The one retainer who comes to Beowulf’s aid in the battle against the dragon represents the theme of loyalty in the system of the comitatus. This is the honor code that exists between the king, or feudal lord, and his warriors, sometimes called “thanes” or “retainers.” (Technically, retainers would be of higher rank, but the words are often used interchangeably.) Thanes swear devotion to their leader and vow to fight boldly, to the death if necessary, for him. For his part, the leader rewards his thanes with treasure, protection, and land. His generosity is one of the virtues for which he is admired.
Wiglaf is a young warrior in the service of his king, Beowulf. We are told that he is a kinsman of Beowulf, the last of the Waegmunding clan. When he realizes that Beowulf is in serious jeopardy in his battle with the dragon, Wiglaf calls to the other 10 retainers who accompanied the king to the barrow and reminds them of the promises they have made to their leader. He recalls a time when he and the other ten received rings and the very armor that they now have with them from Beowulf. Consistent with the heroic code, they promised to come to the assistance of their king if he ever needed them. Wiglaf rightly accuses them of running when they vowed to fight. He attempts to shame them into action, but no one returns. Wiglaf is the only one willing to risk his life to help his ruler. He declares that he would rather be burned to death than to abandon his king, and he rushes to Beowulf’s defense.
It is Wiglaf’s blow that slows the serpent and decreases his firepower, thus enabling Beowulf to manage one last thrust with a knife that opens the dragon’s belly and kills him.
The bond between Beowulf and Wiglaf is apparent as the king speaks to the young man and Wiglaf tries to comfort him. They have literally shared a baptism of fire, the test of battle that is the only criterion earning Beowulf’s trust. Although Wiglaf is not his offspring, Beowulf thinks of him as a son when the dying king, unable to stand, briefly reflects on his life and passes control of Geatland on to the brave young retainer. Wiglaf has earned the right to rule, not inherited it. If he is not as mighty as his heroic predecessor, he certainly lacks nothing in courage and loyalty.