Discovering an entrance to the barrow under the stone cliff, Beowulf decides that he cannot enter due to flames already covering the passage. He calls out the dragon, and the two face off. Beowulf’s new shield is less protection than he had hoped. His sword fails to penetrate the dragon’s hide. Wounded and burned, the great old champion needs help. At this crucial time, all but one of his retainers abandon him, fleeing to safety in a nearby wood. Only young Wiglaf remains. Although this is his first battle, he cannot desert his king.
It is true that the old warrior is proud; perhaps excessive pride (ofer-mod) causes him to use poor judgment, as Hrothgar warned that it might. Beowulf is up against a formidable foe, and he is no longer a young man. Employing his troops to surround the barrow and overwhelm the dragon through force of numbers might be more prudent. But Beowulf has earned the right to try to be a champion one more time. If his people will be considerably worse off without him — and they will — his service to them is nearly over anyway. He deserves the chance to die like a warrior.
Beowulf seems to know that he is going to die. After reaching the barrow, he sits down with his men and wishes them good fortune. The poet tells us that the old man’s spirit is “sad, / restless, death-ripe” (2419-20) as he thinks back over his life. (His recollections are probably more important than the names.) Beowulf was seven years old when King Hrethel became his foster father. Hrethel had three sons of his own: Herebeald, Haethcyn, and Hygelac. Beowulf recalls the kind generosity of the father and a tragic dilemma that is difficult for a modern audience to grasp.
The code of vengeance of the heroic age probably exceeds the modern audience’s capacity to understand. When they were young men, Haethcyn killed his older brother, Herebeald, with an errant arrow in a shooting accident. Although that incident is tragic in itself, the grief was exacerbated because the code required King Hrethel to seek vengeance, even against his own son and even though the death was accidental. Unable to endure the dilemma, the father suffered and died without taking action against Haethcyn. In a passage that some critics find one of the finest examples of poetry in the epic, but which might slip by the casual reader, Beowulf compares Hrethel’s grief to that of a father whose son is on the gallows (2444 ff.). The first word of the passage is correctly translated “So,” but the meaning might be more clear if it were “So also” or “Thus.” Haethcyn is not the one on the gallows. Succeeding his father as king, he is killed in the feud with the Swedes (Scylfings). The crown then went to the third brother, Hygelac.
The poet once more has interrupted the dramatic flow, but this time the interruption is effective. In addition to the losses in his foster family, Beowulf recalls many personal victories. He is proud that he served Hygelac well and, like any old man reflecting on his youth, delights in his glories. He always led the troops into battle and is not about to back off now.
Addressing his men for the last time, Beowulf seems apologetic about using weapons against the dragon. He says he would fight barehanded, as he did against Grendel, if he knew a way to do so against this enemy. At any rate, he promises not to retreat. How ironic and sad that Beowulf thinks he needs to explain any of his actions or decisions to men who will flee in fear when the battle commences.
The old champion certainly does not lack courage as he calls out the dragon, his voice “a strong-hearted bellow” (2552) one last time. This is no place for more talk; it is a battleground. The earth shakes as the two meet, the dragon clearly gaining early advantage as Beowulf’s shield provides little protection, and his sword chips against the hide of the reptile, reminiscent of the failure of Hrunting against Grendel’s mother. For the first time, Beowulf feels that he will lose a fight and be forced to “give up loaned time” (2590) on earth. The great champion is injured and needs help. Violating all concepts of the heroic code, ten of his men flee for the safety of the nearby woods. Only Wiglaf remains. After the poet offers a brief introduction of the young retainer and his battle gear, we are ready for the final showdown.
Hrethel king of the Geats, son of Swerting.
Herebeald, Haethcyn, and Hygelac sons of Hrethel, in order of seniority.
Sorrow Hill in Geatland, site of a battle where Swedes ambushed the Geats after Hrethel’s death.
Haethcyn killed in battle at Ravenswood (in Sweden) by Ongentheow while avenging battle of Sorrow Hill. Hygelac immediately took over leadership of the Geats.
Ongentheow Swede king, father of Onela and Ohthere; killed by Hygelac’s retainers Wulf and Eofor at Ravenswood.
Gifthas eastern Germanic tribe.
Daeghrefn a Frisian warrior, champion of the Hugas, whose beating heart Beowulf, as a young man, crushed with his bare hands.
Hugas a Frisian subgroup or family.
his heirloom sword Beowulf’s sword in the dragon fight is called “Naegling.”
Weohstan probably part Swede (Scylfing) and part Geat (as Chickering suggests, p. 369), father of Wiglaf. Weohstan apparently killed the Swede Eanmund on behalf of the victim’s uncle, Onela, and was rewarded with Eanmund’s war gear, which he eventually passed on to Wiglaf.
Aelfhere some scholars think that this is a reference to Beowulf, indicating that Wiglaf is related, perhaps a cousin.
Waegmunding scholars dispute whether this clan, with which Wiglaf and Beowulf are associated, is Swede or Geat or a mixture of the two.