Times are good. I just came back to my bedchamber from another mead filled celebration where yet another bard spoke of our king Beowulf’s triumph over the beast known by the Danes as Grendel. My father was also mentioned as he fought bravely next to our great king in defeating that monster and his mother. When they returned, Beowulf was rewarded greatly by King Hygelac (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2194-96) and as a great leader would do, he bestowed much of his wealth to his soldiers, my father included. My father was forever in his shadow, watching out for him and prepared to give his life for that of his lord. He was always so faithful to him, and yet to my mother and our family, not so much so.
I remember the time when he returned from his travels. I was but a boy, excited to see my father again home.
“Papa”, I pleaded tugging on his garment sleeve (Quennell, M. and Quennell, C. H. B, 1959, p. 127), trying to get his attention away from his brothers at arms. “Papa, let me show you what I have been practicing. I have been getting really good—Mama said so. Come watch!”
“Enough”, my father barked, pushing me away. “Go on and play with the others. I’ve got no time for your nonsense.”
“Fine,” I mumbled while pushing dirt around with my shoe making a small mountain, smashing it flat, and then kicking it away.
It was at this moment when I first came to know the man who would later become our great king.
“Take heart boy,” a massive mountain of a man said while grasping my shoulder and leaning down to face me eye to eye. “For fueled by mead, even the coolest tongues are set to enflame. But once at rest, then all should be at ease.”
I cheered up instantly, my eyes bright with joy as my smile was wide.
“You’re right!” I shouted. He’ll be different at home! He’s just busy now, but when we get home tonight then I’ll show him—I’ll show him everything I’ve been working on! Thanks…umm…”
“Come on now,” the large man laughed. “Haven’t you been paying heed to the celebrations, the speeches, anything?
I looked down at the floor and slowly shook my head, afraid of insulting this great man. But then to my amazement, he suddenly let out a boom of laughter.
“That’s quite alright boy,” he said, still chuckling. “I’m sure there are other thoughts on your mind at these celebrations then the exploit of old men.”
He nodded toward a gaggle of young girls and gave me a conspiring wink.
“My name is Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow (Anonymous, 2000, Line 263), defeater of Grendel, and ravager of women” He said winking toward the same group of girls who subsequently broke out in fits of giggles. “Now go and head home, wait for your father, and tell him everything he missed during his long travels.”
He patted me on the shoulder a little too roughly and headed towards his giggling admirers. I winced and rubbed my shoulder to dull the pain.
I rushed home and waited with baited breath for my father to return. I must have dozed off because it seemed as if the very next second there was a slam as the door closed, almost knocking it off its hinges.
“WOMAN,” I heard my father bellow. “Bring me more mead! NOW!”
I heard my mother rushing over toward him, mead slopping over the edges of the flagon (Quennell, M. and Quennell, C. H. B, 1959, p. 145) as she hurried to his side. I heard drink being poured deeply.
“Now off with you, you vile wretch,” my father slurred as he slapped my mother and she tumbled to the ground. The sound of the smack carried throughout the house, suspended, like early morning fog over the meadows. “Leave me be.”
My mother ran to her room quietly sobbing. The next sound I heard was a dull thump followed by silence.
He must be resting now, I thought. Now is the perfect time to show him. I rushed down the stairs, my wooden sword trailing behind me making a soft thud as it hit each step, excited to show Papa everything I had learned. I turned the corner and found my father there laying on the entranceway, fully clothed, with his tankard slowly spilling the remainder of his drink at his feet.
“Papa,” I whispered while shaking him. There was no response other than the slow and steady breathing of a man passed out from overindulgence. I went over to the hearth and grabbed a blanket made from deer skins and awkwardly covered his legs and pulled it up to his waist. I crawled close to him and lay down beside him. The smell of sweat, smoke, and mead became overpowering, but I inhaled deeply. I dragged my father’s arm over me to feel the protection that is so often absent from life on normal occasions. I promised then to get my glory differently so that I would not be a stranger to my son as he was to me.
When I came of age, my father brought me to Beowulf and vowed that his son would take arms for him and I would do what bidding was asked of me. I was beyond excited. I was anxious to impress my father, but sad to leave my mother.
“Papa, were you as nervous as I am when you began your patronage?” I asked slightly running in order to keep up with my father’s great stride as we traveled to the great hall.
“No Wiglaf, I was not, and neither should you be,” my father said drawing himself up. “We are the descendants of great warriors. I am the great Weohstan, a well-regarded Shylfing warrior related to Aelfhere (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2602-4). You are the descendent of this great line.”
