The Second Half of Wiglaf’s Speech to the Thanes: Rhetoric [ll.2646b-2660] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Anglo-Saxon Understatement
On Fate and Rhetoric
Closing

{The sort of sheild that Wiglaf brings to the fight – hopefully his sword proves sturdier! Image from the blog Beowulfian, hosted by wikimedia.org.}

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Abstract

Wiglaf completes his speech, and in doing so presents himself as the shining example that the other thanes should follow.

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Translation

Now is the day come
that our liege lord strength needs
good warriors. Let us go to,
to help the leader in battle while it is possible,
against the fierce terror from fire. God knows
that it is much dearer to me that my body
be with my gold-giving lord while fire should enfold him.
Nor does it seem to me fitting that we shields
bear back to home unless we first may
the foe kill, by life defend
the Weder’s prince. I know well
that it is not merited by past deeds, that he alone must
without the Geatish host affliction suffer,
fall at the battle; both of us shall sword and helm,
mail coat and battle garment together share.”
(Beowulf ll.2646b-2660)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Anglo-Saxon Understatement

Wiglaf really gives it to his fellow thanes in this part of his speech. How can you tell such a thing? Because he uses token Anglo-Saxon sense of understatement. Not very liberally, but in such a way that it remains obvious even to this day.

So, we hear Wiglaf start a sentence with “God knows,” (“God wāt” (l.2650)), and it’s quite clear that he’s either being incredibly genuine or relying on a higher power to embolden himself. The understatement comes next when he moves from citing god to state that it wouldn’t be fitting to go home as warriors if they didn’t even fight.

The understatement in this sentence is clear from Wiglaf’s beginning it with “nor” (“ne”(l.2653)). This negative start undercuts his own position (“…seem to me…” ( “…þynceð me…”(l.2653))) and puts it squarely in contrast with his previous reference to god. And so the young warrior cunningly sets himself up for a verbal finger wagging as he calls his fellow warriors on even thinking about calling themselves warriors without even fighting the dragon.

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On Fate and Rhetoric

Wiglaf’s statement “I know well/that it is not merited by past deeds” (“Ic wāt geare,/þæt nǣron eald-gewyrht”(ll.2656-2657)) that Beowulf should suffer alone sets human knowledge and the unknowable power of fate at an incredible contrast.

Earlier in the poem we’ve been told that fate has left Beowulf’s side (ll.2574-2575), that it is indeed his fate to die, but Wiglaf, because of his dedication to kin, is not deterred by this, however obvious it might be given the state of the fight.

As the one who is set up to succeed Beowulf as king of the Geats, it seems that Wiglaf has an uncanny way of seeing how to make the best of fate, since he does indirectly acknowledge the fact that Beowulf is doomed while at the same time he calls for all the Geats to rally around him so that Beowulf will not be alone when he falls. It’s a nice emphasis of the importance of community to Anglo-Saxon life and culture.

However, where all of Wiglaf’s rhetoric falls flat is in his final sentence. Old English pronouns included some that were just for two people, but the one used here, “bām,” is definitely of the dual sense. So, just as Wiglaf is acutely aware of the fact that Beowulf should be attended because of his great stature as a warrior, it also seems that by the speech’s end he’s acutely aware of the fact that he is the only one about to rush off to help.

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Closing

Next week, St. Isidore starts to wrap up coverage of horses, and concludes the overview of the last two characteristics of a great horse. In Beowulf, Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf and says some more words before we’re all reminded that the dragon’s still about.

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