In Richard Wilbur's “Beowulf,” a highly abbreviated and nuanced retelling of the Old English poem of the same name, the hero's death means severe mourning for his people. Beowulf “died in his own country a kinless king.” He has plenty of heroic deeds to his name, but his people do not completely comprehend their fallen hero. They ride around his burial mound, “singing of him what they could understand,” but apparently, they do not understand much. As a hero, Beowulf is separate from them somehow. He has done marvelous things, things far removed from daily life. He has killed the monster with his bare hands. He has returned from battle with great treasure. Yet he does not connect with his people in the way they need the most.
Beowulf has no children, no sons or heirs to assume his throne. He has wept for this. He is like the “frozen year,” not fruitful, unable to provide for his people. The original Old English poem emphasizes this aspect of Beowulf more than Wilbur's version. Without an heir to take over his kingship, Beowulf leaves his people without security. The Geats (Beowulf's tribe) have enemies on all sides. Beowulf's heroic name and reputation have been enough to hold these enemies at bay. But now, without Beowulf's protection, his people are vulnerable. The Swedes and others may swoop down to take advantage of the Geats in their time of mourning. Without a strong leader to take Beowulf's place, the people may well be attacked, even conquered, and they know this. Beowulf may have been a great hero, in whom his people take immense pride, but his passing leaves them in a place much less than heroic. They are now weak and stand as potential prey to their stronger, aggressive neighbors.