On Requests and Namelessness [ll.2743b-2755] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Digging Deeper into Beowulf’s Request
Going Nameless
Closing

{J.R.R. Tolkien: Believer in Beowulf‘s being an elegy. Image found on The-HobbitMovie.com.}

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Abstract

Beowulf instructs Wiglaf to get some gold from the hoard to show him what he fought for, and Wiglaf runs off to oblige him.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”Now go you quickly
to see the hoard under the grey stone,
dear Wiglaf, now the serpent lay dead,
sleeping in death sorely wounded, deprived of treasure.
Be now in haste that I ancient riches,
the store of gold may see, clearly look at
the bright finely worked jewels, so that I may the more
peacefully after the wealth of treasure leave my
life and lordship; that which I have long held.’
I have heard that then the son of Weohstan quickly obeyed
after the spoken word of his lord in wounds and
in war weariness, bearing mailcoat
the broad ring-shirt, under the barrow’s roof.”
(Beowulf ll.2743b-2755)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Digging Deeper into Beowulf’s Request

On the surface, Beowulf’s request seems simple enough. ‘Go and grab some gold, that I may be able to see it,’ but there’s more to it then a validation of his final battle. Within this request lay the very stuff of revenge.

Beowulf acknowledges that now the serpent is dead and thus “deprived of treasure” (“since bereafod” (l.2746)). Thus, were he to die without seeing what he had fought for then, he would, in a way, not have won at all.

For Beowulf would then not have been able to say that he had laid eyes on that for which he fought, while the dragon enjoyed the sight of it constantly. Further, he also wouldn’t have experienced it, and wouldn’t therefore have fulifilled the treasure’s basic purpose: to be used by being enjoyed through sight (just as a grammatical object is used simply by being linked to a grammatical subject).

However, the act of seeing it, of using it, also puts Beowulf on par with the dragon on the level of greed, since he is not able to dole out the treasure to his people, as any good king must, in person.

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Going Nameless

But, what’s curious about this passage is Wiglaf’s lacking reference by name. First he is the “son of Weohstan” and then he is referred to with a bit of metonymy when the poet simply says that he bore a mailcoat into the barrow (“hringnet beran/…under beorges hrof” (ll.2754-2755)).

So why does Wiglaf, the one who was instrumental in Beowulf’s victory, suddenly lose his name? Perhaps to keep the focus on Beowulf, rather than Wiglaf so that it truly does become an elegy rather than a story of succession, of hope.

It’s also possible that this is merely poetic license, but the fact is that Wiglaf is not referred to by name again until line 2852. That’s over one hundred lines later, and the point at which his fellow Geats recognize him as the new leader for the first time.

That Wiglaf is named for the occasion of recognition as the new authority strongly suggests that indeed he is occluded for the next 100 lines to keep Beowulf in the spotlight. Going out at Beowulf’s behest, Wiglaf isn’t really Wiglaf anymore, but he is made into Beowulf’s double, at least for the brief time that he scrambles out to the hoard, through it, and back.

It could even be argued, that Wiglaf’s washing Beowulf clean and then undoing his helmet are both acts that signify a complete rescindment of the will, perhaps as an acknowledgement of the end of a life. In doing these things Wiglaf drops his own desires and takes up Beowulf’s request entirely so that he can be a comfort to the old lord in his final moments.

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Closing

Next week, the second stanza of “O Fortuna” will be posted, and Wiglaf, though nameless, finds himself immersed in a fabulous treasure room.

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