LINES 2,711 – 2,891 : The death of Beowulf
Mortally wounded, Beowulf collapses down by the wall of the cave and Wiglaf
brings water to refresh his master.
Beowulf tells Wiglaf that he will die contented because he has always lived
a just life and has never killed a kinsman. Before he dies, he wishes to gaze on some of the dragon’s treasure.
Wiglaf retrieves some of the wondrous treasure including a banner made out
of solid gold.
Beowulf thanks God for allowing him to rid the Geatish people of the dragon.
He asks Wiglaf to ensure that his body is burned on a sumptuous funeral pyre
erected at the coastal headland, and the site is to be known as Beowulf’s Barrow.
The King gives Wiglaf “the golden collar from his neck, with the gold-plated
helmet, harness and arm-ring; he bade the young spear-man use them well.”
Then the dying old King said to Wiglaf, “You are the last man left of our
kindred, the house of the Waymundings! Weird has lured each of my family to his fated end, each Earl through his valor; I must follow them.”
Wiglaf mourns bitterly the loss of his King.
Soon the other companions return to the barrow and Wiglaf vents his anger at
them. He tells them that they will now lead a shameful life. It would be better if they had died.
The death scene between Wiglaf and Beowulf is one of the best of the whole
poem, full of emotion and feeling, but not over-sentimentalized.
You can imagine the ancient audiences being enthralled by this section.
The heroic King gives thanks to God for a full life, which he considers he
has led justly and honorably.
Beowulf cherishes his relationship with Wiglaf. He is pleased that
Wiglaf has passed the test.
This is a rare commodity in these times, and the poet has reminded us of this fact throughout the poem, even making references to Cain and Abel; Unferth’s slaughter of his brother (line 587); and the dispute between Hygelac’s brothers (line 2,435).
Before his demise, Beowulf issues his last instructions concerning his
funeral, his pyre and mound to be called Beowulf’s Barrow that will contain the dragon’s horde.
There is some authenticity to this part of the story that was confirmed by
the archaeological discovery at Sutton Hoo in England in 1939. A Saxon King of East Anglia who died in 625 A.D. was found buried in a Saxon rowing boat 27 metres long, containing a vast collection of gold jewels, silver plate, armor and coins.
It was Britain’s richest archaeological find and it contained Frankish coins dating to the period covered by this tale.
It seems futile to the reader that the conflict with the dragon is over the
minor pilfering of a gold cup from this horde of treasure.
Being cursed, the treasure has no use for either the dragon, those that owned it before, and now for Beowulf or the Geats, although Beowulf does take comfort in gazing on this elusive treasure before he dies. It seems to these great heroes that treasure is of secondary importance, for there was also treasure in Grendel’s lair, but this was left by Beowulf. The only trophy he took was Grendel’s head. It is interesting in this society that the heroes were of more worth than the treasure, and this is borne out by the fact that riches were buried at Sutton Hoo.
Grown in stature from his conflict with the dragon, Wiglaf faces the cowards
when they return from the forest. He says,
“Now there shall cease for your race the receiving of treasure,
the bestowal of swords, all satisfaction of ownership,
all comfort of home. Your kinsmen every one,
shall become wanderers without land-rights''
Death is better for any Earl than an existence of disgrace!”
The poet refers to a curse that is on the treasure trove, but that this
spell was controlled by God. This is one of the clear indications of the original poem being adapted for Christian consumption.
The poet goes on to say that the distribution of the horde would be done at
God’s discretion. Apparently, the gold has lain deep in the earth for one thousand years.
We will recall that the poet prophesied Beowulf’s death in this conflict,
and the inference is that his death may be attributed to the curse on the horde.
The poet is at his poetic best as the poem comes to its conclusion.