IX

UNFERTH TAUNTS BEOWULF

          Unferth spoke up, Ecglaf his son,
          Who sat at the feet of the lord of the Scyldings,
          Opened the jousting (the journey of Beowulf,
          Sea-farer doughty, gave sorrow to Unferth
5       And greatest chagrin, too, for granted he never
          That any man else on earth should attain to,
          Gain under heaven, more glory than he):
          "Art thou that Beowulf with Breca did struggle,
          On the wide sea-currents at swimming contended,
10      Where to humor your pride the ocean ye tried,
          From vainest vaunting adventured your bodies
          In care of the waters? And no one was able
          Nor lief nor loth one, in the least to dissuade you
          Your difficult voyage; then ye ventured a-swimming,
15      Where your arms outstretching the streams ye did cover,
          The mere-ways measured, mixing and stirring them,
          Glided the ocean; angry the waves were,
          With the weltering of winter. In the water's possession,
          Ye toiled for a seven-night; he at swimming outdid thee,
20      In strength excelled thee. Then early at morning
          On the Heathoremes' shore the holm-currents tossed him,
          Sought he thenceward the home of his fathers,
          Beloved of his liegemen, the land of the Brondings,
          The peace-castle pleasant, where a people he wielded,
25      Had borough and jewels. The pledge that he made thee
          The son of Beanstan hath soothly accomplished.
          Then I ween thou wilt find thee less fortunate issue,
          Though ever triumphant in onset of battle,
          A grim grappling, if Grendel thou darest
30      For the space of a night near-by to wait for!"
          Beowulf answered, offspring of Ecgtheow:
          "My good friend Unferth, sure freely and wildly,
          Thou fuddled with beer of Breca hast spoken,
          Hast told of his journey! A fact I allege it,
35      That greater strength in the waters I had then,
          Ills in the ocean, than any man else had.
          We made agreement as the merest of striplings
          Promised each other (both of us then were
          Younkers in years) that we yet would adventure
40      Out on the ocean; it all we accomplished.
          While swimming the sea-floods, sword-blade unscabbarded
          Boldly we brandished, our bodies expected
          To shield from the sharks. He sure was unable
          To swim on the waters further than I could,
45      More swift on the waves, nor would I from him go.
          Then we two companions stayed in the ocean
          Five nights together, till the currents did part us,
          The weltering waters, weathers the bleakest,
          And nethermost night, and the north-wind whistled
50      Fierce in our faces; fell were the billows.
          The mere fishes' mood was mightily ruffled:
          And there against foemen my firm-knotted corslet,
          Hand-jointed, hardy, help did afford me;
          My battle-sark braided, brilliantly gilded,
55      Lay on my bosom. To the bottom then dragged me,
          A hateful fiend-scather, seized me and held me,
          Grim in his grapple: 'twas granted me, nathless,
          To pierce the monster with the point of my weapon,
          My obedient blade; battle offcarried
60      The mighty mere-creature by means of my hand-blow.

Footnotes

  1. Beowulf’s abilities as a diplomat and storyteller present themselves here. 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. This challenge serves as a direct challenge to Beowulf’s claims and provides tension by introducing a minor antagonist.

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

    — Owl Eyes Reader