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 comrades to action, Wiglaf acts as their moral conscience by pointing out the loyalty they have all pledged to their lord Beowulf, saying “now the day has come / when this lord we serve needs sound men / to give him their support” (2646-2648). Stepping up to lead the ranks into battle, he rallies the troops and tries to excite the others’ passion and will to defend their lord and their purpose. Beowulf is now a weak and unsound character in need of rescuing, whereas Wiglaf is the valiant hero and savior.
As Beowulf fails for the first time, Wiglaf confronts battle for “his first time to be tested as a fighter” (2627). He is the only visible character aside from Beowulf as the other knights were hiding out of harms way:
No help or backing was to be had then / from his highborn
comrades; that hand-picked troop / broke ranks and ran for
their lives / to the safety of the wood (2597-2599).
The cowardice of these men contrasts with Wiglaf’s bravery and discernment:
But within one heart / sorrow welled up: in a man of
worth / the claims of kinship cannot be denied (2599-2602).
He concedes that Beowulf wants to fight the fight alone, but recognizes the futility of...