Wiglaf In Beowulf: A True Anglo-Saxon Warrior


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In the first part of the heroic poem Beowulf an old king Hrothgar is being helped by the young hero – Beowulf. In the second part, however, Beowulf himself is an old king and is being helped by Wiglaf. The question is, wether Wiglaf is simply a true Anglo-Saxon warrior, or, like Beowulf, he can be called a superhero. This essay will analyze this issue, by comparing the epithets used about Beowulf and Wiglaf, what they say and do.
It can be clearly seen, that there are a lot of different epithets used about Beowulf. Mostly they describe Beowulf’s physical abilities, personal characteristics, his social position and family and tribal relations. There are a lot of epithets describing Beowulf as a warrior (“good warrior” (Beowulf 41), “angry warrior” (Beowulf 54), “victorious warrior” (Beowulf 66), “brave warrior” (Beowulf 69)), his strength (“mighty man” (Beowulf 42), “mighty one” (Beowulf 37), “the stongest of warriors” (Beowulf 54)), courage, pride and bravery (“the man known for his courage” (Beowulf 36), “proud man of the Geats” (Beowulf 36), “the brave shield-warrior” (Beowulf 58), “battle-brave one” (Beowulf 41)). Along with epithets like “the kinsman of Hygelac” (Beowulf 42), “the best of thanes” (Beowulf 59) and “the lord of the Weather-Geats” (Beowulf 66) those like “the protector of warriors” (Beowulf 43), “the protector of seafarers” (Beowulf 55) and “the protector of Weather-Geats” (Beowulf 72) can be found in the text. Such epithets play a very important role, because superheroes are supposed to use their strength to protect other people. Also it is repeated oftenly, that Beowulf belongs to the tribe of the Geats (“man of the Geats” (Beowulf 43), “the Geat” (Beowulf 58), “a good man among the Geats” (Beowulf 34)), which is essemtial, since king Hrothgar is Dane, so Beowulf helps not only people of his own tribe, but also of different ones.
Unlike Beowulf, Wiglaf is described with a relatively small ammount of epithets. They speak about him as a warrior (“young spear-warrior (Beowulf 71)”, “a rare-shielded warrior” (Beowulf 70)), a thane (“thane” (Beowulf 72), “kinsman of Aelfhere” (Beowulf 70)) and a young man (“brave young retainer” (Beowulf 72), “young spear-warrior” (Beowulf 72), “young man” (Beowulf 71)). It can be seen, that young Wiglaf’s age is payed a lot of attention to, which wasn’t the case with Beowulf – his age was only mentiond, when he already became a king of the Geats (“old lord” (Beowulf 72), “old man” (Beowulf 62)).

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“[...] nothing can ever set aside kinship in him who means well.” (Beowulf, 70) – although this is not an epithet, together with some of them it states clearly, that Wiglaf is a kinsman, a follower. This makes him unsuitable for a superhero’s role.
Being an Anglo-Saxon warriors, both Beowulf and Wiglaf are supposed to boast before entering a battle. The things they say, however, are very different. Beowulf speaks about his great deeds of the past (“In my youth I have set about many brave deeds.” (Beowulf 37), “[...] I had bound five, destroyed a family of giants, and at night in the waves slain water-monsters [...]” (Beowulf 38)), about him being the strongest one (“I maintain the truth that I had more strength in the sea, hardship on the waves, than any other man.” (Beowulf 39); “I claim myself no poorer in war-strength, war works, than Grendel claims himself.” (Beowulf 41)) and makes the listener aware of his intentions (“And now alone I shall settle affairs with Grendel, the monster, the demon.” (Beowulf 38)). Moreover, he repeats the same idea for several times. This idea is the reason for acting the way he is – to avenge and also to help and protect (“It is better for a man to avenge his friend than much moun.” (Beowulf 52); “I have avenged the evil deeds, the slaughter of the Danes, as it was right to do.” (Beowulf 56); “All that (sorrows for the victory-scyldings, constant misery) I avenged [...].” (Beowulf 61); “If beyond the sea’s expance I hear that men dwelling near threaten you with terrors, as those who hated you did before, I shall bring you a thousand thanes, wariors to your aid.” (Beowulf 58)). So it appears, that Beowulf acts not for himself, but for the sake of other people.
As for Wiglaf, there are only a few of his phrases and they, just like the epithets, emphasise the idea of him being a young warrior and a follower. In the best way this is illustrated by the things Wiglaf said before entering the battle :” I remember that time we drank mead, when we promised our lord in the beer-hall [...] that we would repay him for the war-arms if a need like this befell him [...]. [...]. Now the day has come that our liege lord has need of the strength of good fighters. [...]. Kod knows of me that I should rather that the flame enfold my body with my gold-giver. [...]. For us both shall there be a part in the work of sword and helmet, of battle-shirt and war-clothing.” (Beowulf 71). So it can be seen, that for him the reason to fight is his loyalty to his lord. He is a kinsman, a follower, and as the one he is supposed to follow his lord and fight together with him. There are no other reasons, like the will to protect other people or avenge deaths, as it was in Beowulf’s case.
The poem itself is concentrated on three great deeds of Beowulf – his fights with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon. These fights were not easy ones, Beowulf himself sais so: “Not easily did i come through it with my life, the war under water, not without trouble carried out the task.” (Beowulf 56). Still, he succeeded in every one of them, even though he lost his life in the fight against the dragon. In his homeland he heared of Grendel’s attack on Heorot (Beowulf 34), and came to help the old king Hrothgar. As a king he protected his people from the dragon, although, for the first time in his life, he was unsure about his future (Beowulf 66). Furthermore, during the fight with the dragon, Beowulf found time to protect his follower, Wiglaf – the follower had to hide behind Beowulf’s shield, since his own one was burned (Beowulf 71). So all Beowulf’s deeds were to protect in the first place. Besides, in theese fights Beowulf showed himself as a noble opponent – he warned the dragon before attacking the worm (“Stout-hearted he shouted” (Beowulf 69)), - and once again prooved his strength – he fought against Grendel without weapon and armor (“I have also heared say that the monster in his recklessness cares not for weapons. Therefore, so that my liege lord Hygelac may be glad of me in his heart, I scorn to bear sword or broad shield, yellow wood, to the battle, but with my grasp I shall grapple with the enemy and fight for life, foe agains foe.” (Beowulf 38)). Theese are the qualities of a true superhero.
Wiglaf, on the contrary, only takes part in the fight with the dragon, and he appears to be a mere human. Not only he had to be helped by Beowulf – an old king already, the last strike was made by the lord, not by Wiglaf (Beowulf 71-72). On the other hand, he presented himself as a brave warrior. He never paid attention to the fire or pain in his will to slay the foe and help his lord. These are the qualities required to be called an Anglo-Saxon warrior.
From all written above it can be seen, that Wiglaf truly has all the qualities to be called a warrior. However, after comparing him to Beowulf, it appears, he still lacks something to be a superhero. Wether these are phisical or personal qualities, it can not be changed. A person needs more than loyalty to be called a superhero, and loyalty is one of the leading Wiglaf’s character features. So, all in all, Wiglaf is definately only a true Anglo-Saxon warrior.

List of Referenses
Beowulf. In The Northon Anthology of English Literature. Vol 1. 5th ed. Ed. M.H. Abrams and others. New York: w.w. Northon and Co., 1986.


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