Beowulf, Wiglaf and the Wægmundings

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In the second part of Beowulf (2200–3182) two crucial questions are posed, neither of which has ever been satisfactorily answered: precisely how is Beowulf related to Wiglaf and what is Beowulf's connection with the Wægmunding family? The fact that the poet himself does not provide a clear cut answer to either of the questions or indeed any kind of answer at all is as surprising as it is puzzling. Throughout the poem he takes pains to make family relationship clear, usually specifying it and repeating it when the relationship is particularly significant and sometimes mentioning it even when it is pointless. But in the final and climactic episode of the poem recounting how the aged hero Beowulf fights his last battle and meets his death, accompanied only by one loyal and fearless follower, his young kinsman Wiglaf, the poet is content to leave their relationship obscure.

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This article addresses the ambiguous tribal identity of Ecgþeow in Beowulf, ultimately arguing that Ecgþeow is a Swede, a Scylfing (that is, a member of the Swedish ruling family), and indeed is likely the younger brother of the Swedish king Ongenþeow. The article reviews the (often sparse) existing arguments on the matter and pushes these arguments further, taking into consideration such evidence as Anglo-Saxon naming conventions, the poem’s treatment of marriages between feuding families, and our understanding of succession in the poem. It goes on to illustrate the ways in which this reading can shed light on some of the murkier diplomatic events of the poem in the complex relationship between the Geats and the Swedes, such as Onela’s permitting Beowulf to become king of the Geats and Heardred’s sheltering of Eadgils and Eanmund. The article also addresses the effect achieved by leaving this identity unstated in the poem, particularly for an audience to whom such an identification may not have been so difficult to make.
The Originality of Beowulf
  • Benson