“At the right time and if you’ve proven if you’re worthy, I will give you this sword,” he stated as he slowly unsheathed his sword from its cradle, its handle embedded with precious gems glittering in the sunlight. He stared at it lovingly, longingly, as if by looking at it long enough, it would transform him back to glorious times. “This ancient blade was said to belong to Eanmund, the son of Ohthere. He was the one who I had slain when I was in exile, without friends (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2611-13). It was Beowulf who took me in and it is that kind of trust which holds us together.”
We reached the great hall where a group of men were standing outside in a circle while a boy no older than I, was fighting an invisible enemy inside that ring.
“Great Beowulf,” my father shouted over the clearing.
“Weohstan,” Beowulf boomed. “We have long been waiting for this moment when another great kinsman joins our ranks!”
Beowulf looked toward me and smiled.
“Allow me to present my son, Wiglaf!” my father boasted. My father bent down and roughly grabbed my elbow, yanking me to face him. “Don’t embarrass me boy,” he added in a whispered hiss.
We reached the clearing with everyone looking me up and down, examining me with skeptical eyes.
“Look at this,” one of the men in the circle laughed. “He’s nothing but a brat dressed in his father’s clothes. And look …“ He pointed toward my helmet. “His helmet slips down past his nose!”
“You wouldn’t get very far against the beasts of hell dressed like that,” the same man from the circle mocked.
“Stop that Sverre,” Beowulf chided. “Let’s give the boy a chance. Present yourself Wiglaf, son of Weohstan.”
I stepped forward with fire in my heart, ready for anything that comes. I began just as in practice drills, with my small wooden shield held close to my chest and my sword held high and angled low and screamed a deafening battle cry.
“He may be puny,” Sverre continued surprised, but guarded. “But he has good form.”
My feet were lightened by such recognition. If they liked that then just wait to they see what I’ve got up my sleeve. I thrust forward and brought my sword down hard to the earth. The general murmurs that this brought gave me courage. I lifted the sword and twirled around as though hearing a sudden enemy at my back. The helmet spun on my head as I turned, moving the eye slits over by my ear. I began to panic as it was squashing my nose to my face, constricting my airway. My feet swayed as though trying to play off the accident with my helmet as though it was part of my grand plan to evade my unseen enemies. I must have gotten a little carried away with twisting and dodging all the while trying to release my face from the firm metal grasp that my helmet provided as I got tangled up in my legs and fell over face first into the dirt. I heard my father groan with disappointment and embarrassment. My face flushed with regret and fear for the return trip home.
“Beowulf…” my father began with the hopes of trying to save face. “Perhaps a little more time is needed…”
“The stables are always looking for failures to pick up manure,” Sverre laughed. “Maybe you can try his skills out there.”
After hearing that, my heart felt as if it traveled from my throat down to my stomach.
“Sverre, ENOUGH!” Beowulf reprimanded causing my spirits to slightly lift. He then turned to my father. “Have no worries Weohstan. This one shows a great spirit and will do great things if given time, patience, and a little more skill.”
I have never been more grateful to anyone. I don’t remember a time when even my own father stood up for me like that. I truly felt accepted, worthy of these great men. I vowed there to give everything I had to give to this man. With that, Beowulf took me under his wing, and I too became a loved member of his inner circle.
There is whisper of a dragon that is attacking some of our villages because a thief stole part of its treasure (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2217-18). The king looks tired after meeting with advisors on a proper response.
“Are the rumors true,” I asked the weary king as he returns from a meeting with priests. “A dragon in our lands? Surely not!”
“Unfortunately,” Beowulf began slowly exhaling. “The rumors are in fact true.”
“Impossible,” I exclaimed. “What is the cause of this unhappy news?”
“A thief,” Beowulf spitted out. “A wretched knave stole part of is treasure (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2217-18).”
“A thief is the cause of all this misery?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes,” he stated shaking his head. “And if it only impacted him in this manner then it would be heavenly justice that see it through, but it is not just that. The stories are nightmares: people on fire, houses on fire, the burnt smell of horse’s flesh as they run madly away, helpless to stop the flames that lick their manes (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2321-22).
“Almighty God, have mercy on us,” I shook my head.
“God needs to help us,” Beowulf said with a heavy heart. “It is pure hell that is brought to our land because of one man’s greed.
Thoughts returned to my son at that moment and this hell that could possibly be brought down on his head. What shall we do? We must go to help the families of our kinsmen, but at the possible cost to our own families?
