Beowulf: Chapter 5

Hrothgar, the helmet of the Shieldings, spoke:
“Beowulf, my friend, you have traveled here
To favour us with help and fight for us.
There was a feud one time, begun by your father.
With his own hands he had killed Heatholaf,
Who was a Wulfing; so war was looming
And his people, in fear of it, forced him to leave.
He came away then over rolling waves
To the South Danes here, the sons of honor.
I was then in the full flush of kingship,
Establishing my sway over all the rich strongholds
Of this heroic land. Heorogar,
My older brother and the better man,
Also a son of Halfdane’s, had died.
Finally I healed the feud by paying:
I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings
And Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.
“It bothers me to have to burden anyone
With all the grief Grendel has caused
And the havoc he has wreaked upon us in Heorot,
Our humiliations. My household-guard
Are on the wane, fate sweeps them away
Into Grendel’s clutches—but God can easily
Halt these raids and harrowing attacks!
“Time and again, when the goblets passed
And seasoned fighters got flushed with beer
They would pledge themselves to protect Heorot
And wait for Grendel with whetted swords.
But when dawn broke and day crept in
Over each empty, blood-spattered bench,
The floor of the mead-hall where they had feasted
Would be slick with slaughter. And so they died,
Faithful retainers, and my following dwindled.
Now take your place at the table, relish
The triumph of heroes to your heart’s content.”
Then a bench was cleared in that banquet hall
So the Geats could have room to be together
And the party sat, proud in their bearing,
Strong and stalwart. An attendant stood by
With a decorated pitcher, pouring bright
Helpings of mead. And the minstrel sang,
Filling Heorot with his head-clearing voice,
Gladdening that great rally of Danes and Geats.
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:
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,
Risking the water just to prove you could win?
It was sheer vanity made you venture out
On the main deep. And no matter who tried,
Friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you,
Neither would back down: the sea-test obsessed you.
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,
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
In strong room 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
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:
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
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
Than I could manage to move from him.
Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on
For five nights, until the long flow
And pitch of the waves, the perishing cold,
Night falling and winds from the North
Drove us apart. The deep boiled up
And its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild.
My armor held me to hold out;
My hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked,
A fine, close-fitting filigree of gold,
Kept me safe when some ocean creature
Pulled me to the bottom. Pinioned fast
And swathed in its grip, I was granted one
Final chance: my sword plunged
And the ordeal was over. Through my own hands
The fury of battle had finished off the sea-beast.