When Beowulf and his men arrive to battle the dragon, they face difficulty right off the bat. Beowulf’s army, with the exception of Wiglaf, “did not take their stand in a troop around him, with warlike valor– they fled to the woods and saved their lives”. Are these men wrong for fleeing a situation they know they cannot win? Are they betraying Beowulf, or not because he normally handles such battles on his own? In some aspects, don’t they owe Beowulf for everything they have, therefore should they have left him?”
Beowulf’s men certainly do wrong when they flee the battle as they realize their lord cannot win. A thane’s ultimate responsibility is to his lord; nothing, even fear of death, should ever trump that devotion. When Wiglaf stands firm, the narrator exclaims “nothing can overrule/ kinship at all, in one who thinks well” (2600-2601). Wiglaf stands as the example for what the other warriors should have done. He counted kinship, his loyalty to his lord, as more important than even his own life. Good loyal thanes should follow this example; it was an act of cowardice and betrayal when the other soldiers fled.
I agree. At this point in British history, tribe loyalty was considered more important than even ones own blood. Thus, their allegiance to Beowulf would be of upmost importance. Beowulf had selected eleven of his best warriors to accompany him, and upon seeing that he was in real danger, they should have gone to help him. Clearly, they realize their mistake and understand that they were, atleast in part, responsible for the death of their lord when they see him lying dead. The narrator describes them as “ten of those weak traitors… now shamefaced,” showing that they recognize how they will now have to live a life without honor, which is a fate worse than death for any proud warrior.
I agree with Wilson Ford. After what we learned about in class– a Thane’s loyalty to his lord, and his #1 job being protecting his Lord at all costs, even including death– these men who fled were in the wrong, according to the story and the culture’s morals.
Wiglaf, the only one who stayed, tried rallying the others from lines 2633 to 2660. He attempted to remind the men of their duties to Beowulf, and their honor-bound warrior “bond” to Beowulf. Specifically, Wiglaf speaks of rings Beowulf gave to the men as symbols of their loyalty and their bond of thane to Lord. Beowulf gave them the rings as well as armor, weapons for the battle that they’d inevitably fight with or for Beowulf. That bond was cemented with the rings and with their promise to Beowulf (lines 2635-2638).
Breaking that bond was still breaking the bond, no matter what the circumstances –even in the face of certain death, they were expected to keep that bond. And they did not.
Although Beowulf’s men are wrong to flee and are condemned for their cowardice by the narrative, their initial act of standing by when Beowulf confronted the dragon was not wrong in and of itself. Beowulf himself sanctions this action, saying “Wait on the barrow, protected in your byrnies, / men in war-gear, to see which of the two of us / after the bloody onslaught can better / bear his wounds.” (2529-2532). So, when the men stand by when Beowulf first attacks the dragon, they are simply heeding their lord’s command and allowing him the chance to defeat the dragon on his own, as he had done with Grendel and Grendel’s mother. However, after the dragon is dead and the men return their act of cowardice is berated by Wiglaf, who says, “Death is better / for any earl than a life of dishonor!” (2890-2891). This line echoes the desolate lamentations of “The Wanderer.”
I partially agree with the idea that they were wrong to flee but not wrong for standing by. I understand that the warriors he chose to go with him were virtually there for back up but in the same light I wonder if Beowulf was losing would they have helped him.
The fact they didn’t initially step up to help against his will means to me that they were in no rush to jump in if they could help it. Usually those who are protective would plead or attempt to help in acts of being noble and then have to be told again to stand aside.
I would understand if he didn’t want them there at all to protect them but he didn’t say that.
The fact his men were so easily disheartened and fled when the threat was visible when instead they could just not agreed to join shows a huge level of dishonor as previously stated.
In the same light I would think Beowulf would have himself to blame for picking such unworthy companions to go with him in battle. In the same breath I kind of think he knew that was going to happen and that is why he told them to stand aside.
I agree with the idea that Beowulf’s men are wrong not to help him once they realize that he is not going to win, but it is also clear that Beowulf does not want their help. He specifically tells them to go and wait for him in safety, saying that only he is fit to fight the monster and if he wins, he wins alone, and if he loses, he dies alone (2529-2537). Wiglaf is both a model thane because he stays to help his lord, even when the battle is destined to end in death, but also a bad example of a thane because of his disregard of his lord’s orders. Beowulf seemed to believe that he alone was a hero enough to fight the dragon, which to me is a more a testament of his ego than of his belief in his thanes. Regardless, he did order his thanes not to help him, and as brutal as it is that they ran away like cowards, leaving him to die without even once challenging his command, they were honoring his wishes.
