Chapter VIII

UNFERTH, THE SON of Ecglaf who sat at the feet of the Scylding's lord, spoke quarrelsome words. The quest of Beowulf, that noble mariner, galled him greatly, for he always begrudged other men who might achieve more fame under heaven than he himself. “Are you that Beowulf, Breca's rival, who strove with him in swimming the open sea, pridefully braving the floods and foolishly risking your lives in the deep waters? Nor could any friend or foe dissuade you from swimming the dangerous main. You covered the ocean tides with your arms, measuring the sea-streets with strained hands, and swam over the waters while buffeted about by the ocean's roll. You strove in the sea-realm for seven nights, and he bested you in swimming and covered more of the main. Then at the morning's tide the swells cast him on the shores of the Heathoram people, whence he made for the dear home of his own beloved liegemen, the fair land of the Brondings, where he ruled his folk's towns and treasures. In triumph over you, Beanstan's son achieved his boast. I anticipate worse luck for your adventure—though you've braved the blows of battle in grim struggle—if you wait through the night of Grendel's approach!”

Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke: “What mighty things you've just said of Breca and his triumph, my dear Unferth, while you're drunk with beer! I say in truth that I have proved more might in the sea than any other man, and more endurance in the ocean. The two of us had talked in our youth and bragged—we were still mere boys then—that we would risk our lives far out at sea, and so we did it. We held drawn blades in our hands as we swam along, hoping to guard ourselves against the whale-beasts. He could not float any farther over the waters' flood than I, nor hasten more over the billows; and neither could I abandon him. The two of us stayed together on the sea for five nights until the flood parted us, and churning waves, chilly weather, the dark night, and a fierce northern wind rushed upon us, and the waves were rough. The wrath of the sea-fish was stirred, and my coat of mail, hard and hand-linked, availed me much protection against the monsters—the battle-vest was bound to my breast and decorated with gold. A fierce creature held me firm and pulled me to the bottom with the strongest grip. Nevertheless, it was granted to me that I pierce the monster with my sword point; by my hand and battle-blade was the giant sea-beast conquered.


  1. Because he is a guest, Beowulf must remain somewhat respectful towards Unferth. However, notice the patronizing tone he takes in the rest of this sentence by accusing Unferth of only speaking his mind when intoxicated. Beowulf then proceeds to tell the correct version of the story to the room.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Unferth challenges Beowulf with a story he heard about a swimming contest between Beowulf and Breca. He accuses Beowulf of competing and swimming into the deep main (the ocean) simply for vanity rather than honorable reasons.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. In the original Old English, the phrase translates literally as *unlocked his word-hoard *or *unlocked his battle speech, *which are formulaic phrases indicating to the audience that formal speeches are coming up.  Unferth, whose name may be a play on the OE word *unfrith*, which means *un-peaceful*, seems to be the designated challenger of Beowulf among Hrothgar's retainers.

    — Stephen Holliday