Sunday, September 18, 2016

Who really won the swimming match?

It is interesting to note that Beowulf never actually corrects Unferth's account of the swimming match between Beowulf and Breca. His own account of his deeds on the water certainly has a lot more detail than Unferth's version, but Beowulf does not actually correct Unferth's basic assertion that the two of them swam together for seven nights before Beowulf dropped out and Breca washed up on the Heathoream shore. In fact, Beowulf's version of events has them together for only five nights before they are driven apart by a storm. He has the fight with the Nicors in the night, and washes up on the Finnish shore the morning of Day 6.

So who won the swimming fight? I think what Beowulf is saying, in the correct roundabout way that we'd expect from the hero of an Anglo-Saxon story, is that "sure, Breca stayed in the water for longer, but killed nine nicors. Who won the swimming fight? It doesn't matter. I didn't come to Heorot to swim. I came to Heorot to kill monsters."

Nicor, Artist Unknown


Beowulf maþelode,    bearn Ecgþeowes:
"Hwæt, þu worn fela,    wine min Hunferð,
beore druncen,    ymb Brecan spræce,
sægdest from his siðe.    Soð ic talige
þæt ic merestrengo    maran ahte,
earfeþo on yþum,    ðonne ænig oþer man.
Wit þæt gecwædon,    cnihtwesende
ond gebeotedon,    wæron begen þa git
on geogoðfeore,    þæt wit on garsecg ut
aldrum neðdon,    ond þæt geæfndon swa.
Hæfdon swurd nacod,    þa wit on sund reon,
heard on handa.    Wit unc wið hronfixas
werian þohton.    No he wiht fram me
flodyþum feor    fleotan meahte,
hraþor on holme,    no ic fram him wolde.
Ða wit æt|somne    on sæ wæron
fif nihta fyrst,   oþ þæt unc flod todraf,
wado weallende,    wedera cealdost,
nipende niht,    ond norþanwind,
heaðogrim ondhwearf.    Hreo wæron yþa!
Wæs merefixa    mod onhrered:
þær me wið laðum    licsyrce min
heard hondlocen,    helpe gefremede,
beadohrægl broden    on breostum læg,
golde gegyrwed.    Me to grunde teah,
fah feondscaða,    fæste hæfde,
grim on grape.    Hwæþre me gyfeþe wearð
þæt ic aglæcan    orde geræhte,
hildebille.    Heaþoræs fornam
mihtig meredeor    þurh mine hand."
Swa mec gelome    laðgeteonan
þreatedon þearle.    Ic him þenode
deoran sweorde,    swa hit gedefe wæs.
Næs hie ðære fylle    gefean hæfdon,
manfordædlan,    þæt hie me þegon,
symbel ymbsæton    sægrunde neah.
Ac on mergenne,    mecum |wunde,
be yðlafe    uppe lægon,
sweordum aswefede,    þæt syðþan na
ymb brontne ford    brimliðende
lade ne letton.   Leoht eastan com,
beorht beacen Godes,    brimu swaþredon,
þæt ic sænæssas    geseon mihte,
windige weallas.    Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl,    þonne his ellen deah.
Hwæþere me gesælde    þæt ic mid sweorde ofsloh
niceras nigene.    No ic on niht gefrægn
under heofones hwealf    heardran feohtan,
ne on egstreamum    earmran mannon.
Hwaþere ic fara feng    feore gedigde,
siþes werig.    Ða mec sæ oþbær,
flod æfter faroðe,    on Finna land,
wadu weallendu. 
(Beowulf, Lines 529-81)

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow: "Indeed thou a great multitude, my friend Unferth, drunk with beer, about Breca have spoken, said about his adventure. Truth I claim that I had great strength in the sea, hard struggle in waves, than any other man. We two this agreed, being boys, and boasted -- were both then still in youthfulness -- that we two out in the ocean to risk our lives; and that we did. Having naked swords, when we two in the sea swam, hard [blades] in hands, we two ourselves against sea-monsters intended to defend. He might not a whit from me over the sea-waves swim, faster in the sea, nor did I wish from him to go. Then we two together in the sea were the space of five nights, and the North Wind hostile turned against us. Rough were the waves, the anger of the ocean-fishes was aroused. There to me my body armor -- hard, hand-locked -- help provided, mail-shirt woven, lying on breast, well adorned. The hostile, dire foes drew me to the bottom, firmly, grim in graps: yet to me it was granted that I those monsters struck with point, with battle-bill; battles rush cut off mighty sea-beast through my hand. Thus those loathely-spoilers pressed me severely; I them served with good sword, as it befitting was. Not at all they their fill of joy had, wicked destroyers, that they partook, sat around at banquet on the sea floor near me; but at morning with sword wound by the shore above lay, by swords put to sleep, that afterwards never in the sea steep waterway to sea-farer passage hindered. Light came from the East, God's bright beacon; ocean waters subsided that I the headlands might see, windy high shores. Wyrd oft saveth the undoomed man, when his courage be good. Yet to me befell, that I with sword slew nine Nicors. Nor I heard of harder fight at night under heaven's fault, nor of men harder pressed in water-streams. Yet I from foes's grasp with life escaped, weary of undertaking. Then the sea bore me off, flood after current to the land of the Finns, waters surging..."

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