Traditionally, Wiglaf is not the hero in Beowulf; the poem is not titled Wiglaf. Yet, he is the only warrior willing to fulfill his devotion to the leader, Beowulf, and fight boldly, even to death if necessary. The warriors, along with Wiglaf, are to follow the Anglo-Saxon heroic code and defend Beowulf, favoring death over failure. It is only with Wiglaf’s loyalty that Beowulf can overthrow the dragon, for without Wiglaf, Beowulf would not have had the opportunity to deliver the fatal stab. In this moment, Wiglaf tosses all care aside and attacks for his king, even though his hand severely burns from the act. Because of his courageous and selfless decision, Wiglaf embodies Anglo-Saxon heroism by showing bravery, keeping his oath of loyal service to Beowulf, and providing justice. Wiglaf additionally proves a person does not have to be of noble birth to do heroic acts, and that everyone has the choice to be a hero, for he would argue it is better to decide to be a hero and fail, than to flee and live.
To begin, it is important to note our definition of a “hero” in the context of Beowulf is a real person, and not a mythical, immortal being. The first definition of hero in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a man… of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; esp. one regarded as semi-divine and immortal” (OED). However, the theme of Beowulf demonstrates otherwise, showing the OED’s second definition for hero more fitting: “A man… distinguished by the performance of courageous or noble actions, esp. in battle; a brave or illustrious warrior, soldier, etc.” (OED). In Anglo-Saxon literature, being a hero meant being a warrior—which fits the OED’s second definition of hero. These heroes are brave, humble, resilient, and intelligent leaders, and “willing to face against any odds, and fight to the death for their glory and people” (Garcia). In theory, any person has the potential to become a hero, which is seen in Beowulf: “The poem teases us with the sense that its hero is a real person” (Clark, 275). We see this real-life quality in the archetypical hero of Beowulf, Beowulf himself, and through the poem we know he is human due to his mortal merits as evidence—most importantly, his late father.
In George Clark’s chapter in A Beowulf Handbook, “The Hero and the Theme,” he conveys Beowulf’s relationship with fatherhood is humanizing. Throughout the poem, we see glimpses of Beowulf’s youth and relationship to his father and his uncle, which “creates a sense of a whole life resembling other human lives” (Clark, 280). For instance, within the poem, King Hrothgar’s honorable account of Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow “brings Beowulf’s gigantic father figure into human compass; Beowulf’s idea of his father makes him, in that domestic context, recognizably human” (Clark, 282). Hrothgar once protected Ecgtheow during a blood-feud and purchased peace from Ecgtheow’s foes, thus ending the feud. Consequently, Beowulf feels devoted to Hrothgar, who serves as a father figure following Ecgtheow’s death, further showing the importance of fatherhood in Beowulf’s life.
Likewise, we see a similar analogy towards the end of the poem with Wiglaf. Wiglaf is the only warrior who came to Beowulf’s defense when the men chosen by Beowulf to assist in fighting the dragon bolt into the forest, proving Wiglaf was willing to die for Beowulf. Consequently, in his final living moments, Beowulf then adopts Wiglaf in a similar matter Hrothgar adopted Beowulf: “Beowulf’s relationships with his late father prompt the audience to regard the hero as a person, so does the son Beowulf never had” (Clark, 283). It can be linked Wiglaf is loyal to Beowulf like the way Beowulf is to Hrothgar.
In Edward Irving’s “Heroic Role Models” of Heroic Poetry of the Anglo-Saxon Period, he shows the importance of Wiglaf’s humbleness and loyalty in relation to Beowulf’s status:
“When [Wiglaf] moves up…to address [Beowulf], he makes the most tactful and touching statement a novice warrior in his situation could make… reserving himself only the last three modest words: (lines 2663) ‘My dearest Beowulf, do it all well—You said when you were young long ago that you would never let glory droop while you were still alive. O single-minded prince so brave in deeds, now you must protect life with all your strength. I’ll help you.’” (Irving, 367)
Here, Wiglaf reminds the audience he is a regular person, much below Beowulf’s status, when he modestly states he will prove his loyalty. The emphasis on Beowulf being a mortal and Wiglaf being a lower status than Beowulf further advocates anyone is capable of heroic action, they just have to choose. Wiglaf chooses to be a hero in the poem’s final moments when he helps Beowulf defeat the dragon. Because of this heroic action, Beowulf tells Wiglaf to look after the Geats when he is gone and gives Wiglaf heirlooms. In other words, because Wiglaf was not Beowulf’s actual son and not the natural successor to the throne, Wiglaf became the king due to his heroic decisions instead. In contrast, the men who broke the heroic code by abandoning Beowulf in battle chose not to be heroes, which results in Wiglaf banishing them.
