Wiglaf Speaks – But Will The Others Listen? [ll.2631-2646a] (Old English)

{An ideal warrior, indeed. Image from Geograph.co.uk.}

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Getting Grammatical
Geatland’s Next Top Warrior
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf speaks to his fellow thanes, making his intentions to fulfill their pledges to Beowulf made in the mead hall and trying – indirectly – to stir his fellows to do the same.

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Translation

“Wiglaf spoke, many true words were
said by the companion (though at heart he was sad):
“I that time remember, when we mead drank,
when we pledged ourselves to our lord
in the beer hall, he who to us these rings gave,
promised that we the war-equipment would repay
if such need to him befell, [fend for him] with
helms and hard swords. For that reason he us from
the army chose, for this expedition by his own will,
considered us worthy for glory, and to me this
treasure gave, because he us good spear-fighters
judged,valiant warriors in helmets — though the
lord this courageous deed alone intended to
perform, herder of the people, because he
among men a glorious deed would accomplish,
do that deed audaciously.”
(Beowulf ll.2631-2646a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Getting Grammatical

The most characteristic thing about this passage of Beowulf is the placement of its pronouns. Clauses like “he who to us these rings gave” (“ðe ūs ðās bēagas geaf” l.2635) sound pretty unnatural to modern ears since. It sounds off since in modern English this statement would be written “he who gave these rings to us.” Yet, throughout this passage the pronouns for the Subject and Direct Object (the thing directly acted on by the Subject) are constantly side by side (or closer than they are in Modern English).

This placement definitely emphasizes the connection between Beowulf and the thanes on the level of straightforward meaning, but it also works on a grammatical level. For there is almost no verbal distance between the Subject and the Direct Object, and this close proximity shows just how closely related the two are. Each one of Wiglaf’s statements underlines this fact, and it is this idea of their closeness that he uses to try to rouse his fellow thanes so that they all go and help Beowulf together.

However, at first glance there is something in this passage that works against Wiglaf’s rhetorical emphasis of his and the other thanes’ reliance on Beowulf.

The last five lines of this section of the poem are entirely about Beowulf’s desire to fight the dragon alone.

The line “though the lord/this courageous deed alone intended to perform” (“þēah ðe hlāford ūs/þis ellen-weorc āna āðōhte/tō gefremmanne”) sounds like it could be referring to Beowulf’s telling the thanes to stay out of the fight because he wanted to handle it himself, but it also suggests that Beowulf intended to fight alone from the start – which makes you wonder why he bothered to bring along the twelve thanes in the first place.

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Geatland’s Next Top Warrior

Whether fighting solo was something premeditated or not, bringing along the best of the best for this fight might have been Beowulf’s way of finding a successor.

The dragon is indeed the ultimate foe, and Beowulf may’ve guessed that even most of the cream of the martial crop would fear it. If that’s the case, then bringing this cream along would make it easy to find out who could possibly rule the Geats after his death – Beowulf was, after all, having dark premonitions after the dragon came and before the fight.

Though, this raises the question of why Beowulf never had any children. Whether he married Hygd after Hygelac’s death or not, fifty years is a long time to go without fathering any children. It stretches the belief, though maybe remaining unwedded and childless are characteristics of the hero that the scops were aiming for when Beowulf was being told and retold, molded into what was written down and what we have today.

Some bits of the manuscript were eaten by rats, or destroyed by a fire, but even those that remain still hold much mystery.

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Closing

Next week, come back for more early medieval thoughts on horses with St. Isidore of Seville, and to get the second half of Wiglaf’s stirring speech.

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