Beowulf’s reply to Unferth (part 1) and words with picky translations (ll.529-538)

Beowulf’s opening statement
Tallying swimming strength in youth

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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Beowulf presents his counter argument to Unferth’s accusations of weakness and introduces his version of what really happened with Breca.

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“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Well, you are very much, my friend Unferth,
beer-drunken speaking of Breca,
telling of his victory! The truth as I reckon
is that I more swimming strength had,
hardship on the waves, than any other man.
We two dared and bet with each other
since we were children – we two were then
yet in youth – that we two out on the spear-sea
would risk our lives; and so it happened.'”
(Beowulf ll.529-538)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf’s opening statement

Well, if Beowulf is to be believed, Unferth is in his cups at this point. But Beowulf? If he’s been drinking, then drink may well make him more eloquent.

Immediately after Unferth’s saying that Beowulf is not as great as he’s said he is, the main man himself throws down his rebuttal.

Ever aware of the order of things, though, Beowulf doesn’t just reply with a quick “That’s not true!” (or the even simpler “nuh-uh!”). Instead we get a very structured, very well laid out rebuttal of what one of Hrothgar’s closest thanes had to say about Beowulf.

First in Beowulf’s reply we hear what Unferth did in the subtext of his accusation: Beowulf attacks Unferth’s character.

Of course, being Beowulf, he does so up front and boldly. Making the jab that Unferth’s not doing the talking, but the beer is if he’s going to say that sort of thing about Breca. I like to think that Beowulf paused for laughter then, if only that of his own men (while Hrothgar, or maybe some of his other thanes, groaned).

Then Beowulf presses onward to “The truth as I reckon” (“Soð ic talige” (l.532)). He admits that making such a bet is reckless, but also that that was just the nature of his friendship with Breca. It’s not direct, but I read this as Beowulf’s reply to Unferth’s implication that the swimming challenge was something off the cuff or coming from a drunken mind.

What’s more, Beowulf reflects that he and Breca were yet young then, and so the foolishness of the boast should be definitely be set aside.

Now, whether the poem’s audience or the audience in the poem (or both) would find this funny is up for debate. But, at this point in the poem, Beowulf can’t be older than 20. So, though he may well have been younger when he and Breca braved the waves in this foolish bet, he isn’t now that much older.

I get the definite impression that Beowulf, as serious as he may be taking himself here, might also be trying to diffuse the seriousness of Unferth’s attacks with some comedy. He may be trying to lighten the room a bit so that things don’t get too gloomy and throw him off his game (or get him thrown from the feast table). As pompously as he says it, I think the bit about their age is meant to sound similar to someone today saying (perhaps starting with an audible sigh) “Ah! We were so young and foolish then!”

Whatever sort of verbal tricks and public speaking strategies Beowulf might have used up to the end of this week’s extract, its final sentence really shows his acumen as a story teller.

Or, at the least, it shows the poet’s desire to have his subject appear to be expert in this essential skill. Compelling storytelling would be essential even for warriors, though, since if you couldn’t tell a great story (or had such a teller with you always), how would your deeds be immortalized in the memories of men, women, and children?

Whatever the case, Beowulf’s saying that he and Breca bet that they would risk their lives on the “spear-sea” (“gar-secg” (l.537)) – not even just the “secg” but the dangerous-sounding “gar-secg” – and that things turned out that way too is the perfect end point for an introduction. It’s like the hook you’d find at the end of a book’s prologue or first chapter.

It’s also important that Beowulf make this predictive statement since it suggests that circumstances would see the boast fulfilled. He’s just boasted about beating Grendel (god willing), so making good on a boast about racing in the sea would help boost his hosts’ confidence in him. Such a statement reinforces the idea that Beowulf is able to turn his words into deeds.

Do you think that Beowulf’s really putting this much thought into his reply to Unferth? Or is he just opening his mouth and talking?

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Tallying swimming strength in youth

I don’t think any Anglo-Saxon would have sucked on the blade of grass he had in his mouth, thumbed his overalls, rocked on his heels and said “Well. I reckon…” But Beowulf pretty much does just that before he tells Unferth and whomever else is listening his version of the Breca event.

Nonetheless, the word he uses in his “The truth as I reckon” (“Soð ic talige” (l.532)) is “talian,” (the root of the modern “tally”) a word that can also mean “count,” “calculate,” “account,” “relate,” or “impute.” Among these options, I went with “reckon” because I think that even in Old English this understanding of “talian” connotes clear, sober thinking. Unferth may have been drinking well before the Geats arrived, but Beowulf’s maybe had a mug or two. So I think “reckon” suits when it comes to describing his present thinking.

Such presence of mind and considered thought also give Beowulf an air of maturity. Though authority and gravity weren’t the only things the Anglo-Saxons saw coming with such maturity. They also seem to have thought mastery came with it, too. At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from the word “mere-strengo.”

This compound combines the word for “sea,” “ocean;” “lake,” “pond;” “pool,” or “cistern” and the word for “strength,” “power,” “vigour,” “ability,” “firmness,” “fortitude,” “manhood,” “mature years.” Together these words mean “strength in swimming.”

Looked at apart, though, we get a pretty clear suggestion that such skill, such strength, comes only in “manhood,” or “mature years.” The implication that I pull out of that being that you can only achieve that level of strength after practicing something into your “mature years.” Actually, if that’s the case then translating “geogoð-feore” of four lines down as “youth” seems inaccurate.

Yes, Beowulf and Breca would have been fairly young when their boast was made and carried out, but “geogoð-feore” implies more than simply being “young.”

As a combination of the word for “youth” (“geogoð,” which even sounds sort of like the Modern English word since its vowel-ensconced “g”s are pronounced as “y”s) and the word for “life, principle of life, soul, spirit” (“feore”) a literal translation of this compound could be “youthful in spirit”.

What do you think is more important when it comes to translation? Is it better to go with the rough equivalent of a word in Modern English even if it simplifies the Old English original, or should a translation err on the side of being literal as much as possible?

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Next week, Beowulf details the dangers the two faced, their strength in the race, and what befell them on the sixth night.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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One thought on “Beowulf’s reply to Unferth (part 1) and words with picky translations (ll.529-538)

  1. Pingback: Unferth doubly damns a doomed Beowulf (ll.520-528) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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