Although Wiglaf fills Beowulf’s shoes in several ways, a remarkable role Wiglaf holds following the final battle is delivering heroic speeches to an audience. Prior to his death, Beowulf continuously addresses audiences rather than the reader, lacking soliloquies: “Until [his] final scene with Wiglaf, Beowulf never speaks privately to one listener. His words are consistently heard and overheard in a public world,” (Clark, 276). Although Beowulf’s humanizing qualities mentioned previously make him more relatable, Clark then goes on to write these “constraints” for Beowulf, such as never speaking privately, are due to the poem’s “largely dramatic form and the narrator’s general impassivity… [it] constructs Beowulf, the hero, as a person, not simply an Everyman or a model for emulation,” (Clark, 276). While this description contrasts Wiglaf, for he seems to be an “Everyman,” following Beowulf’s death, the same becomes true for Wiglaf as well. Though the poem ends, it is safe to assume as the king, Wiglaf continues to deliver speeches, following in Beowulf’s footsteps. Thinking of Wiglaf as the “Everyman” Clark says Beowulf is not, additionally conveys anyone is capable of doing heroic actions.
Furthermore, Wiglaf’s speech marks a shift in which he will both figuratively and literally take the place as the king. Within his speech, Wiglaf further illustrates Anglo-Saxon heroism when his word choice reminds the audience he is a warrior. For instance, the last two lines of his speech brand the image of Wiglaf as a warrior, using the words such as sword, helmet, and battle-dress. His language here is significant because it additionally reminds the warriors of everything Beowulf has given to them, specifically battle gear, thus further deepening the warriors’ level of betrayal to Beowulf. Also, Wiglaf reminds the audience it is better to die with honor than to live with scorn: “…I would much prefer that the flames should enfold / my body alongside my gold-giving lord” (2650-2651). Wiglaf’s loyal, courageous remark here further indicates Wiglaf’s heroism because it exemplifies the heroic code. However, it is noteworthy that according to Irving, in order to follow the heroic code and assist in the battle, Wiglaf disobeys Beowulf:
“Nonetheless, although Beowulf…offers no contingent order to his men to run off into the forest if things begin to look dangerous, this is precisely what they do. Presumably their duty was to hold their ground and stay…neither to advance nor to retreat. If they disobey an order when they run away, Wiglaf also disobeys an order when he advances—but the difference insubordination is immense.” (Irving, 364)
However, Wiglaf explains why this heroic override is permissible in that Beowulf “chose them because he really wanted them to imitate him in their bravery” (Irving, 365). Wiglaf challenges his king’s command here because he must in order to follow the heroic code and help slay the dragon.
Notably, Wiglaf illustrates his understanding of Anglo-Saxon heroism in his speech following Beowulf’s death, for he recognizes what dishonorable behavior is and aspires to serve respectfully as Beowulf’s successor, first by handling the warriors who retreated from the battle: “Wiglaf—what they might have been—scolds them harshly, making verbal and visual contrast” (Irving, 368). When Wiglaf kneels over the fallen Beowulf, the warriors who retreated look at Wiglaf as the man “who is living out the role that should have been theirs” (Irving, 368). The fact that Wiglaf is living a role that could have been theirs, as Irving mentions, further shows the retreating warriors were capable of completing the heroic actions of which they failed to do. Here, Wiglaf remains loyal to Beowulf by angrily, but justly, telling the warriors who abandoned Beowulf in his time of need are unworthy of Beowulf’s heroic, fatal action that ultimately saves them.
Wiglaf should be considered a hero in Beowulf, because without him, Beowulf would have never been able to defeat and kill the dragon that could have killed many more people. Wiglaf’s acts of bravery within Beowulf shows that a person does not have to be of high status to be a hero. We see Wiglaf’s heroism in his commitment to the heroic code, relationship to Beowulf as a father-figure, and impactful speeches. Moreover, Wiglaf follows Aristotle’s four virtues of a hero, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; he displays grand intention when striking the dragon, upholds justice by banishing the warriors who retreated, aids Beowulf in the slaying of the dragon, and fulfills Beowulf’s last wishes. Through my research, I encourage the fact that Wiglaf does not begin as the archetypical, obvious hero in Beowulf, makes him even more so of one because it reminds us that we are capable of doing the same.
Clark, George, et al. A Beowulf Handbook. Univ. of Exeter Press, 1997.
Irving, Edward B., et al. Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honor of Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1993.
Garcia, Christopher. “The Anglo-Saxon Hero.” Pace University, csis.pace.edu/grendel/Proj2004A1/hero.html.