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Beowulf: The Character of Wiglaf

Updated on February 28, 2011

Beowulf Fights the Dragon

Beowulf: The Character of Wiglaf

     Beowulf is an epic poem which recounts the story of a hero who wins himself glory and prestige by conquering three different evils which he encounters throughout the course of the tale. The warrior is a renowned relation to the royalty of a people known as the geats. His name is Beowulf. He first travels to a foreign land and defeats a monster who had been terrorizing the king there. Amidst the rejoicing of this victory however, there arises a second foe and challenge for the brave warrior; the mother of the previous creature who is seeking revenge for her fallen kin makes a sudden violent appearance. Fortunately for those whose lives are in danger, the great Beowulf once again proves his worth as a hero and slays the new adversary, gaining him even more fame and respect.

     A short time after this, he is proclaimed king of the geats, over whom he rules with wisdom for fifty years. It is at that point that a desperate thane stumbles upon a great trove of treasure left by an older civilization, now guarded by a dragon, and steals from the hoard. This thievery brought the wrath of the dragon upon the entire surrounding area. For the first time in many years, Beowulf comes forward to do his duty as a king and hero. For the first time in many years, Beowulf dons his armor and comes to do battle with a monster for pride and glory.

      The warrior-king initially sets out to fight off the nefarious nemesis alone. As he says “This fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength against the monster or to prove his worth”[1]. The men whom he had chosen to accompany him to the place of the ill-fated conflict gladly stood back and prepared to see which combatant would endure the struggle. Once the two adversaries begin their attacks, it becomes evident that Beowulf is at a huge disadvantage. The dragon’s scorching breath causes the other men in Beowulf’s company to begin to nervously saunter off the site of the struggle. Only one thane remains courageously loyal to Beowulf. This man is Wiglaf, the son of Weohstan, who had lived as a Waegmunding; the very same clan that Beowulf is from.

     Although Wiglaf carries an extremely important role in the story, he has not been mentioned at all until the moment he is singled out from the other thanes at the scene of the skirmish with the dragon. In fact, he had never been significant until then, as he had never yet had an opportunity to prove his worth. This is described when the author writes “And now the youth was to enter the line of battle with his lord, his first time to be tested as a fighter”[2]. In proving himself he is successful indeed. When Wiglaf sees Beowulf’s perilous plight, he gives a rousing speech to his comrades telling them that they must all keep their word and fight for the king of their land. He describes how they had already enjoyed the pleasures and payment for their services as warriors and that it would be shameful to fail to hold up their part of the pact between thane and king. After he finishes rebuking the others, Wiglaf goes to join Beowulf in battle with the fearsome dragon and speaks to him, telling him of the wonder of his past and present deeds as a hero. Beowulf has a renewed vigor for fighting when he is reminded of the glory that comes with defeating such an enemy. At this point the dragon comes for another attack, and this time his fangs find their target with Beowulf’s neck. The sword which the king had wielded had failed him, and yet the sword of Wiglaf remained loyal to its owner, who plunged it into the dragon. Although bleeding severely, Beowulf gathered enough strength to strike a knife deep into the skin of his assailant. The dragon’s breath grew short, and it soon died of the wounds dealt by the two warriors.

     The author praises Wiglaf and lifts him up on equal level as Beowulf, saying “that pair of kinsmen, partners in nobility, had destroyed the foe.”[3] To be called noble in comparison even with Beowulf is bestowing great honor on the recipient. Unfortunately, the wounds which Beowulf had sustained in the heat of battle overcame him, and he sat down to await his certain demise. Wiglaf then assists in dressing the king’s wounds and “bathed him clean”[4], stooping to tasks which seem far below the duties of a thane, and yet Wiglaf does them since he places Beowulf above himself. The king laments how he would normally bequeath his armor to his son at this point if he had had a son. This son would have taken Beowulf’s place on the throne. Beowulf then asks Wiglaf to bring him some treasure from the dragon’s hoard so that he may gaze on his spoils of victory before his life comes to an end. Wiglaf does this task for his lord and hurries to his side again to show what had been won, and to be with Beowulf at his last breath. When he returns, Beowulf dictates his wishes for his funeral, and gives his armor to Wiglaf, saying “You are the last of us, the only one left of the Waegmundings.”[5] This is significant because it means that he is leaving Wiglaf as king of all the geats.

     Within a very short time in the story, Wiglaf’s character has gone from nonexistent to being a major piece of the tale, taking Beowulf’s place as king. Only a short time ago, Wiglaf had yet to prove himself in battle, and now he is a hero of the land and successor to the throne. Wiglaf immediately assumes his role as a leader of his people and sternly confronts the cowards who fled Beowulf’s side at his moment of dire need, telling them how the downfall of their great country is now imminent. The new leader instructs the people of his land to honor Beowulf’s last wishes while he and seven others enter the deceased dragon’s lair to dispose of its body and to recover the treasure. The “wise son of Wheostan”[6], the “thane unequalled for goodness”[7] had honored the ties of kinship and became a hero and king. Wiglaf, dismal about the certain crumbling of the kingdom, oversees the funeral, and the great story of Beowulf comes to an end.

[1] Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. New York: Norton, 1999. Pg 171 Line 2532

[2] Ibid. Pg 177 Line 2625

[3] Ibid. Pg 183 Line 2707

[4] Ibid. Pg 183 Line 2723

[5] Ibid. Pg 189 Line 2813

[6] Ibid. Pg 209 Line 3120

[7] Ibid. Pg 183 line 2720


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