While Beowulf Roasts, Wiglaf Breaks from the Host [ll.2593-2605] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heralding The Shift
Shiny Armor, but Shinier Lineage
What’s in a Name
Closing

{A fresh faced Wiglaf, as played by Brendan Gleeson. Image from aveleyman.com.}

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Abstract

Things aren’t looking good for Beowulf, but though his men are fled, one has a change of heart that may see the dragon bled.

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Translation

“The hoard guard in himself took heart – his
breast by breathing heaved – he came out once again;
harsh straits were suffered, he was enveloped by fire,
he who had once ruled the people. Not any of the band
of comrades were with him then, the sons of nobility
stood about in martial virtues, but they fled into
the woods, their lives to save. Of them sorrow surged
in just one mind; he who thinks rightly may
never for anything turn away from kinship.
Wiglaf was his name, son of Weoxstan,
a beloved warrior, man of the Scylfings,
kinsmen of Aelfere; he saw his liege lord
under the battle mask suffering in the heat.”
Beowulf ll.2593-2605

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Recordings

Old English:

English:

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Heralding The Shift

Beowulf’s getting roasted by the fire in this passage, and the dragon seems almost assuredly guaranteed a nice and toasty roasted Geat for a snack. No doubt he has a very old and fine wine somewhere in his hoard to go with just such a meal, but thanks to a change of heart, one of Beowulf’s thanes is ready to help out his liege lord – and become the poem’s primary perspective character.

Curiously, though, the action is halted for a quick description of our new hero. Though instead of going over his bulging biceps and shiny armor (that gets the narrative treatment in a few lines’ time), we’re treated to his pedigree.

Obviously this kind of description is set up by the preceding bit of gnomic wisdom: “he who thinks rightly may never for anything turn away from kinship” (“sibb ǣfre ne mæg/wiht onwendan þām ðe wēl þenceð” ll.2600-2601). However, what makes pedigree so important here?

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Shiny Armor, but Shinier Lineage

The best guess is that it falls in with an older way of thinking about the world. One that involves things like phrenology and eugenics, not all pretty stuff, but essentially the idea held here could be that because Wiglaf comes from good breeding he is one who “thinks rightly” (“wēl þenceð” l.2600). If such is the case, then this passage would set any listener or reader to this tale from hundreds of years ago to the expectation that this Wiglaf is going to solve everything, or at least be of assistance.

However, if Wiglaf is the only one who has his head on properly amongst the elite guard that Beowulf brought with him on his expedition, it also bodes ill for the Geats in general. For if only one of twelve trained warriors has the decency to disobey orders and help his liege lord in his hour of need despite being told otherwise, then such pedigrees as Wiglaf’s must be few and far between.

As a means of foreshadowing the waning power and prowess of the Geats between generations, and the implication that kin, when properly thinking, will help out kin, suggests that either terms like “Geat” are much broader than you might suspect, or that there’s a problem with breeding among the Geats.

Maybe something wicked has been happening in the beds and around the camps when the fires are out – Beowulf’s own marital and sexual situations are not mentioned. It’s possible that the woman who weeps so bitterly by his grave (who could be Hygelac’s queen, Hygd; ll.3150-3155) is Beowulf’s wife, but the latter situation is left un-noted, likely because of the contemporary sense of decorum.

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What’s in a Name

A brief note on the name of the new perspective character in the poem is rather telling. It’s also much easier to look into the meaning of Wiglaf’s name than Beowulf’s name, since it’s a much more obvious compound word.

“Wīg” is Old English for “war,” “strife,” or “battle,” and “lāf” is Old English for “leaving,” or “heirloom.” Thus, Wiglaf is named for some kind of battle memento – maybe this name is one that the poet/scribe came up with after having conceived of the pedigree of Wiglaf’s arms. For his armor and his sword are all described as the spoils of a combat fought by Weohstan (ll.2610-2625).

However, if Wiglaf’s name is taken as a kenning, it could be interpreted in a different way.

If we take “wīglāf” as a kenning, then perhaps it refers to one who is the product of a broken marriage, or of a couple made of partners from rival or feuding families. In that way he’s much more literally an heirloom of some kind of strife, since perhaps he’s the child of rape or of some kind of passionate affair between star-crossed lovers who never after saw each other.

Of course, being an Anglo-Saxon poem, none of that is explicitly explained.

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Closing

Next week Isidore gets into the matter of the cud and of donkeys; and in Beowulf, Wiglaf can’t hold back, just as the poet bursts into a (brief) digression.

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