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One of Beowulf's followers remains true to the bonds of kinship and loyalty. Wiglaf may not be cut from the same heroic mold as Beowulf, but he possesses the same energy and vigor that characterized Beowulf as a young warrior. (Parallel relations abound throughout the poem. Notice, for example, how the aging Beowulf resembles Hrothgar at the start of the poem.)
Read Wiglaf's speech to his comrades in light of what you've already learned about the warriors' code of ethics. As early as the Prologue, the poet informed us that it was a king's generosity toward his warriors that established the bonds of loyalty. In return for their loyalty he provided them with swords and armor, and shared with them the spoils of war.
Wiglaf realizes that for Beowulf it's a point of honor to fight the dragon alone. But he also realizes that for Beowulf "those days are over and gone/And now our lord must lean on younger/Arms" (2646-48). He tries to encourage his frightened comrades to come to Beowulf's assistance; he berates them, and mocks their manhood. But to no avail. The poet gives us a brief history of Wiglaf's sword.
How do you interpret this? Some readers feel that the image of the
sword as it's used throughout the poem is a symbol of the never-ending
feuds between countries. People die in battle, but their swords survive
and are used, in future battles, by their next of kin. Objects, the poet
is telling us here, often have a longer history than people. Recall how
after Beowulf killed Grendel's mother he gave Hrothgar the handle of the
magic sword, and how Hrothgar read "the story of ancient wars between
good and evil" in the runes on its shiny handle.)
Wiglaf rushes fearlessly into the thick of the battle, crying words of encouragement to Beowulf. The dragon hears him, and engulfs both the warriors with his flames. Beowulf attempts to crush the dragon's head with his old sword, Nagling, but the sword fails him and breaks into pieces. The monster charges again and thrusts its tusks into Beowulf's neck.
Beowulf doesn't reject Wiglaf's assistance at this moment. It's more important to slay the dragon and protect his people than to preserve his legend as a warrior who fights alone. It's only as an old man that he realizes the advantage of working in collaboration with other people, and that the pride of the solitary hero only adds to the chaos of the world.
Wiglaf cleverly manages to wound the dragon with his sword, and Beowulf finishes the job by cutting the beast in half. "What they did," the poet tells us, "all men must do/When the time comes!" (2708-2709). Beowulf realizes that the wound in his neck is serious, and he prepares to die. In his speech to Wiglaf he bemoans the fact that he has no son to whom he can leave his armor. (Remember that the poem is filled with substitute sons and fathers. Wiglaf, then, as he bathes Beowulf's wounds, can be seen as the son Beowulf never had.)
Beowulf reviews his life. He sees his past in terms of all the things he never did: he swore no unholy oaths, began no wars without good reason, didn't shed the blood of any members of his family. His sin, if any, was his desire for wealth and fame. He wasn't content, the poet implies, with his God-given gifts, but craved the rewards that he felt were due him for his accomplishments.