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Unferth finishes his account of Beowulf and Breca’s swimming match before predicting Beowulf’s doom at the hands of Grendel.
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“‘Then he sought his dear father land
those dear to him, the land of the Brondings,
splendid strongholds against war, where he had folk
fortress and rings. So in truth the son of Beanstan
fully bested you by endurance in your bet with him.
Then I believe that you will have the worse outcome,
though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,
bloody battle, if thou darest wait
nearly all the long night for Grendel'”
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Unferth’s biting conclusion
Haters are gonna hate. Doubters are gonna doubt. But Unferth, really, seems to be neither of these things.
There’s no two ways about it: he doesn’t like Beowulf. And his account of the swimming match between Beowulf and Breca does not put the poem’s titular character in a good light.
But, I don’t think Unferth’s being entirely dismissive of Beowulf either last week’s or this week’s half of his outburst. I think he’s being a little more precise with his heckling.
I’m grounding this idea of Unferth’s being more subtle in his line “though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,/bloody battle” (“ðeah þu heaðoræsa gehwær dohte,/grimre guðe” (l.526-527)). It’s sarcastic, sure. But Unferth isn’t just being smarmy, he’s saying that Beowulf lacks individual prowess.
Battles, such as they were in the early medieval period, were free for alls. Melees.
As such, there would be individual bouts, sure, but these would be surrounded by other fights. Within the mesh of warriors mashing each other to pulp archers could have your back. Fellow warriors, spearmen or swordmen, could have your back. So as long as you were quick enough and didn’t get in the way of your support team, you could no doubt do quite well and be quite the celebrated warrior.
After all, the Anglo-Saxons recognized that team work was an essential thing both on and off the battlefield. They were well aware that if you completely isolated yourself socially, you would have no means of understanding what was going on outside of your hall or hovel.
So I think that Unferth presents his account of Breca to say that Beowulf, for all of his boasting about beating Grendel, isn’t likely to come off well because his usual strategy of working in a tight team (he does have what is basically a comitatus of 12 Geats with him after all) won’t work because it hasn’t worked for the Danes.
Moreover, I think Unferth’s using the swimming match to illustrate Beowulf’s individual incompetence is meant to underline his inability to cope with things alone. It was he who floated off and wound up washed ashore in some foreign land, after all.
Breca, on the other hand, according to Unferth (or rather, the version of events that he heard – or maybe is making up on the spot), won their match handily. As such Beowulf is bound to get “the worst outcome” (“wyrsan geþingea” (l.525)) if he waits for Grendel.
As to why Unferth bothers specifying the difference in Beowulf’s team and solo performances in this subtle way, I think it’s because it’s more biting than just saying “hey, you work well in a team but stink on your own.”
Unferth is supposed to pose a threat to Beowulf’s state of mind and the way in which he’s perceived by the other Danes. Thus, he damns him directly and then follows up with further damning via faint praise. At least poetically (and in my own opinion), this is the best way to do so.
What do you think? Is Unferth just being sarcastic when he talks of Beowulf having “thrived in combat everywhere”? Or is there a bit of faint praise there?
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Normal words spiced with speculation
What to say about the words in this extract, this passage? Well, there aren’t many strange compounds. Actually, there really aren’t any at all.
There’s the word “eðel,” meaning “country,” “native land,” “ancestral home.” This word is completely straightforward when it comes to translating (though some might argue its implications that Anglo-Saxons had a sense of nationality or some grander unity beyond their immediate group are anachronistic).
But in this word’s dictionary entry, you can find that it combines with the word for whales (“hwales”) to make a compound word for “sea.” Of course, this makes sense, since the sea is the whales’ ancestral home and native land.
Though I can’t help but read this combination and think that the Anglo-Saxons had some crazy ideas about the origins of whales and just what they were. It’s not very likely, but maybe some had over developed vestigial legs and so the very early Anglo-Saxons regarded the whales as being somewhat like them?
Or maybe because of the whales’ incredible strength and size and sociability they were regarded as being powerful denizens of the sea in a kind of spiritual way.
Maybe they were just big creatures that captured the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and fired up many a tale around a hearth fire.
There’s also the phrase “þaer he folk ahte.” Unferth uses this to describe Breca’s homeland. It more than likely means that he just had kinsmen there. But, because the word “ahte” means “to have, possess,” and combines with “folc,” could it be a reference to Breca’s having slaves or servants in that country?
It’s incredibly unlikely that that’s what’s intended, but it is something to think about. Maybe “having slaves there” was a kind of short hand for “has a well-established home there.” But that’s some deep speculation on my part. So deep in fact, that it’s pretty much groundless.
Rounding out the collection of words to at least stop and sniff at in this week’s passage is “freoð-burh.”
A combination of “friðu” meaning “peace, safety, protection; refuge, asylum” and “burh” meaning “stronghold,” “enclosed area,” this word strikes me as notable for its redundancy.
You’d hope that a stronghold or enclosed area would offer safety and protection. Though, maybe it’s like Old English’s use of double negatives for emphasis. Doubling up on words that imply protection means that this fortress of Breca’s is nigh unto impenetrable and so well-supplied that none could successfully lay siege to it or capture it in all out war.
If this Breca is the same Breca who later became a ruler of the strategic Swedish island of Brännö, then such a fortress may well have been there. Any strategic site in medieval Europe would need to be well fortified, after all.
What do you think of my interpretations of these words and phrase? Am I onto anything, or just filling space with groundless speculation?
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Well, we’ve heard Unferth’s heckling of Beowulf. It kind of splutters near the end, though. Next week we’ll get the main man’s reply.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.