Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873
Wiglaf: the only one of Beowulf’s followers who does not flee when he fights the dragon
Efor: the Geat warrior who kills the Swedish king, Ongentho, and is given Higlac’s daughter in marriage as a reward
Ongentho: the Swedish king who kills Hathcyn, the Geatish king and Hrethel’s son, after Hrethel’s death; killed by Higlac; Onela’s father
Wiglaf, descended from Swedes but now a Geat, is the only soldier not to flee from Beowulf’s battle with the dragon. For the first time employing the armor his father, Wexstan, had taken from Onela’s nephew in battle and given to him, Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf’s aid, explaining that the king is now older and, despite his intention to kill this dragon alone, needs the help of younger, stronger men. He shouts encouragement to Beowulf which the dragon hears and becomes enraged by. The dragon’s fire forces Wiglaf to drop his burning shield and, since his chain mail affords no protection from the heat, hide behind his king’s shield with him. Beowulf uses Nagling to attempt to kill the dragon, but it falls into pieces, as all his swords do, because of his powerful thrusts. The dragon takes advantage of Beowulf’s momentary helplessness and attacks, driving his tusks into Beowulf’s neck.
Burning his hands in the effort, Wiglaf strikes the dragon in a lower region with his sword. As the dragon’s flames begin to die, Beowulf uses his dagger to slit the beast in half. Beowulf’s wound is already festering, since the dragon injected venom there when his fangs entered the old Geatish king’s flesh. Beowulf collapses and Wiglaf tries to make him as comfortable as possible in these circumstances. Knowing he is dying, Beowulf asks Wiglaf to find the dragon’s treasure and bring some of it to him to ease his death.
Wiglaf finds the treasure strangely illuminated by a light shining everywhere and hastens to bring some of this treasure to his dying king. He sprinkles water on Beowulf to relieve his suffering as the old king beseeches him to become the next king. Beowulf also requests that Wiglaf build a tomb on the water’s edge at the high point of that land, so sailors can see it and remember their deceased king. Having given Wiglaf his necklace, helmet, rings, and mail shirt, Beowulf dies.
Vainly endeavoring to keep Beowulf alive, Wiglaf continues to sprinkle water on the corpse as the cowardly soldiers return. He lambastes them for their reprehensible behavior and sends a messenger to tell the Geats the news of their king’s death, and to warn them to beware of impending war as soon as their enemies know their king is dead. He suggests that the dragon’s treasure be burned in its entirety in Beowulf’s funeral pyre rather than allow anyone to enjoy it, since it was gained at the cost of their wise king’s life. The soldiers file past the 50-foot corpse of the dragon and then, weeping, past Beowulf’s now lifeless body.
Discussion and Analysis
Beowulf’s age shows as he allows Wiglaf to aid him in this final battle. Never before has he allowed another to join him in battle if he had proclaimed this would be his fight and his alone. Then again, his life is ending as he chose to live it—nearly alone, and he may be aware that this was not necessarily the best way to live it. He has an old man’s perspective on what he may consider his mistakes, as well as an old man’s physical limitations. He is actively sharing this battle with Wiglaf and, also, sharing his protection: the shield. This may be a willingness to share the last few moments of his life or an inclusion of Wiglaf in what Beowulf sees as the continuity of his life (as he has no heirs) since he pleads with Wiglaf, a young man to whom he has no blood ties, to become the next king.
Wiglaf has no hesitation about imperiling his life to aid his king. He had a father who took care to present him with a spear and shield, the strength of a young man, and feels a bond with Beowulf for his treatment of the family when they first emigrated from Sweden to relocate in Geatland. He does not wait for Beowulf to either ask for help nor instruct him as to what to do. He initiates the aid, inadvertently further enraging the dragon. Rather than flee at this turn of events, he confidently turns to his king to share the shield—the actions of someone assured of cooperation in a dire situation or those of someone who has been taught to expect not to be alone.
Beowulf dies as he lived, nearly alone. He has no wife, nor heirs; the family and friends he had have predeceased him. He meets his death with only one companion, Wiglaf, a young man far removed from him. It seems Beowulf is not so much sad or bitter at the loneliness of his life, but perplexed by his death being such a lonely one.
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