“Noble Wiglaf,” the king started as he patted me on my shoulder. “You are of courageous mind and noble spirit and I value your opinion, but I must go and ponder on these events and determine what I am to do.”
At that moment, a messenger burst through the main doors panting and sweating profusely.
“My king,” he gasped, clutching at his chest as he ran the length of the hall toward the king’s throne.
“Yes,” Beowulf asked looking alert. “What is it? Speak!”
“I bring news from your greatest area,” still gasping for air he spit out. “Your revered throne room has also been destroyed in the recent attack from the winged beast! (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2325-27)”
“Hmm…I see,” Beowulf said solemnly.
“I’m sorry Beowulf,” I said softly, grasping his shoulder. “I know how much that hall meant to you.”
“I…,” Beowulf began, looking more and more ancient as he continued. “I foresee that I am destined to face the end of my days in this mortal world (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2342-43).”
“Why,” I asked dubiously.
“Because of the throne room being destroyed,” Beowulf answered. “It is a part of me—it is me. And if that is destroyed then I am destroyed and thus not long for this world.”
“Nonsense,” I challenged. “Your great army will go and defeat this monster.”
Shouts of agreement and boasts rang throughout the hall.
“Just give the word,” I shouted raising my fist towards the rest of those in the hall. “All we need is just one word and I will send dispatch to all corners of your land and every man will fight to bring him down!”
The shouts got louder as everyone rallied for, wanted war.
“Perhaps,” Beowulf muttered to no one in particular. “Perhaps, but I must retire now to ponder our fate.”
We received orders that we are to leave our lands and fight the dragon that curses our country. The king gathered us at his throne with others.
“Good news,” Beowulf exclaimed in brighter spirits. “I have selected my top warriors to accompany me on my finest glory. I will go to where the dragon slumbers, defeat him, and bring back his great treasure!”
There were great shouts of joy and agreement ringing throughout the hall.
“I have a vast army,” Beowulf continued. “But I am only taking my best men with me. So drink deeply, eat heartily, and lie with many women for as of tomorrow we will travel to the mouth of HELL and DEFEAT the devil within!”
Cheers seemed to rattle the great supports to its very foundation.
“If you would excuse me king,” I started, bending Beowulf’s ear. “I would take leave to spend the night with my family.”
“Of course, of course,” Beowulf smiled. “Go and be with family.”
On my way back home, my mind was reeling. Eleven soldiers. That is nonsense. A dragon versus 12 men (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2401) is recklessness of the upmost manner. What is the king thinking? A self-fulfilling prophesy to be sure. This is a fool’s errand. The king is already richer than any king in the surrounding areas. Why must he add the dragons treasure as well? Why does he need that glory? He has already amassed glory that few will ever experience in this life. Just send all his army and defeat the beast. I kicked the dirt in frustration at this madness. I finally reached the door to my house. I can hear my wife cooking and son playing on the floor with a stick he fashioned into a sword. I smiled to myself. He reminds me so much of myself at that young age.
“I’m home,” I said while walking through the door. “Where’s my little soldier?”
“Da!” my son shouted while dropping his stick and rushing over to my outstretched arms. “Guess what I did today.”
“What?” I asked.
“I went into the clearing on the hill and there was this evil monster who had fur all over his face and BIG, sharp teeth,” he illustrated by dangling his little fingers as they were fangs. “And he had BIG, red eyes,” he cupped his fingers over his eyes showing how much bigger they were then his own. “And he had 3, NO, 4 arms,” showing me the numbers on his hands. “And BIG claws,” he illustrated by making his fingers claws.” And I KILLED him,” he said clapping enthusiastically.
“You did?” I asked. “Well then where is this beast? We shall have a fine meal tonight.”
I smiled to my wife as she continued cutting vegetables.
“I would’ve brought him home, but then ANOTHER monster came out from the ground that was TWICE as big!” he exclaimed holding his arms at full length to show just how big he was.
“Another monster, “ I gasped. “Whatever did you do?”
“Well…,” he stopped, scrunched up his nose thinking hard. ”Well the big monster came and picked up the little monster and ran off. And I chased him and I chased him and I almost caught up with both of them, and I was going to kill them too and bring it home to show you, but then Ma called me inside because it was getting dark,” he finished looking disappointed at the conclusion of the story.
I smiled warmly toward my son.
“Well,” I started kissing him on his forehead. “There is always tomorrow.”
