In the Old English epic titled Beowulf, is Wiglaf, although not described as an able warrior, really a potential better leader? How do you interpret this quote by Wiglaf: "Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt. This happened to us. Nothing we advised could ever convince the prince we loved, our land's guardian, not to vex the custodian of the gold, let him lie where he was long accustomed, lurk there under earth until the end of the world."

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Near the conclusion of Beowulf, after both Beowulf and the dragon have been slain in mutual combat, Wiglaf reflects on the death of the beloved old king. In the words of the Seamus Heaney translation,

Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, spoke:

“Often when one man follows his own will

many are hurt. This happened to us.

Nothing we advised could ever convince

the prince we loved, our land’s guardian,

not to vex the custodian of the gold . . .” (3076-3081)

These lines have often been interpreted as a criticism, by Wiglaf, of the motives and behavior of Beowulf. Nevertheless, it is always worth remembering that in reading Beowulf we are often reading a translation, and that even when reading the original we are reading a text that is difficult to interpret -- a text that has been interpreted, simply on the level of diction and syntax, in many different ways.

Assuming, for the moment, that Wiglaf is indeed criticizing Beowulf, how should we respond to this criticism?  Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • The passage that immediately precedes this apparent criticism of Beowulf offers explicit praise of the dead king from the narrator:

. . . Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure

when he first saw it had not been selfish. (3074-75)

  • Wiglaf seems to criticize Beowulf for having displayed pride – the most common of all human failings (according to medieval Christians) and an inevitable trait of all fallen human beings. It would be surprising if Beowulf were not guilty of pride in some ways. If he had not been shown as having some flaw, he would not have been presented realistically and credibly.
  • In spite of his criticism of Beowulf here, Wiglaf nevertheless came to Beowulf’s aid and risked his life in doing so. His criticism of Beowulf does not invalidate the enormous worth and the many admirable qualities of Beowulf.
  • A few lines after the quoted passage, Wiglaf says of Beowulf that “He held to his high destiny” (3084; emphasis added) – words that seem to suggest that Beowulf’s encounter with the dragon was somewhat fated.
  • Indeed, even later Wiglaf remarks of Beowulf that

“. . . it was a cruel fate

That forced the king to that encounter.” (3085-86; emphasis added)

These lines once again suggest that Beowulf’s decision to attack the dragon was not as foolhardy as Wiglaf’s earlier words may have suggested.

Beowulf is a difficult poem to interpret, especially in translation, and anyone wanting to understand a particular passage of the work would be well advised to examine the tradition of critical commentary as fully and closely as possible.  A good start in this direction can be made, for instance, by going to Google Books and searching for the words “Wiglaf criticizes Beowulf.” The items that turn up in such a search will point the researcher in the direction of even more such material.


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