Saturday, December 3, 2016

The King's Subjunctive Mood

Beowulf, lines 499-528.

nferð maþelode,    Ecglāfes bearn,
þē æt fōtum sæt    frēan Scyldinga,
onband beadurūne.    Wæs him Bēowulfes sīð,
mōdġes merefaran,    miċel æfþunca,
forþon þe hē ne ūþe    þæt ǣniġ ōðer man
ǣfre mǣrða þon mā    middanġeardes
ġehēdde under heofenum    þonne hē sylfa:
‘Eart þū se Bēowulf,    sē þe wið Brecan wunne
on sīdne sǣ,    ymb sund flite,
ðǣr ġit for wlenċe    wada cunnedon
ond for dolġilpe    on dēop wæter
aldrum nēþdon?    Nē inċ ǣniġ mon,
nē lēof nē lāð,    belēan mihte
sorhfullne sīð,    þā ġit on sund rêon.
Þǣr ġit ēagorstrēam    earmum þehton,
mǣton merestrǣta,    mundum brugdon,
glidon ofer gārsecg;    ġeofon ȳþum wēol,
wintrys wylm[um].    Ġit on wæteres ǣht
seofonniht swuncon;    hē þē æt sunde oferflāt,
hæfde māre mæġen.    Þā hine on morgentīd
on Heaþo-Rǣmes    holm up ætbær;
ðonon hē ġesōhte    swǣsne ēþel,
lēof his lēodum,    lond Brondinga,
freoðoburh fæġere,    þǣr hē folc āhte,
burh ond bēagas.    Bēot eal wið þē
sunu Bēanstānes    so(ð)e ġelǣste.
Đonne wēne iċ tō þē    wyrsan ġeþinġea,
ðēah þū heaðorǣsa    ġehwǣr dohte,
grimre gūðe,    ġif þū Grendles dearst
nihtlongne fyrst    nêan bīdan.’

[Unferth made a speech, Ecglaf’s son,
Who sat at the feet of the Lord of the Scyldings,
Unbound a battle-rune: Beowulf’s undertaking,
Bold seafearer, was to him great vexation,
Because he never wished that any other man
Of glory in the world
Might be thought of more than himself:
“Are you the Beowulf, who that against Brecca strove,
In a swimming competition in the wide sea,
There you both because of daring the waters tried
And for foolish boasting in deep water
Lives to risk? Nor might any man,
Neither friend nor foe, dissuade the two of you
From sorrowful venture, when you both in the sea swam.
There you two the ocean-stream with arms embraced,
Measured sea-streams, with hands wove
Glided over ocean: The deep surged with waves,
With winter’s swells. You both in the water’s power
Seven nights toiled; he beat you then at swimming,
Had more strength. Then at morning the sea
Carried him up to the [land of the] Heaþo-Rǣmes;
Thence he sought dear native land,
Dear to his people, land of the Brodings,
Fair fortified burg, there he had folk,
Burg and rings. All [his] boast against you
The son of Bearnstan truly carried out.
Therefore I expect from you a worse outcome,
Although thou in the onset of battle everywhere do well,
In grim war, if thou dare in night-long watch

To wait close at hand for Grendel.]

Unferth’s position sitting æt fōtum of the Lord of the Scyldings tells us something of the importance of his position at Hrothgar’s court. Twice later in the poem he is referred to as a þyle, variously referred to as the king’s “sage, orator…historian, major-domo, and… right-hand man.” (Klaeber 149-50) Although Unferth’s motives for criticizing Beowulf seem straightforward enough (he cannot stand for any man to be more prominent than himself) there is also the possibility here that it was the responsibility of the þyle to remember the deeds and lineages of important people, and to remind the king of them when they came to court. Professor Shippey suggests that Unferth may have been acting here as the "king's subjunctive mood."

Since Beowulf’s own account of the swimming match does not actually contradict Unferth’s, but only adds to it new information which Unferth does not seem to have had, it seems possible that Unferth is advancing a potentially valid criticism on Hrothgar’s behalf, in a way which allows the king to save face should it turn out not to be true. Note that it is after Beowulf’s successful rebuttal of Unferth (which boils down to: I did not come to Heorot to swim; I came to kill monsters, and I’m really good at it!) that Hrothgar seems genuinely pleased with his young warrior who has come to his aid (line 607).

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