26 this torment all alone among the Geatish troop,
27 or fall in the struggle; now sword and helmet,
28 byrnie and battle-dress, shall be ours together!”
This passage from the poem Beowulf features the character Wiglaf speaking to a group of soldiers who are hastily fleeing the scene of battle. Beowulf, Wiglaf, and the ten other soldiers are under fire (no pun intended) by an angry dragon. Protecting a sizeable treasure trove, the dragon’s wrath is ignited by the theft of a single gold goblet. Declaring a personal vendetta against the dragon for destroying his hall, Beowulf sets off with the men to defeat it. Once they abandon Beowulf, Wiglaf urges his colleagues to return to Beowulf’s aid, as is dictated by the comitatus (the oath to serve one’s lord). Rising to this task, Wiglaf is presented as the embodiment of Anglo-Saxon heroism – exhibiting bravery, pursuing fame, practicing fealty, and following the code of retribution.
Wiglaf finds himself in a predicament that exemplifies his heroism. The first emotion he exhibits of anger at the actions of his fellow soldiers. In an initial attempt to inspire the group’s courage, he seeks to remind them of the various “treasures” (8) and comitatus “rings” (3) they have been presented – and promptly reminds them of how they are failing to return the favor; to “pay [Beowulf] back for his battle-gear” (4). Following this disillusionment with his fellow soldiers, Wiglaf makes it clear how much he admires the actions of Beowulf. In fact, at the very beginning Wiglaf looks back upon the camaraderie they shared in the mead hall (1). With an obvious allusion to Christianity, Wiglaf even refers to Beowulf as a “shepherd” in line 11, characterizing Beowulf’s perfection and ability to lead. Last, Wiglaf makes it clear in lines 18-20 that he would sooner die next to Beowulf than flee. The speech illustrates Wiglaf’s understanding of Anglo-Saxon heroism because he instantly recognizes what dishonorable behavior is and aspires to become the ideal Anglo-Saxon heroic figure.
Wiglaf’s position within the poem also affects the diction used in this particular passage. Wiglaf is, in the simplest form, a soldier. This causes his language to be filled with battle language and kennings influenced by war. This barrage of battle-fueled diction also lends to Wiglaf’s embodiment of the Anglo-Saxon hero: the warrior. In lines 3 through 5, Wiglaf specifies exactly what Beowulf has given the soldiers in exchange for their services, specifically, rings, battle-gear, helmets, and hard swords. Also, the kennings in this passage consistently refer to soldiers: “spear-warriors” (9) and “helmet-wearers” (10) are used. The term “glory” is used twice in this passage (in lines 8 and 13), which is a great way of mirroring the soldier’s tireless search for glory. Most importantly, the last two lines make concrete the image of Wiglaf, the soldier. He includes the words sword, helmet, byrnie, and battle-dress in his statement – the standard garb of the warrior!
Also worth noting in this passage is the consistent use of gold, gifts, and “treasures” (8). The idea of treasure and material wealth is present throughout the poem. Grendel’s mother keeps evidence of her success in her cave (Æschere’s head, although not necessarily a treasure, is still a prize of sorts and is displayed on the lake above her cave). The dragon is protecting an abandoned treasure and is infuriated when a single object is stolen. The wife of Hrothgar, Wealhtheow, is called the “ring-adorned queen” (l. 623). In this passage, Wiglaf makes mention of wealth numerous times with regard to Beowulf. He notes how Beowulf has given the men the rings in exchange for their service in line 3. On line 8, he notes again that Beowulf had given them “treasures.” Finally, Wiglaf refers to Beowulf as a “gold-giving lord” (20). This, again, is evidence of Wiglaf’s recognition of what is important in Anglo-Saxon society, and how well he reflects the ideal.
The poem of Beowulf is centered on the perfect Anglo-Saxon hero: Beowulf is strong, fair, thoughtful, and brave. Wiglaf’s speech marks a transition – since he recognizes the ideals and knows how to act on them, Wiglaf will take the place (both figuratively and literally) as the “hero” once Beowulf dies. This speech’s relevance to the rest of the story lies in its recognition of the Anglo-Saxon heroic ideal. Not only does it recognize that Wiglaf is to replace Beowulf as the king, but the speech also recognizes Beowulf and his “perfection.” Without this scene, we would have never known to what extent Beowulf has influenced those around him – and how he has so perfectly fallen in line with the ideal of Anglo-Saxon heroism.
Liuzza, R. M., trans. Beowulf. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000.