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The Role of Wiglaf in Beowulf

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The Role of Wiglaf in Beowulf

Seemingly minor character Wiglaf plays a central role in the conclusion of Beowulf. A young knight who has never before seen battle, Wiglaf steps forward to help his lord, hero, and cousin Beowulf in a time of peril. With his failure in battle and resulting death, the narrator shows that Beowulf is, after all, a prideful and mortal being; thus begins the transfer of heroic status from the old king to the young knight. The narrator argues that Wiglaf is worthy of his abruptly acquired status even though his intentions may seem questionable. The end of the poem devotes a significant amount of lines to dialogue spoken by Wiglaf, signifying his newly crucial role in his kingdom and in the story. Inevitably, the noble youth progresses to a position of epic heroism, continuing Beowulf’s legacy and fulfilling his figurative role as the “treasure…won,/ bought and paid for by Beowulf’s death” (2843-2844).

Beowulf’s strength fails him for the first time when he confronts the dragon. As he loses the futile battle that he pridefully insists on fighting alone, the narrative breaks from Beowulf’s peril and focuses on Wiglaf. With “wise and fluent words,” (2632) Wiglaf delivers a monologue in the poem rivaled in length and power by Beowulf alone. Clearly, Wiglaf has something profound to add to the story as the narrator spends considerable time quoting his sentiments while Beowulf is trying to slay an angry dragon in the background.

Like the knight in The Wanderer, Wiglaf recounts the happy days in the mead hall with longing, and wishes to serve his lord with all his strength. Without Beowulf, the knights would be displaced, lonely, and without purpose. To inspire his comra...

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...m “big and brave” (2837). Wiglaf has truly lived up to the poet’s and to Beowulf’s expectations.

Upon Beowulf’s death, he says, “I give thanks / that I behold this treasure here in front of me, / that I have been allowed to leave my people / so well endowed” (2795-2798). As most of the gold ends up burning on the king’s funeral pyre, it is likely that the treasure Beowulf speaks of is Wiglaf, himself. The young knight has proven his abilities and will certainly serve his people well. The poet explains that “the treasure had been won, / bought and paid for by Beowulf’s death” (2843-2844). Wiglaf rises to the most significant role in the poem, as he achieves a level of heroism matched only by Beowulf in his younger years. He proves to be the treasure that compensates the king’s death, filling the resulting void in his kingdom and in the narrative.
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