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Last week, Beowulf did what he said he would never do. He backed down.
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Wiglaf, the new Geat hero, is introduced.
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The Original Old English
Wiglaf wæs haten Weoxstanes sunu,
leoflic lindwiga, leod Scylfinga,
mæg ælfheres; geseah his mondryhten
under heregriman hat þrowian.
Gemunde ða ða are þe he him ær forgeaf,
wicstede weligne Wægmundinga,
folcrihta gehwylc, swa his fæder ahte.
Ne mihte ða forhabban; hond rond gefeng,
geolwe linde, gomel swyrd geteah,
þæt wæs mid eldum Eanmundes laf,
suna Ohteres. þam æt sæcce wearð,
wræccan wineleasum, Weohstan bana
meces ecgum, ond his magum ætbær
brunfagne helm, hringde byrnan,
eald sweord etonisc; þæt him Onela forgeaf,
his gædelinges guðgewædu,
fyrdsearo fuslic, no ymbe ða fæhðe spræc,
þeah ðe he his broðor bearn abredwade.
He frætwe geheold fela missera,
bill ond byrnan, oððæt his byre mihte
eorlscipe efnan swa his ærfæder;
geaf him ða mid Geatum guðgewæda,
æghwæs unrim, þa he of ealdre gewat,
frod on forðweg. þa wæs forma sið
geongan cempan, þæt he guðe ræs
mid his freodryhtne fremman sceolde.
Ne gemealt him se modsefa, ne his mæges laf
gewac æt wige; þæt se wyrm onfand,
syððan hie togædre gegan hæfdon.
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“Wiglaf was his name, son of Weohstan,
a beloved warrior, man of the Scylfings,
kinsman of Aelfhere. He saw his liege lord
under the battle mask hot and suffering.
Then he remembered that bounty which he had earlier given,
how he lived in the rich dwelling place of the Waegmundings,
a place granted to each by common right, as his father had enjoyed.
Then he could not restrain himself, by hand his shield was grasped,
a yellow shield, the ancient sword he drew,
that which was, according to men, Eanmunde’s heirloom,
the sword of the son of Ohthere. It was brought back from battle,
while Weohstan was in friendless exile, he was that man’s slayer
with the sword’s edge, and to his kinsmen he bore
a shining helm, ringed mail shirt,
and that ancient sword of giant’s craft. Onela had given it to him,
his kinsman’s war garments,
the ready war garb, no feud was there to speak of,
though he his brother’s son had killed.
He kept the adornments for many half-years,
sword and mail-shirt, until his son could
perform the same heroic deeds as his late father.
Then he also gave the Geats one of the countless number
of war garbs when he departed from life,
old and on his way forth. Then was the first time
for that young warrior to advance himself
in the onslaught of battle for his noble lord.
His spirit was not melted by what he saw, nor did
his kinsman’s heirloom fail in the conflict. This the serpent discovered
after the two Geats had come together.”
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A Quick Interpretation
Well, it looks like Beowulf’s successor is pretty much set up.
Wiglaf enters the scene, bearing some pretty hefty gear. It’s the equipment of Onela’s nephew. So it’s from the Swedes; a bit of treasure from a successful Geat raid or battle. And this gear comes from his own dad, which makes its appeal something of a double whammy, I would think. Not only does this gear have history, but it’s something that Wiglaf inherited, adding to its reputation.
So he’s well-equipped to help Beowulf out. I guess all the other Geats Beowulf brought with him just had the small fortune required to pick a few things up from the local blacksmith. That’s got to be why they all ran off, right?
Actually, thinking of things that way, why are swords and helmets and armour with a history so valuable and confidence-bestowing?
Sure, swords and armour that have lasted for generations must be made of some tough stuff.
But if you have this ancestral sword that’s totally bad-ass and practically never fails you, when you’re slain and your sword is taken as war booty, was the sun in your eyes as your opponent came down with a slash to end you or did your sword screw up?
I guess that’s part of why there would be that belief that certain pieces of equipment had “proper” users. Beyond being form-fitted, the right swordsman with the right sword must’ve been believed to be unstoppable.
Interestingly, Beowulf puts the lie to that way of thinking, though. Beowulf’s ultimate weapon is his bare-handed physical strength. But something like the dragon can’t be beaten by brute force or wrestling holds alone. So maybe it’s less about the right piece of gear for the right user, and, in line with the Anglo-Saxon idea of the world being an ever-changing place, more about that right fit changing every few years.
Hopefully, for Beowulf’s sake, Wiglaf is the “right” wielder for the sword his dad gave him.
What’s your take on the importance of ancestral swords or on war gear plundered from fallen foes? Is it a guarantee of quality or just a cheap way to get some things that would have been prohibitively expensive?
Feel free to share your theories in the comments!
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In the next post, Wiglaf makes a speech to stir his comrades to Beowulf’s side. You can find that post, and the rest of my translation, starting here.
Yep! Perhaps a little confusingly, this is the last of my translation posts. The entries aren’t in perfect chronological order as far as when I wrote them, unfortunately. But now the entirety of Beowulf is on this blog!
Thanks for following this project as I’ve slowly released pieces of it over the years. And in the coming weeks, look forward to more coverage of Beowulf related news and media!
A bit further down the road, look for reworked, standalone chapters of the poem as I prepare my translation for publication.
And, of course, if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my Beowulf coverage, please do follow this blog!