From where he crouched at the king’s feet, Unferth, a son of Ecglaf’s, spoke
contrary words. Beowulf’s coming,
his sea-braving, made him sick with envy:
5 he could not brook or abide the fact
that anyone else alive under heaven might enjoy greater regard than he did: “Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca in a swimming match on the open sea,
10 risking the water just to prove that you could win? It was sheer vanity made you venture out
on the main deep. And no matter who tried,
friend or foe, to de ect the pair of you,
neither would back down: the sea-test obsessed you. 15 You waded in, embracing water,
taking its measure, mastering currents, riding on the swell. The ocean swayed, winter went wild in the waves, but you vied for seven nights; and then he outswam you,
20 came ashore the stronger contender.
He was cast up safe and sound one morning among the Heathoreams, then made his way to where he belonged in Bronding country, home again, sure of his ground
25 in strongroom and bawn. So Breca made good his boast upon you and was proved right.
No matter, therefore, how you may have fared in every bout and battle until now,
this time you’ll be worsted; no one has ever 30 outlasted an entire night against Grendel.”
Beowulf, Ecgtheow’s son, replied:
“Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer
that was doing the talking. The truth is this:
35 when the going was heavy in those high waves,
I was the strongest swimmer of all.
We’d been children together and we grew up daring ourselves to outdo each other, boasting and urging each other to risk
40 our lives on the sea. And so it turned out. Each of us swam holding a sword,
a naked, hard-proofed blade for protection against the whale-beasts. But Breca could never move out farther or faster from me
45 than I could manage to move from him. Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on
for ve nights, until the long ow
and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold, night falling and winds from the north
50 drove us apart. The deep boiled up
and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild.
My armour helped me to hold out;
my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked, a ne, close- tting ligree of gold,
55 kept me safe when some ocean creature pulled me to the bottom. Pinioned fast and swathed in its grip, I was granted one nal chance: my sword plunged
and the ordeal was over. Through my own hands, 60 the fury of battle had nished off the sea-beast.
“Time and again, foul things attacked me, lurking and stalking, but I lashed out, gave as good as I got with my sword. My esh was not for feasting on,
65 there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating over their banquet at the bottom of the sea. Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping
the sleep of the sword, they slopped and oated like the ocean’s leavings. From now on
70 sailors would be safe, the deep-sea raids
were over for good. Light came from the east, bright guarantee of God, and the waves
went quiet; I could see headlands
and buffeted cliffs. Often, for undaunted courage,
75 fate spares the man it has not already marked.
However it occurred, my sword had killed nine sea-monsters. Such night-dangers
and hard ordeals I have never heard of
nor of a man more desolate in surging waves.
80 But worn out as I was, I survived,
came through with my life. The ocean lifted and laid me ashore, I landed safe
on the coast of Finland.
Now I cannot recall
85 any flight you entered, Unferth,
that bears comparison. I don’t boast when I say that neither you nor Breca were ever much celebrated for swordsmanship
or for facing danger on the eld of battle.
90 You killed your own kith and kin,
so for all your cleverness and quick tongue, you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell. The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly
as keen or courageous as you claim to be
95 Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king, havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.
But he knows he need never be in dread
of your blade making a mizzle* of his blood
100 or of vengeance arriving ever from this quarter—
from the Victory-Shieldings, the shoulderers of the spear. He knows he can trample down you Danes
to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder
without fear of reprisal. But he will nd me different.
105 I will show him how Geats shape to kill
in the heat of battle. Then whoever wants to
may go bravely to mead, when morning light, scarfed in sun-dazzle, shines forth from the south and brings another daybreak to the world.”
* mizzle — a ne spray or mist.
Based on lines 8–12, what does Unferth claim was the main reason Beowulf went out on the ocean?