I agree with what the previous commenters had said above. I’m gonna add on a little more. Beowulf’s men shouldn’t of left becasue Beowulf is their leader and they were the thanes. Their duty was to protect and serve. The leader should never die beofre the thane, or they have failed at their job and they have no purpose Even though it was wrong for the men to leave on the flip side people believed in fate and destiny so in a way it could be viewed that Beowulf needed to fight his battle on his own. “How many times have my men, . . . / sworn to stay after dark/ And stem that horror with a sweep of their swords./ And then, in the morning, this mead-hall glittering/ With new light would be drenched with blood, the benches/ Stained red, the floors, all wet from that fiend’s/ Savage assault-and my soldiers would be fewer/ Still death taking more and more.” that quote from Beowulf sums up that Beowulf was fine with not having every man present. He was equipped to fight his own battle.
Although we may argue about how fealty among thanes requires loyalty and is expected in that honor-culture to be followed with death if necessary, there is something that should be noted in Beowulf the King’s behavior over Beowulf the young Geatish warrior who defeated Grendel – his wisdom and love for land and people takes precedence over any other concern. Perhaps King Beowulf understands that there are some tasks he cannot expect his men to face. He makes a long speech to inspire his bannermen, and to some extent, may know subconsciously that this may be his last hurrah, making Wiglaf’s fealty all the more heroic in the process.
“Then for the last time he saluted each of the soldiers, his own dear comrades…’I would not bear a sword or weapon to this serpent, if I knew any other way I could grapple with this great beast…It is not your way, nor proper for any man except me alone, that he should match his strength against this monster, do heroic deeds. With daring I shall get that gold– or grim death and fatal battle will bear away your lord!”
In sum, Beowulf, more out of bravery than arrogance, does not wish the dragon’s wrath on his bannermen. It is exceptionally heroic of Wiglaf to follow Beowulf into certain doom, to accept Wyrd’s decree, and why he alone is noted among the comrades for his actions. There is no right or wrong, only fame and Fate.
I agree with Franco’s comment. Although it was custom during this time that a thane’s ultimate role was to uphold loyalty and honor to his king, perhaps Beowulf takes on the dragon by himself knowing that his men did not stand a chance against such a beast. From what has been told in this tale and of all the stories described of Beowulf, he was clearly seen as “the most worthy warrior throughout the wide world” (3099), as Wiglaf insists. If he was the best of the best, then any other man would not have been able to defeat the dragon. Yet, the dragon could not have been killed without the help of Wiglaf–perhaps then Beowulf’s arrogance does play more of a role than his bravery? If he did enter the dragon’s lair with all of his men in tow, maybe they could have prevented the death of their king better than he could have done so himself, had he been willing to accept their help. Instead he commands them to sit back and watch–so maybe, in a way, Beowulf was letting them off the hook and allowing them to run away from a fight he willingly took on by himself.
I agree with you Franco, particularly in your mention of fame and Fate. As the story unfolds it is Fate that leads only the bravest men to heroic fame and valor. If Beowulf’s men had stayed to fight the dragon, it would have diminished the heroic deeds and death of Beowulf (as Fate would have it). Instead, loyal Wiglaf springs to action, killing the dragon and taking his rightful place as successor. In no way is Beowulf’s fame declining in his final battle with the dragon; but instead, his legacy remains after his death and the ‘heroic cycle’ begins again with Wiglaf. In lines 2665-2670, Wiglaf reminds Beowulf that he said he would never let his “fame decline,” so Wiglaf says “I will support you.”
From an objective point of view, the men are obviously wrong in fleeing Beowulf, their lord, to whom they, as thanes, are expected to be eternally loyal; however, taken from the perspective of Beowulf, the men are doing what they must for the good of the Geats. As a lord, Beowulf’s responsibility to to his people, a trait he exhibited previously, although not to his own constituency, when “[he] did honor to [Hrothgar’s] people with [his] actions” (ll. 2095-6). Recounting his fight with Grendel’s mom, Beowulf says, “There the life of AEschere, wise old counselor, came to its end,” which, clearly, affected Beowulf, given it was the death of one of his soldiers, and he most likely fears that a similar fate will await his soldiers in their fight with the dragon (ll. 2122-3). “It is not your way,” Beowulf explains, “nor proper for any man except me alone, that he should match his strength against this monster” (ll. 2432-4). Beowulf has enough faith in wyrd that the outcome of his fight with the dragon will have been predestined, and, if his destiny is to die, he may not want his soldiers to die with him, as AEschere had. For those arguing that a thane’s duty is to obey his lord, the men were technically serving their lord in “fleeing,” given Beowulf’s explanation that he must face the dragon alone. Beowulf’s men, and those which he rules, are not only doing their duty in serving him, but by sacrificing himself and only himself, he’s doing his duty in serving them.
The ten men who stood aside and gave no aid to Beowulf and Wiglaf were cowards and traitors. As several have mentioned above, the bond between a thane and his Lord is unbreakable and a thane’s duty to his Lord is of the most crucial importance. By leaving Beowulf to fend for himiself with only the help of Wiglaf, the men are casting aside their respect for Beowulf as they prove they value their own lives more than his. Beowulf cared for those men and offered them “gifts of treasures, the military gear that [they wore], [and] whatever he could find finest anywhere, far or near,” (2865-2870). He did anything and everything he could for those men, and they returned the favor by standing by and watching as he perished under the wrath of the dragon.