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.”]
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.