In Beowulf, what are the differences between Beowulf and Wiglaf?
One of the primary differences between Beowulf and Wiglaf is in the area of confidence. Beowulf is more confident than Wiglaf when a reader compares them at similar ages. It is safe to assume that Beowulf at the beginning of the story would be similar in age to Wiglaf at the end of the story. That being said, young Beowulf is cocky and sure of himself as he travels from his own country to volunteer to help out Hrothgar and his people. It is very bold of him to step in and address an older, more established leader, but he does so with confidence borne of previous acts of daring and courage (such as swimming with sea beasts and surviving). Wiglaf does not seem to have such experiences in his repertoire, so he comes across as a little more tentative and unsure of his leadership skills. When Wiglaf speaks of his previous battle experiences, he lumps himself in with many other fighters:
“I remember the time that we took mead together, when we made promises to our prince in the beer-hall--he gave us these rings--that we would pay him back for his battle-gear, these helmets and hard swords, if such a need as this ever befell him."
Another area in which Wiglaf and Beowulf differ is in their expectations of others' behavior. Beowulf seems resigned very early on to the idea that others cannot be trusted at the level that he can be. He travels with only a small group of warriors to fight Grendel, and he really doesn't expect them to do much other than be willing to be "bait" in the mead hall. He tries to protect the men who travel with him and keep the collateral damage to a minimum. Wiglaf, on the other hand, has the expectation that the other warriors are as devoted to Beowulf as he is and seems genuinely hurt and disappointed when they do not rise to the occasion to help fight the dragon at the end of the story. His disillusionment with the other warriors' character makes the ending of the story even more somber because it suggests that true loyalty is incredibly rare--especially in the face of death and danger.
Both Wiglaf and Beowulf are brave fighters. The young Wiglaf even reminds one of the young Beowulf. But Wiglaf does not seem to be as solitary as Beowulf. When Wiglaf loses his shield, he turns immediately to Beowulf, fully expecting Beowulf will share the shield. This is contrary to what Beowulf might have done. Beowulf acts alone. In the 50 years in which the story takes place, there is no mention of wife or family or friends. He dies with no heir. Wiglaf, also questions whether Beowulf should have even attacked the dragon, or simply let the dragon sleep. However, once Beowulf begins to fight, Wiglaf is the only person to stand with him. Wiglaf risks his own life to help the king. When Beowulf is dying, Wiglaf comforts him and brings some of the treasure to the dying Beowulf. Beowulf asks Wiglaf to be the next king because he has no heirs. However, Wiglaf's actions signify he will be more willing to work with people and open himself to others than Beowulf. The end of the solitary hero seems to be coming to an end.