Wiglaf’s Prognosticatings [ll.2877-2891] (Old English)

Wiglaf’s Learned Look at the Future
Early Thoughts on Early Medieval English Nationhood

{Wiglaf casts no runes, but peers into the future nonetheless. Image found on the Daily 23 blog.}

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Wiglaf foretells of terrible times ahead for the Geats, but concludes on a defiant note.

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“I of life protection little could
offer him in the fray, and yet I felt my limits
lessen when I strove to help our lord.
It was ever weakening, when I landed sword blows
on the mortal enemy, the fire from his head then
grew sluggish. As he became desperate, too few rallied
around the prince, at the time of the beast’s final
thrashing. Now shall the sword-gifting and treasure
sharing, all the native-land joy of our people,
our hope, be subdued; each of us will have
our land-right become idle
among our people, afterwards princes from afar
will come seeking, driving us all to flee,
an inglorious deed. Death is better
to every warrior than a life of dishonour!”
(Beowulf ll.2877-2891)

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Old English:

Modern English:

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Wiglaf’s Learned Look at the Future

Here Wiglaf’s rant becomes less about pure anger directed at the thanes (and perhaps redirected from himself, partially) to a bit of prognosticating.

He predicts that now the Geats are doomed because stronger neighbours will overrun them once it becomes known that the Geats have found great treasure and lost a greater leader. However, it’s not fair to pin nothing but prognostication onto Wiglaf’s words here, I think it’s fair to say that they’re simply predictions borne of observation.

Wiglaf has never fought in any battle before, but surely he’d have heard stories about them from his father, or from bards while at the court of Beowulf. With all the time the Geats spent in the meadhall it would be a wonder if their heads weren’t as full of tales as their bellies seem to be of mead and ale. So it’s safe to say that Wiglaf would know about the dangers of being without a powerful leader.

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Early Thoughts on Early Medieval English Nationhood

Anyway, the bigger thing here, at least, as far as I’m concerned, is the compound word “londrihtes” (l.2887). In modern English, this literally translates as “joy of land ownership” or “native land joy.”

The importance of this word, and its connotation appearing earlier in the use of words like “leodscip” (meaning “nation,” “people,” “country,” or “region”) is great. It suggests that the Geats, or the Anglo-Saxons who composed and refined and listened to and watched this poem, had more than just a concept of land ownership – they had a concept of their belonging to the land as much as they did of the land belonging to them.

What makes this so important is that it implies that they weren’t just roving bands of mercenaries, but felt some kind of connection to the land that they occupied, much in the same way that Wiglaf feels a connection to the land that he fears and predicts the Geats will be forced to flee. This isn’t a major aspect of the story, by any means, but its being mentioned and its being used as a threat of future doom buttresses its importance.

Follow me here. Earlier in the poem, speeches to inspire have involved the prospect of treasure or of glory of one kind or another. Even Wiglaf’s speech to the thanes involves reminding them of Beowulf’s generosity with his war spoils, themselves a kind of treasure (in the same way that an iPhone might be considered a treasure today – something ubiquitous that could also have a great deal of sentimental or personal meaning).

However, when Wiglaf starts his doom-saying about the entirety of the Geats he doesn’t say that their war gear will be snatched away, or even that they’ll lose the hoard of treasure – instead he says that they’ll be forced from the land. They’ll be forced to flee. In my mind, and I think, throughout this poem, this is the absolute worst thing that could happen to an Anglo-Saxon because it’s a form of exile.

Yes, the Geats will be forced to flee together, but they’ll still have to flee from the place that they call home. And if being exiled is such a big deal, and it can be expressed through a reference to land, then it seems to me that these Geats have at least some sense of living in a country – in Geatland.

That this is mentioned in this poem matters because its Anglo-Saxon creators wouldn’t waste their breath composing something meaningless. Even setting matters of structure and oratorial decoration aside, the word is there, and it comes at the climax of Wiglaf’s prediction. Therefore, the threat of land-loss must be things that strike a chord in medieval Anglo-Saxon minds. And if the notion of losing one’s country strikes a chord, then there needs to be a concept of even having a country for it to do so.

Thus, these references are important because they point to the importance of a nascent sort of nationalism that, admittedly needs to be expressed (or at least is only expressed as far as we can tell from surviving records/literature) through the story of another nation. It needs to be projected, in other words, which suggests that the nation doing the projecting might not be fully defined as yet, but nonetheless has some sense of nationhood.

Of course, for the reference to concepts of nationhood within Beowulf to suggest some nascent sense of nationalism, the poem would need to have been written (or at least first composed) around the time of Alfred the Great (ninth century) or earlier. All the same, there’s something to be said for the poem’s implications about nationhood.

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Tomorrow, watch for a review of The Room – it’s coming!

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Wiglaf’s Prognosticatings [ll.2877-2891] (Old English)

  1. Pingback: Wiglaf looks back in Anger [ll.2864-2876] (Old English) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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