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Having finished his version of the swimming contest story, Beowulf begins to properly lay into Unferth.
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“‘I from no man of you
in such strife have heard tell,
sword terror. Neither you nor Breca
at battle-play, still neither of you two,
have done sincerely such deeds
with the stained sword – nor do I mean to boast in this –
though thou brought death to thine own brother,
near blood relation; thus thou in hell shall
suffer damnation, though thine wit thrives.'”
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Beowulf starts big
Perhaps it’s just a formal formulation that Beowulf is quoting at the beginning of this week’s extract, but lines 581b and 582 stand out as being the most knotted of the bunch. That is, they’re the only ones in which his word order gets twisted around for some sort of effect.
My guesses are that these lines have their word order turned about to show Beowulf shifting from narrative to outright declamation (that is, in fact, defamation). He’s now turning his attention directly to Unferth and so perhaps there’s some dramatic value in having Beowulf speak in a more convoluted way as he turns to accusing Unferth of having done no deeds of note. Maybe there’s something there, but I’m not too sure about what it could be.
What’s much more explosive and attention grabbing is the meat of Beowulf’s attack on Unferth. He doesn’t pull any punches.
He starts by saying that neither he nor (for what it’s worth, I suppose) Breca have done any great deeds of might in battle to match his own against the sea monsters. He underscores this by saying that he doesn’t “mean to boast in this” (“no ic þæs fela gylpe” (l.586))
Then Beowulf very quickly raises the stakes, saying that Unferth is going to burn in hell because he killed his kin.
Wait. Where did that come from?
Is this a commonly known thing? Is this act something that’s been published abroad with Unferth as the fiend, the villain?
Or is Beowulf maybe misinterpreting something, sharing among the Danes some piece of news that was mangled by the time it reached the Geats?
It’s possible that Beowulf’s verbal finger wagging here is based on mangled, second hand news. In that case, Beowulf’s bold statement here makes him look like an ass. Though he’d put shame into the heart of Unferth (and the rest of the Danes) with next week’s words.
If, on the other hand, Beowulf’s accusations are based on a well known story, then where does that put Unferth?
I can’t help but get the feeling that Beowulf is being something of a prig in pointing out Unferth’s killing of his own kin. If he’s in a position of honour, close to Hrothgar, then this deed must be generally ignored. Beowulf’s dredging it up could be an oversimplification of what really happened.
Perhaps Unferth slew his kin because he was bound by some sort of complex system of alliances to do so?
Or maybe Unferth has a sister and her marriage soured to such a degree that her blood relations were forced to fight her relations by marriage?
The word “heafod-mægum” does, after all, merely mean “close kin.” And it can mean anything from wife to husband to uncle to aunt.
Whatever the case, I think that Beowulf is glossing over something major in his outright defamation of Unferth as a kinslayer.
I think there’s something here in Beowulf’s saying that even Unferth’s wits won’t be able to save him from burning in hell could be a reference to Unferth’s having reasoned his way out of whatever moral quandary lead him to kill his kin.
The weirdest part of this whole passage to me, though, is that no one interrupts.
No one steps in to say “Hey, Beowulf, lay off.”
It’s not as though dialogue gets interrupted elsewhere in the poem, but the way that things are presented here it feels as though Beowulf and Unferth are utterly alone rather than in a packed mead hall.
One way to read this whole bit is that it’s might calling out brains. Beowulf is very clearly might, and so it could be argued that his moral understanding is simplified to “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Whereas, Unferth, if he really is as witty as he’s said to be, represents the brainier side of things. He is perhaps, a coward at battle, but quick in his mind and able to evade the judgment of his peers because of this. Though, in true Christian fashion (and pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon beliefs, too?) Beowulf states that Unferth will face up to his crime in the day of judgment.
Perhaps, then, what Beowulf’s getting at is that his wits will save Unferth from the judgment of his peers, but not from the final judgment of god itself.
Do you think Beowulf is really being as religious as his reminding Unferth of his final judgment suggests?
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Who are these “near relatives”?
Not to kick a dead brother, but this week, the second section is going to repeat the subject of the first.
The word that Beowulf uses to further describe Unferth’s slain kinsmen, “heafod-mægum,” is just too weird to pass up.
On its surface, the word meaning “near relatives.” It’s a combination of the Old English for “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” or “leader” on the left side of its hyphen and the Old English for “male kinsman,” parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” “cousin,” “compatriot,” “female relation,” “wife,” “woman,” or “maiden” on its hyphen’s right side.
What we can take away from dissecting this one is that a near relative isn’t necessarily a blood relation (the only occurrences of blood relations in “mægum”‘s definition are “parent, son, nephew, cousin,” just 4 out of 11 total possibilities). It could be something as intimate as a spouse or fellow member of a close group that identifies as a singular unit.
I think that it’s also possible to see “mægum” being combing with “heafod” as a way to express that the connection implied by “near relatives” is something established through reasoning. The connection it describes relies on someone’s wits to understand it. Figuring out degrees of relation isn’t simple arithmetic after all.
Given the need for wits to understand the relationship denoted by “heafod-mægum,” could Beowulf be making a joke when he says that Unferth’s wits won’t save him from his hellish fate?
My thinking here is that if wits make this close connection, if the relationship between people joined through marriage or common membership in a certain group was regarded as being a connection based on understanding rather than anything physical, then it’s possible for such a connection to be cast aside using that same understanding. Wits can unbind what they have bound, though, if Beowulf’s right in saying Unferth is still damned, god does not forget what has been bound.
Disposing of a connection would mean forfeiting of whatever rights and privileges went with the connection. Reasoning your way out of a non-blood relationship also wouldn’t erase any heinous acts done to those near relatives. Acts like, say, murdering them. And it does sound like Unferth killed more than one of his close kin since both “broðrum” and “heafod-mægum” are in their plural forms.
Given all of this, I think Beowulf is speaking figuratively when he says that Unferth killed his own brothers. Rather than being blood relations, I think he’s going more towards the “compatriots” sense of “heafod-mægum.”
Because if someone were to slaughter his actual brothers, he would not end up in the inner circle of someone like Hrothgar.
However, it’s possible that Unferth is a turncoat, that he betrayed his birth tribe or group for the position that he now enjoys and Beowulf places the slaughter of his people squarely on his shoulders because if not for his betrayal they would have managed to overcome whatever was assailing them – even if that happened to be the Danes themselves as I’m guessing it was.
Because of the slithering sort of vibe I get from Unferth, I think it’s likely that he did betray the kin he slew. And that he probably did it for a place of honour with another group. However tarnished that place might be by a past that he has reasoned his way out of.
What do you think Unferth’s story is? Is he a stone-cold killer as Beowulf’s accusation suggests, or is he simply misunderstood by the Geatish hero?
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Next week, Beowulf continues his haranguing of Unferth, laying the blame for Grendel’s terror on his cowardice.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.