Although he realizes that he may die in the battle, Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf’s defense. Wiglaf’s wooden shield burns as the dragon attacks again. The young retainer ducks behind Beowulf’s iron shield, which is no great help but is better than nothing. Beowulf musters the strength to swing his mighty sword, Naegling, one last time; unfortunately, it snaps on the dragon’s head. The dragon charges again, piercing Beowulf’s neck with his sharp fangs. Although his hand is sorely burned, Wiglaf finds a vulnerable spot well beneath the dragon’s head and thrusts his sword into the monster. The dragon’s fire decreases. Beowulf rallies to use his knife and is able to cut into the monster’s entrails, killing him. Realizing he is dying, Beowulf speaks his final words as Wiglaf attempts to comfort him.
Wiglaf’s speech is an attempt to remind the other ten retainers of the honor code of comitatus and to shame them into action. In this system, a lord or king offers protection to his retainers (or thanes) and supports them with a share of booty, gifts, and even land. In exchange, the retainers pledge loyalty to the death on behalf of the ruler. Specifically, Wiglaf recalls a time when he and the ten other warriors received rings and the very armor that they now have with them from Beowulf. Consistent with the heroic code, they promised to come to his assistance if he ever needed them. Wiglaf rightly accuses them of running when they vowed to fight. He declares that he would rather be burned to death than to abandon his king, and he rushes to Beowulf’s assistance.
The final battle features the kind of staccato interchange that the Beowulf poet depicts so well. The action here (2669-2708) is tight, detailed, and furious, some of the best in the poem. Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf’s side. The dragon almost immediately reduces the young retainer’s shield to cinders. As Wiglaf ducks behind Beowulf’s shield, the old warrior summons the strength to swing his famous sword so hard that it snaps against the dragon’s head. Seeing his chance, the dragon charges once more, seizing Beowulf by the neck with his poisonous fangs. Distressed by his king’s situation, Wiglaf throws all care aside and attacks, even though his fighting hand is seriously burned in the process. He finds an unprotected spot and thrusts his sword into the dragon, cutting off the source of the monster’s fire-breath. Beowulf manages one last blow, a thrust with his knife that opens the dragon’s belly and kills the mighty beast. Beowulf is poisoned from the dragon’s fangs and bleeding badly.
The bond between the dying mentor and his protege is apparent as Beowulf speaks to the young man and Wiglaf tries to comfort him. They have literally shared a baptism of fire, the only kind of character test that Beowulf trusts. Although Wiglaf is not his offspring, Beowulf thinks of him as a son when the king, unable to stand, briefly reflects on his life and passes control of the Geats to the brave young retainer. Beowulf makes clear that he has been a good king, not at all like Heremod, the disreputable example in Hrothgar’s sermon. The old man has protected his people well; no one dared to attack the Geats for 50 years. He has accepted what the years offered and never murdered his own, direct references to the sermon. Finally, he has given his life for the treasure that, he thinks, will go to his people. (Ironically, the treasure will be buried with Beowulf and will be of no more use to the Geats than it was to the dragon.) Beowulf wants to see some of the riches. Hoping to please his king, Wiglaf leaves for a moment and enters the barrow.
The scene inside is reminiscent of the ogres’ cave after Beowulf killed Grendel’s mother. Both hold impressive treasure that will come to no use. Wiglaf sees wonderful tapestry, jewels, gold in various forms, and a golden standard hanging over the riches, emitting a strange light like that in the cave. Wiglaf brings some of the treasure to his leader who is near death.
Beowulf’s final words (2794 ff.) are a mixture of prayer, instruction, and farewell. Thanking God, he tells Wiglaf that he wants his ashes buried in a mound on Whale’s Cliff (Hrones-naesse) near the sea where passing sailors might look upon it and call it “Beowulf’s Barrow” (Biowulfes biorh). The dying king then symbolically passes his position on to Wiglaf by giving the young man the armor, rings, and gold collar that Beowulf is wearing. Wiglaf is the last of the Waegmundings, Beowulf’s clan, but he has earned the right to rule, not inherited it. In a poignant passage, the dying king says that “fate has swept / all my kinsmen to their final doom” (2814-15). He must follow his ancestors. Having spoken his last, Beowulf “chose / the high battle-flames; out from his breast / his soul went to seek the doom of the just” (2818-20).
high battle flames a funeral pyre suitable for a great warrior.
doom here, eternal judgment.