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At the end of the epic Beowulf, when the aged king Beowulf goes to fight the dragon, only one of his men stands behind him when he falters, fighting the dragon. That warrior is Wiglaf. Beowulf is fatally wounded in the battle, and is only able to kill the dragon with Wiglaf's help.
The other men who had accompanied Beowulf had turned and fled. However, when their king is dead, they return. Wiglaf realizes Beowulf cannot be revived—that he is dead—and then the young warrior turns his attention to these villains and tells them what their fate will be.
Wiglaf chides them in that Beowulf had always taken excellent care of them, and always rewarded them as richly as possible. However, Wiglaf warns them that their spinelessness will cost them dearly.
Now gift of treasure and girding of sword,
joy of the house and home-delight
shall fail your folk; his freehold-land
every clansman within your kin
shall lose and leave, when lords highborn
hear afar of that flight of yours,
a fameless deed. Yea, death is better
for liegemen all than a life of shame!
Wiglaf tells them that the many blessings they and their families received from the hands of Beowulf are gone. Everyone related to these men will lose everything, including their land—be driven off—once other highborn lords hear of their flight in the face of battle. He tells the men that it would have been better to die bravely supporting their lord or king, than to live life shamed by their cowardice.
After Beowulf's death at the battle with the dragon, Wiglaf has no kind words for the soldiers who abandoned Beowulf in this hour of dire need. These men had lived in the shadow of Beowulf's strong leadership and perhaps hadn't been as "battle-tested," so in the face of death, they were cowards who ran away. Wiglaf alone stayed to help his lord. When he faces the "shamefaced" men, he minces no words. He tells them that Beowulf is the one who outfitted all these men for battle but that he had obviously "wasted these trappings of war" on men men who wouldn't step up. Now that the battle is won and over, Beowulf is dead from his wounds, and these men can be sure that while now would traditionally be the time of "granting of treasure and giving of swords" there will be none of that for these men.
There will be no "inheritance of land-right and joy of home [for it] shall cease from your kindred. And each of your clan shall fail of his birthright when men from afar hear tell of your flight and your dastardly deed."
It is important to remember that the Anglo-Saxon culture glorified honor and reputation among warrior men. The stigma of leaving the battle will be on their families forever. This is probably the worst of the punishment -- far worse than the loss of new wealth.
Wiglaf concludes his thoughts with the final condemnation of their actions suggesting that
death is better for every earl than life besmirched with brand of shame.
To follow through with his earlier comment about the sharing of wealth, Wiglaf burns all of the treasure found in the dragon's lair because it was so "grimly gained," and no one really deserved it as a reward. There is no doubt then that Wiglaf's loyalty to Beowulf is reflected in his condemnation of these failed men.
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