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.