“Do you want to come with me tomorrow and I’ll show you where I fought them and then we can get them together!”
His eyes were so eager, so loving. How was I going to break his little heart?
“Well I have to go on a little trip tomorrow,” I began.
His smile faltered.
“You remember how kids were saying that there was a dragon attacking our villages?” I explained.
“Well, the king and all of his best men, your Da included, are going to go and kill the dragon and make all the other kids safe.”
My wife stopped chopping and looked over at us, concern in her eyes. I bravely smiled at her, trying to reassure her through it that everything is going to be fine.
“So you’re leaving,” he asked, looking at the floor. “When will you be back?” he mumbled looking close to tears.
I can’t stand to see him in pain. I wish I didn’t have to go. Looking into his eyes, helpless, pleading for me to stay makes me damn the very essence of Beowulf. What is there to prove? Why do I have to leave?
“I’m going to be back soon. I promise,” I said assuringly. “And then we are going to search and hunt down your monsters.” I picked up his stick. “Now why don’t you show me how you brought down that monster?”
I handed it out for him to take. He took it and threw it away.
“I don’t want to.” He started to cry and ran to his mother.
The sound of his sobs makes me wish that there was another way, any other way so that I didn’t have to go. I will miss my family greatly, but I know that if we do not take action, the dragon will eventually take stronghold over the pastures and then move towards our city—towards my son.
We set forth on our journey with the king in the middle surrounded by myself and 10 other warriors, and the thief, who against his better judgment and at our sword’s guiding, was leading our way (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2408-9).
“Move along there fool,” Adelard the lead horsemen yelled, cracking his whip above the thief’s head. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for you.”
He pushed the thief forward, knocking him down. He stumbled on the ground briefly before staggering back up.
“Apologies, good lord,” the thief known as Fritjof bowed.
“It’s getting dark,” Beowulf said while looking towards the horizon. “Let’s set up tent for the night.”
A camp was quickly established with two soldiers standing guard in shifts while the king retired. The others talked in softened tones around the campfire about the outcome of the upcoming battle.
“The king’s predictions are rarely contradicted,” Einnar began.
“If he were to perish, what is to become of us?” Gunnar asked.
“You all weep like women,” Adelard sneered. “These are the thoughts that should be entertained another day, not when we are on a path toward battle.”
“It’s getting late,” I said concluding the uneasy conversation. “We should retire as well. But Gunnar, we do the things we do for our kinsmen. I do this for my son and all of our sons. There is no greater glory, as Adelard said.”
“Huzzah,” all the men uttered.
No greater glory, I thought to myself, then family. Despite my father’s views. And it is they, who with my dying breath, will I defend. I will make it home to him.
While traveling today, the thief regaled the other men with stories from his travels.
“God will take me early of boredom,” Adelard complained. “Thief, tell me a story.”
“I’m afraid I have no story to tell,” Fritjof whimpered.
“Then tell me tales of your travels,” Adelard snarled, getting more impatient.
The thief smiled wickedly.
“There are rumors of men with the devil’s horns and appetite overthrowing surrounding areas,” the thief began. “They have barbaric manners and lack the honor and glory in their fight as you fine gentlemen show.”
Einnar who was in front whips him across the back of the head with his whip.
“No offense meant, of course,” Fritjof said as he rubbed his head.
“Continue then,” Adelard snapped.
“They fight not just men, but women and children,” Fritjof regaled his tale. “They take babies by their legs and slam their heads into trees or the sides of buildings while making their mother watch in horror as they are powerless to stop the pain that their children feel.”
This drew hisses from some of the men.
“They do this so that they can relish in the pain of the mother as she realizes that the last thing that their child felt was not their mother’s kiss, or caress, or words, but of unimaginable pain,” the thief continues solemnly. “If left to live, that kind of sorrow for a woman is so unbearable that she will be begging for death to take her as well. But these invaders don’t keep her alive long enough to consider her pleas. After plundering, pillaging, and raping the women, those with the devil’s horns set fire to all—alive or dead.”
This fate has rattled my companions, but I will be damned if I allow my family to suffer such a fate.
We’ve finally made it to where the wretched thief said he stole the chalice. When we arrived, the thief directed us to where the dragon was by pointing a crooked finger in the direction of the rumbling that seemed to come from the very ground itself. The king is in spirits as he said his goodbyes to us (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2516-17).
“Men at arms, remain here on the barrow, safe in your armor,” the king began pacing back and forth in front of our line. “This fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength against the monster or to prove his worth (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2529-35).”
