Unferth’s trade with Beowulf, and the makings of a warrior’s fame (ll.1465-1472)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf and Unferth Trade in Reputations
What’s Needed for Fame
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Synopsis

Beowulf reflects on Unferth’s loan, and the poet reflects on it, too.

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Translation

“Indeed that son of Ecglaf, strong in might,
no longer thought of what that one had said before,
while drunk on wine, when he leant that weapon
to the better swordsman; he himself dared not
to venture beneath the turmoil of those waves
and risk his life to do a heroic deed; there he lost
his fame, his reputation for courage. But the other
showed no fear, the one already well-girded for battle.”
(Beowulf ll.1465-1472)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf and Unferth Trade in Reputations

After all of Beowulf’s gearing up, the poet now gives us a sense of what each man won and lost when Unferth loaned his sword to Beowulf.

Obviously, Beowulf’s the one who comes out of this little transaction for the better. Not only is he said to be the better swordsman (line 1468), but he’s also the one who is already “well-girded for battle” (“to guðe gegyred hæfde” (l. 1472)). Though this passage’s last line seems like it could be taken a few ways.

Does it mean that Beowulf is simply prepared for what they all knew that they would have to face? Or is the suggestion on line 1472 that Beowulf is some sort of bloodthirsty warrior who, at the slightest chance of a fight, is all decked out and fully prepared? Maybe it’s just that Beowulf is young and eager, after all, he “showed no fear” (“Ne wæs þæm oðrum swa” (l.1472)) despite being in a place that seems to have put everyone else on edge.

What’s really strange to me about this passage, though, is that the poet gives Unferth a heroic reputation seemingly out of nowhere. He seems to do so only to transfer it to Beowulf, though. It’s as if this poem is suddenly Highlander, and Unferth’s giving Beowulf his sword is the same as Beowulf beheading the man and experiencing a quickening. Now Unferth’s reputation for bravery is no longer his, but has been added to Beowulf’s considerable store of such rep.

The sad thing about this transaction, though is that it underscores the sense that the Danes are in decline.

Hrothgar is an old king with only young sons who seem to have neither battle experience nor diplomatic know-how (though, to be fair, we know nothing of his sons, really).

Wealhtheow’s marriage to the king is one of political convenience, which, isn’t terribly uncommon during the period, but that it happened at all suggests that Hrothgar is trying to broker a peace for his successors to rule in — and at the time peace was a very fragile thing.

Then Hrothgar’s chief advisor is killed.

And now, the apparent champion of the Danes essentially hands off his reputation to this newcomer from a completely different social group. It’s almost as if the Danes are doing just what the Beowulf poet did: passing on their greatness and their glory so that others can hear of them and tell stories even after they’re long gone.

What do you think of Unferth suddenly having this “reputation for courage”?

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What’s Needed for Fame

Any “sweord-frecan”1 who enjoys “ellen-mærð”2 must have done “drihtscype”3. Just as any “drihtscype”3 done would guarantee “ellen-mærð”2 for the “sweord-frecan”1 responsible.

1sweord-frecan: swordsman, warrior. sweord (sword) + freca (warrior, hero) (A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf)

2ellen-mærð: fame of courage. ellen (zeal, strength, courage, strife, contention) + mærð (glory, fame, famous exploit) (A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf)

3drihtscype: lordship, rulership, dignity, virtue, valour, heroic deeds. driht (multitude, army, company, body of retainers, nation, people) + scype (ship)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s words for Unferth.

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