Summary and Analysis
Grieving over the death of Beowulf, the man who was "dearest in his life" (2822), Wiglaf bends over the corpse, gently washing his king as if hoping to restore him. The other ten retainers come out of the woods and receive a harsh lecture from their new king. Wiglaf sends a messenger to speak to other Geats who are not far away, waiting for news of the battle. The messenger reports Beowulf's death. Anticipating renewed problems with the Swedes, he recounts the history of their feud with the Geats. Sadly Wiglaf calls the company to visit Beowulf's death site where they can see the huge ("fifty foot-paces" long, 3042) body of the dragon as well as Beowulf's corpse.
Wiglaf speaks to the assembled Geats, informing them of the old king's funeral directions and setting them to work on the pyre at Whale's Cliff. With seven thanes, the new leader hauls the treasure out of the barrow. The audience learns that the cache had been cursed and is to be buried with Beowulf. The funeral pyre is immense; the grief of the old king's people is profound. One nameless woman sings a lament for the fallen hero, expressing terror at the future of the Geats without his protection. Constructing the funeral barrow takes 10 days. In it are placed Beowulf's ashes and the treasure for which he died. It is said that they lie there even now.
Wiglaf's devotion to his king is most touchingly illustrated in the scene in which the young retainer tends to the corpse. Within the limits of the manuscript, it is fair to picture the young warrior kneeling, holding the lifeless body, not washing it in preparation for a funeral but hoping to give comfort to the man "dearest in his life" (2822), now beyond human comfort. We can hear the anger in Wiglaf's voice as he reprimands the 10 cowards who fled to the woods when their master needed them most.
Counting the thief, there were 12 with Beowulf that day, and we can understand those who find parallels with Jesus Christ and his disciples. As tempting as that interpretation may be, this scene is really about the heroic code of the comitatus, the relationship between ruler and followers that provides order and structure to the civilization of the Geats. Wiglaf begins slowly, almost calmly, but his contempt for the 10 and love for his king lead him into a long, convoluted first sentence that is fierce with retribution before its end (2864-71). These were Beowulf's own thanes, his most trusted men, supposedly loyal warriors, and they betrayed their king completely. Wiglaf is proud of his own attempt "beyond my strength, to help my kinsman" (2879) when his liege needed him most. As the new king, he condemns the 10 and all their kin to exile, disowning them and denying their future rights to property, wealth, or membership in the comitatus, stating that it is better to die than to live in shame, a maxim that Beowulf would and did support.
The messenger sent to report the results of the battle warns the people that the king's death probably will encourage old enemies to renew their feuds with the Geats. This is another example of the Beowulf poet interrupting the flow of the action to allude to other stories in a way that may seem odd to a modern audience. We can only conclude that his audience must have welcomed the allusions; these are details with which most of them were familiar. For the modern reader, however, the point could been made more simply: The king is dead. The Geats are in trouble. But that is a story for another time.
The curse on the treasure-trove seems to come from a mixture of sources. While the concept seems pagan, the poet insists on saying that "the Lord" (3054) controlled the spell and that only He could decide who might disturb the hoard. The poet makes a reference to the treasure's being "in the deeps of the earth for a thousand years" (3050), which sounds biblical (Chickering suggests Revelations 20: 7-8) but certainly doesn't match the 300 years that, we've been told, have passed since the hoard was buried. It is unclear whether Beowulf was killed because of the curse.
Always capable of surprising us, the poet turns from these digressions to one of the most beautiful extended passages in the poem, the description of the funeral pyre and the final resting place of the ashes of the great man. At Beowulf's request, the pyre is hung with battle gear. The king himself is placed respectfully at the top in the center. The flame itself is spoken of as if it is perhaps a warrior called to a ceremonial death dance: "[T]he great fire was wakened. The wood-smoke climbed up, / black above flames; the roaring one danced, / encircled by wailing … " (3144-46).
Several critics point out that the final lines of the poem might serve as Beowulf's epitaph:
They said that he was, of the kings in this world,
the kindest to his men, the most courteous man,
the best to his people, and most eager for fame (3180-82).
That the closing does not speak of Beowulf's courage or strength or victories in battle is interesting. What it says of Beowulf is that he was kind. He knew decorum. He was good to his people. He was, in short, the exemplar of a civilized king. Some people are bothered by the last words of the poem: "most eager for fame" (lof-geornost). They seem to think that "fame" is a superficial goal. We might understand better if we remember that "fame" is really reputation for Beowulf. To him, his reputation was everything.
Franks and Frisians Germanic tribes united in opposition to the Geats.
Hugas a Frisian subgroup or family.
Hetware joined with the Franks against Hygelac.
Merovingian pertaining to the Franks.
Ravenswood site (in Sweden) of major battle between Geats and Swedes.
swathe to wrap with bandages.
Eofor and Wulf fought Swedes' King Ongentheow to his death. For a chronology of the Geats' feuds, see Chickering, pp. 361-62.