a poem for wiglaf

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Continuing from my vignette from Inferno, here is a poem telling the story of Wiglaf, the protegé to the epic hero Beowulf [I read the Seamus Heaney translation.  As one of my teachers remarked: “Seamus’s work shows that if Beowulf had really thought about it, he would have been Irish.”]

Foreword:

Beowulf is so fascinating and heart-wrenching because it condenses the rise and fall of a great tribe into one man.  Beowulf, as he dies, passes his power onto Wiglaf, his only supporter at the end and the son that Beowulf wishes he had.  I think that some scop would have also sung about the tragedy of Wiglaf—the song of a good man who just isn’t an epic hero.  Like Hector in the Iliad, Wiglaf doesn’t have the power to hold together the world that has already begun to disintegrate around him, and so his story is not an epic, but a tragedy.  I have tried to create a shortened version of a Wiglaf song, in as close to the same style as I can working within the confines of our modern English…

Then the king in his great-heartedness unclasped

the collar of gold from his neck and gave it

to the young thane, telling him to use

it and the warshirt and the gilded helmet well

“You are the last of us, the only one left

of the Waegmundings.  Fate swept us away,

sent my whole brave high-born clan

to their final doom.  Now I must follow them.”

That was the warrior’s last word.  (Heaney 189)

The Lay of Wiglaf

Beowulf, great king                       Led the God-blessed Geats

Through many battles,                  A sturdy leader he.

Killer of evil things,                       He loved fame,

But drunk, he slew                         No hearth-companions.

Fifty-year monarch,                      The gracious ring-giver 

Honored true thanes.                      That was a good king.    

 

The Lord of Life                                 Decreed that Wiglaf      

The most loyal,                                 Who battled the dragon

Beside the old king’s side,               Receive the golden collar

And witness the going                    Of the greatest of the Geats.

Last Wægmunding,                        The young hero wept

To see his spirit-father                    Breathe his last,

Surrounded by gold,                         The cursed horde of the wyrm.

 

Wiglaf, now king,                          Lambasted the craven men.

Coward-monger,                               He rebuked those who

Deserted their ring-giver               In his fatal dragon battle.

“I carried my courage                      Into battle with my Lord

But too few remained.                   You too are now alone,

Oh shame-faced ones.                       You have disgraced yourselves.

Enemies will plunder                     Our homes and hearths—

Only guts and ashes                          Will decorate our beloved hall,

 Leaving our wives                          Homeless—our children

Covered in thane-blood                  And bereft of wergild.”

 

The abashed thanes                          Honored their fallen king

As he had desired.                              His funeral pyre and mound

Were the greatest                             Remaining in all memory. 

Then, Loyal Wiglaf                        Began his reign as ring-giver,

Gathering to himself                       The young men of the Geats,

Teaching them all                           Honor and loyalty in war.

 

When the tribes                                Hostile to the Geats,

From all around,                              Discovered the new king

Had but one battle                          Under his war-belt,

They swarmed                                    Wasp-like into Geatland

Descending in waves                       Across the doomed land,

Pillaging and plundering            Their path to destruction.

Flesh flew from                                  Frightful flashing swords,

Drinking blood                                  Like fountain-water.

Fires burned forever,                        Lighting the night sky

 

Wiglaf, young ring-giver,            Grasped at victory,

Leading his thanes                          Into the slaughter,

Calling out to men and God         For a righteous outcome.

Every man charged                          Forward with the king,

But when the vicious                    Tribes bared their teeth,

The Geat-men turned tail,           Leaving their leader alone.

 

He refused to weep,                          Though sorrow coursed

Throughout his heart.                    Doomed, the Geats

Would have nothing—                 No ring-giver left—

Would be only alone.                     Their cowardice within

Their hearts, like poison,               Killing from within,

As their enemies                                Destroy from the outside.

 

The young dying hero                     Held his hands to God,

Gave up his spirit                             Onto the quiet that

Is beyond death                                  For the loyal thanes.

Wiglaf let one tear flow,              Remembering his fallen lord

From long ago,                                   And left to join him.

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