Couple of people looked deflated, others confused.
“I have fought bravely through many battles. No man but me could hope to defeat this monster. No one could try. And this dragon’s treasure, his gold and everything hidden in that tower, will be mine or war will sweep me to a bitter death!”
Everyone shouted a battle cry that envied all battle cries before it.
“I have known a lot of you for many a year,” the king continued. “Some come to me when they’re very young,” nodding toward me. “I just hope that I have treated you all in my life as I was initially done so when faced with the same obstacles to overcome. I too have been in many a situation as you all have been. At seven, I was fostered out by my father, left in charge of my people’s lord. He kept me and took care of me, was open-handed, behaved like a kinsman. While I was his ward, he treated me no worse as a wean about the place than one of his own boys (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2428-33).”
That touched me deeply. I had flashbacks to the party when I first came across Beowulf and the way that he made me feel at ease. I thought then of the meadow when trying out for him and he was the only one defending my name. The countless counsels he has shared with me, laughter we had shared. Had I not bit down hard on my lip and clenched my fists, I fear that my face would have been wet. I felt gratitude surging. The king faced me.
“You are the last of us Wiglaf, the only one left of the Waemundings. Fate swept us away, sent my whole brave high-born clan to their final doom. Now I must follow them (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2813-16).”
These were the last words that my king said to me. He remains resolved to continue on this, his final quest (Anonymous, 2000, Lines 2419-24). Then he left us to fight the dragon, not wanting us to follow or fight alongside him. It saddens me to think that if his predictions are true, I will never again see my king in this world.
There is much noise coming from the dragon’s den. Is this the end? Is this the end of our reign? Does this foreshadow what fate has in store for my fellow soldiers, for my kin? He is always right in his foreseeing. Even if the dragon is slayed, the horned devils from the North will rage and take over our lands for sure. Life is a constant struggle. Only you, Wyrd, can I appease through fame of battle? Is there not another way? My family is at risk. The only way to save my family is to travel to another land that is more stable. But every sacrifice my father made to get me to where I am will be forever gone. Oh Wyrd, why hath thou brought me to this impasse? Do not see me so bad, for I do wish to be of strong valor, but I also need to survive in the new world that will be brought down upon us after Beowulf will be brought back to his Almighty. Two have already broken ranks in search for safety in the trees; the thief wasn’t far behind them. I’m afraid with each passing minute, the other’s arguments grow favorable to me. Family, not glory, will sustain me. We all foresee, not just the end of our king, but of our way of life, our country, our countrymen. I foresee many sorrows. We must go and try to salvage what we can from home and protect it from the coming invaders which are sure to come. But then I think of everything that our king has done for my family, my father. He, himself is like a father to me, more than my own was. I cannot allow this. Not with everything that he has done for me. My mind is made up. I raised my yellow shield and drew my sword (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2609-10). I turned to face the remaining soldiers with same fire, the same passion in my heart as was all those years ago.
“You knaves!” I shouted. “I remember that time when mead was flowing, how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall, promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price, make good the gift of the war-gear, those swords and helmets, as and when his need required it. He picked us out from the army deliberately, honored us and judged us fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts—and all because he considered us the best of his arms-bearing thanes. And now, although he wanted this challenge to be one he’d face by himself alone—the shepherd of our land, a man unequalled in the quest for glory and a name for daring—now the day has come when this lord we serve needs sound men to give him their support. Let us go to him, help our leader through the hot flame and dread of the fire. As God is my witness, I would rather my body were robed in the same burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body than go back home bearing arms. That is unthinkable, unless we have first slain the foe and defended the life of the prince of the Weather-Geats. I well know the things he has done for us deserve better. Should he alone be left exposed to fall in battle? We must bond together, shield and helmet, mail-shirt and sword…I shall stand by you (Anonymous, 2000, Line 2633-68)”!
“I’m sorry old friend,” Adelard said apologetically. “But we must be reasonable. It is a lost cause. We must save ourselves. There is no hope for us anymore.”
He rode off with the others. My words were not enough to enflame the hearts of the men as they all fled. Only I remain. Damn them to hell. I must go to him. This is the last entry that I write for these are uncertain times. I take my leave.
Anonymous. (2000). Beowulf (S. Heaney, Trans.). New York, USA and London, England: W. W. Norton & Company. (Original work published between 600 and 1100 A.D.)
Quennell, M. & Quennell, C. H. B. (1959). Everyday life in Roman and Anglo-Saxon times. New York, USA: Dorset Press.