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Barron's Booknotes-Beowulf-Free Chapter Summary Synopsis
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VERSE 39

The cowardly Geat warriors emerge from the woods where they've been hiding and discover Wiglaf trying to revive the body of his king. Wiglaf's anger when he addresses them is undercut by the grief he feels over Beowulf's death. His speech is an elegy for the entire Geat tribe.

Once again the poet emphasizes the bond between warrior and king as essential to the stability of medieval society. Beowulf gave his followers the best weapons he could find, but when the time came to use them they "ran like cowards." Wiglaf, with the true modesty of a devoted warrior, minimizes his role in killing the dragon. Do you think he does this to make his comrades feel guilty? Or is he trying to perpetuate Beowulf's status as a great hero?

He ends his speech by predicting that the Geats will forever be known as cowards, and that death would be preferable to a life "branded with disgrace."


VERSES 40-41

Wiglaf sends a messenger to the troop of Geat soldiers who are awaiting word on the outcome of the battle. In his address the nameless messenger continues Wiglaf's prediction that the Geats will now become targets of all their old enemies, most especially the Franks and the Swedes.

The messenger reviews the history of the feuds between the tribes. We hear, briefly, about the "bitter quarrel" that Higlac began with the Franks, during which the Geat king was killed. And in the poem's final-and possibly most violent-historical digression, the messenger recounts the long history of the feud between the Geats and the Swedes.

NOTE:

These stories, which concern the death of kings (Higlac on one hand, and the Swedish king Ongentho on the other), should be seen in contrast with the story of Beowulf's own death. The story of the battle between the Geats and the Swedes includes many of the major themes that the poet has presented up to this point.

The old Swedish king Ongentho is depicted in combat with the young Geat warriors, Efor and Wulf. (Efor and Wulf collaborate on killing the king, in much the same way Beowulf and Wiglaf joined forces to destroy the dragon.) In keeping with the code between king and warrior, Efor and Wulf are rewarded by Higlac with great treasures. Killing, the poet is saying, is an acceptable act: it is the only way for the warrior's to accumulate wealth and fame. Neither Efor nor Wulf is a particularly impressive warrior and neither of them seems to have any moral feelings about killing. They are motivated solely by the promise of rewards.

The messenger predicts that all the old feuds will begin again once the Geats' enemies learn that Beowulf is dead. It's time to bury the great hero-and with him, all the treasures that the dragon guarded for so long. Some readers feel that the messenger is really speaking in the voice of the poet himself, and that the poem's ultimate message is a condemnation of all the material objects that were so important to the kings, the warriors, and to medieval society in general. The messenger advises Beowulf's followers to melt the dragon's treasure-hoard in the same fire that consumes the hero's ashes: "Give it all of this golden pile,/This terrible, uncounted heap of cups/And rings, bought with his blood" (3012-14).

The age of laughter and prosperity is over. If the treasures aren't buried alongside Beowulf's ashes, they will surely fall into the hands of the Geats' enemies.

The messenger ends his speech by evoking the beasts of war: the raven, the eagle, and the wolf. You can almost feel the shadows darkening and the air growing still, an ominous silence broken only by the cries of these animals. As men plunder the treasures of their enemies, so these beasts, the poet reminds us, feed on the bodies of the dead warriors.

The Geats go to the scene of the battle and view the two dead bodies: Beowulf and the dragon. Yet the poet's main interest is the treasure-hoard, and once again he depicts the meaninglessness of all these objects for which people died and whole tribes were destroyed. The dragon guarded the treasure, killed men, and was killed in return. Is it all worth it?

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