The Fallen Hero and the Fleeing Thanes [ll.2836-2852a] (Old English)

Reflection amidst Grief
Joining the Two
The Battle-Leaving

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Today’s excerpt is very clearly in two parts. In the first we see the wrapping up of explicit mourning for Beowulf, and in the second the return of the cowardly thanes who fled when the dragon grew fierce.

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“Indeed few mighty men on earth
have so succeeded, as I have heard,
though every deed they did was daring,
few of them would make a rush against the breath of the
fierce ravager or could disturb a hall of rings by hand,
if he discovered the ward awakened
dwelling in the barrow. Beowulf had paid
for his share of the noble treasures with his death;
each had reached the end of
their loaned lives. It was not long then
before the laggards in battle left the wood,
ten cowardly traitors together,
those that dared not fight by the spear when
their liege lord was in greatest need;
but they were ashamed when they came bearing shields,
dressed in war garments to where their lord lay;
they gazed on Wiglaf. ”
(Beowulf ll.2836-2852a)

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Old English:

Modern English:

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Reflection amidst Grief

The first half of this excerpt clearly expresses closure for Wiglaf, whether directly or indirectly.

Where the earlier meditation on the dragon might seem more like the poet/scribe’s own musing on death, it’s much easier to relate these lines about Beowulf’s sacrifice and his grand deeds to Wiglaf’s own thoughts. Yet, at the same time, having had a hand in defeating the dragon, it’s fair to say that Wiglaf may also have marvelled at the dragon’s corpse.

In fact, it could well be that Wiglaf first had to marvel at the corpse in order to really register the magnitude of Beowulf’s deed. And, as one of the poem’s audience proxies (since the warriors in the audience – of any skill level – could probably relate to Wiglaf’s facing a major, brand new challenge), it’s fair to say that he may have been so shocked by Beowulf’s death that it takes the meditation on the dragon to make him realize that its corpse was his and Beowulf’s doing.

Victory seemed impossible, but together they achieved it – though they can never be together again.

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Joining the Two

What’s interesting about the way the poet/scribe transitions between the meditation on Beowulf and the thanes’ return is that he uses a statement involving both parties. It’s not that Beowulf had reached the end of his loaned days, nor that the dragon did, but that both did. In death all things are just creations of the god that the poet/scribe may have been trying to tell his audience about.

Or, all things are ultimately and equally the toys of fate, depending on a person’s outlook. The fact that both the dragon and Beowulf reached the end of their loaned days, though, points to a deeper connection than anything implied by a mere whim like that so often associated with fate or wyrd.

After the transition to the thanes’ return we aren’t given much in the way of juicy material. They wend their way back to see the aftermath of the fight, and we’re not given any solid reason why aside from implications of feeling guilty and ashamed. However, what the poet/scribe chooses to point out in his description of the thanes is very telling.

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The Battle-Leaving

After describing them as cowards they’re described as “ashamed when they came bearing shields,/dressed in war garments.” This fits in nicely with the idea of hypocrisy, and may also touch on a distrust of any consciously known dissonance in a person’s appearance.

It’s important for the poet/scribe to mention this here because it underlines a concern with a mismatch of appearance and essence. The thanes that fled are ashamed to be wearing the garb that marks them as warriors since these things were to help them become warriors but their own essences weren’t up to the task.

Further, since the majority of the thanes fled it’s implied that the old ways have failed the Geats. As a result of this, they’ve all gone soft in the face of new challenges, save for one. And, after nearly 100 lines of being without it, he is outfitted once more with his proper name: Wiglaf.

Renaming Wiglaf at this point may seem strange, but I think that it’s a positive example of the exterior matching the interior.

As mentioned in a previous entry, his name literally means battle-leaving or battle-heirloom. Since Wiglaf is the one left after the battle with the dragon, it seems almost as though he has fulfilled his name. Since he is indeed now a battle-leaving, he has achieved its proper meaning and is now a figure of authority that not just the thanes, but that the rest of the Geats will look to for guidance.

Unlike the cowardly thanes who are ashamed of the dissonance between their equipment and their conduct, through his courage Wiglaf has transcended into a perfect alignment between his name and his being which leads to his becoming as major a figure as Beowulf was, though his part of the story is much shorter.

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All the same, check back next week for the continuation of that story on Thursday as Wiglaf lays into the thanes. Also, don’t miss verse four of “Dum Diane vitrea,” which will be posted come next Tuesday.

A little more immediately, go over to A Glass Darkly tomorrow for Part Two of Shocktober: a look at Leprechaun in the Hood

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “The Fallen Hero and the Fleeing Thanes [ll.2836-2852a] (Old English)

  1. Pingback: Two Fallen Greats [ll.2821-2835] (Old English) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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