Beowulf lies dead, and Wiglaf is bowed down with grief at the loss of his lord. The dragon, too, lies slain on the ground. The poet briefly commemorates the beast’s end. Slowly, the Geatish warriors who had fled from the battle straggle back to the barrow to find Wiglaf still vainly trying to revive their fallen leader. The men are ashamed, and Wiglaf rebukes them bitterly, declaring that all of Beowulf’s generosity has been wasted on them. The cost of their cowardice, he predicts, will be greater than just the life of a great ruler. He suggests that foreign warlords will be sure to attack the Geats now that Beowulf can no longer protect them.
Wiglaf sends a messenger with tidings to the Geats, who wait nervously for news of the outcome of the battle. The messenger tells them of Beowulf’s death and warns them that the hostile Franks and the Frisians will most certainly attack them. He expresses concern about the Swedes as well, who have a long-held grudge against the Geats; he relates the history of their feud and tells how the Geats secured the last victory. Without Beowulf to protect them, the messenger predicts, the Geats risk invasion by Swedes. The poet confirms that many of the messenger’s predictions will prove true.
The Geats then rise and go to Beowulf’s body. They discover also the fearsome, fifty-foot-long corpse of the dragon. It is revealed that the hoard had been under a spell, so that no person could open it except by the will of God. Wiglaf recounts Beowulf’s last requests and readies the people to build his funeral pyre. With seven of the greatest Geatish thanes, Wiglaf returns to the dragon’s bier to collect the treasure that Beowulf bought with his life. They hurl the dragon’s body into the water.
The pyre is built high and decked with armor, according to Beowulf’s wishes. The body is laid in and the fire is lit—its roar competes with the sound of weeping. A Geatish woman laments Beowulf’s death and grieves about the war-torn future that she foresees for her people. The Geats place Beowulf’s remains on a cliff high above the sea in a barrow that will be visible to all passing ships. Sorrowfully, they recount that their king was kind and generous to his people, fair-minded, and eager to earn praise.
The conclusion of the epic begins with a brief but lovely elegiac passage in honor of the dragon, consigning it, along with Beowulf, to the company of those who can no longer exercise their greatness. The poet emphasizes the dragon’s beauty and grace of movement (“Never again would he glitter and glide” ), illustrating that the beast was magnificent in its own right and a worthy match for the great hero. The poet’s admiring words about the dragon glorify Beowulf’s feat in slaying such a creature and demonstrate a respect for the slain enemy that Grendel and his mother never enjoyed. The poet here demonstrates his sensitivity to balance—what the translator calls “four-squareness”—as he dwells on the two bodies lying side by side, two remarkable lives come to a close. The symmetry and pacing in this nostalgic moment help to prepare us for the elaborate ceremony of the funeral with which the poem concludes. Of course, the first foreshadowing of Beowulf’s funeral comes much earlier, with the recounting of the death of Shield Sheafson at the beginning of the poem. The story has now come full circle.
Wiglaf’s rebuke of his fellow warriors, along with the messenger’s prophecy about Geatland’s imminent troubles, offers a great deal of insight into the importance of the warrior-king figure in early feudal societies. In a world where small societies are constantly at war over land, wealth, resources, and honor, the presence of a powerful king is essential to the safety and well-being of a people. When a king dies, his people become vulnerable to the marauding forces beyond their borders. The doom that hangs over the entire narration of Beowulf’s story seems to descend swiftly upon his people the moment that he dies, and the wailing Geats are well aware of what the lack of Beowulf’s protection means for them. Wiglaf suggests as well that the weakness and deficiency of his fellow warriors will encourage invaders. The Geats have sacrificed their reputation as valiant warriors by refusing to come to the aid of their king, and reputation is itself an important layer of defense. Once word of their cowardice gets out, they will surely become targets of attack.
By the time of the funeral, Wiglaf’s initial rage against his compatriots has cooled somewhat, and he speaks once more for the community. As extensively as it honors Beowulf’s greatness, the final scene of the poem comes closer than any other to criticizing his behavior. Wiglaf reflects that there may have been an element of irresponsibility in Beowulf’s single-mindedness and daring when he proclaims, “Often when one man follows his own will / many are hurt. This happened to us” (3077–3078). This declaration, in conjunction with the earlier statement that Beowulf was too proud to field a large army against the dragon, suggests that his actions were not wholly courageous but also, to a degree, foolhardy and headstrong. Like Wiglaf, we are left to ponder how courage can balance with judgment to yield true heroism.
The issue of the cursed treasure compounds the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of Beowulf’s death. The poet’s assertion that the ancient warrior acted wrongly in burying the gold underground suggests that Beowulf is the God-chosen liberator of the imprisoned wealth. Though Beowulf approaches the matter of the treasure unselfishly, wishing to free his people from the menace of the dragon, his death nevertheless seems something of a punishment. Ultimately, however, in a culture of heroism—in which so much emphasis is placed on virtue, in which warriors would rather die than live in shame—the noble funeral that Beowulf receives validates his choices in life. The poem Beowulf exemplifies this culture’s emphasis on memorializing departed heroes; indeed, the mere existence of the poem itself is a testament to Beowulf’s virtue and the esteem his people placed upon him.
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