A Chatty Wiglaf and an Encouraged Beowulf [ll.2661-2672a] (Old English)

Wiglaf: The Chatty Youth
An Early Ascension Speech?

{Just what the dragon’s doing while Wiglaf stages his dramatic entrance. Image from Quest for Glory V concept art at RPGamer.com}

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Wiglaf rushes over to Beowulf, and reassures him that his glory will not falter for this difficulty. But, just as Wiglaf finishes his short speech, the dragon starts back towards the pair.

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“Advanced he then through that deadly smoke, in helmet
he bore to the lord his help, few words he spoke:
‘Dear Beowulf, perform all well,
just as you in youth long ago said
that you would not allow while you are alive
your glory to decline; You shall now in deed be famous,
resolute prince, all strength
your life to defend; I you shall help.’
After that word the serpent angry came,
the terrible malicious alien from another time
glowing in surging fire attacked his enemy,
hateful of men.”
(Beowulf ll.2661-2672a)

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Old English:

Modern English:

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Wiglaf: The Chatty Youth

Wiglaf is a very strange character. It’s not that his name is odd (aside from what’s been said before, what could naming someone “war heirloom” mean, anyway?), or that his introduction is hastily foisted onto an explanation of his equipment, but that he gets so many lines of dialog.

After all, considering the length of this poem, there really isn’t that much dialog.

Hrothgar and Beowulf have some long speeches, but they’re both in the poem for a substantial amount of time, while Wiglaf is only prominently featured in the last 500 lines or so.

So, why does Wiglaf have such a major speaking role relative to the length of his presence in the poem?

It could be that speech is shorthand for the kind of thing that his generation of Geats excels in. That the rest of his fellow thanes ran away when Beowulf’s distress became clear is a clear mark of this. Or it could be that Wiglaf, as someone who hasn’t yet seen real battle and killed with his own sword, primarily interacts with the world through speech rather than weaponry.

But then, one thing still stands out.

In almost every instance of Beowulf, the poem’s other major hero, talking, he does it in response to other characters’ actions. He answers Unferth’s challenge to his valor (ll.529-606), he boasts to Wealhtheow when she presents him with a drinking cup (ll.628-638), and he retells his exploits in Daneland when Hygelac asks for a tale of his adventures (ll.1900-2162).

Otherwise, Beowulf is mostly a silent protagonist. The only major instance where he speaks unbidden is before his thanes, when he gives them his lengthy autobiography and assures them that this dragon fight will be tough, but he’ll handle it himself.

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An Early Ascension Speech?

With that in mind, is it possible that the poet/scribe behind the poem is setting Wiglaf up as the next Geatish king?

Since Beowulf’s speech to his thanes is the product of his office as well as his emotional state at the time, the only thing that marks Wiglaf as different is his lack of a title. Perhaps his outburst is meant to stand as a kind of shorthand for youthful vigor, a vigor that he tries to impart to or revive in Beowulf through his words of encouragement – themselves completely unbidden.

Going back to the idea that Wiglaf’s speeches are the result of his inexperience in the field of war (a man’s proving grounds in the poem), maybe he is an early case study in the idea behind the phrase “fake it before you make it.”

Having no past battle experience, Wiglaf can only put on a brave face, something expressed through words, but he can’t put on a brave show aside from his apparently impulsive rush from the band of thanes to his lord’s side.

Of course, if all of this is true, then the depiction of Wiglaf speaking to his fellow thanes and rushing to his lord’s side is a great portrayal of a young thane bound for great things.

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Next week, Isidore runs through three of the colors from this week’s guide to good horses. And, in Beowulf, another hardship befalls the rallied lord of the Geats.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “A Chatty Wiglaf and an Encouraged Beowulf [ll.2661-2672a] (Old English)

  1. Pingback: The Second Half of Wiglaf’s Speech to the Thanes: Rhetoric [ll.2646b-2660] (Old English) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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