Unferth in Beowulf and Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey

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Unferth in Beowulf and Odysseus in the Odyssey Kemp Malone in his essay “Beowulf” comments that the hero’s swimming match with Breca, an episode of more than 100 lines, is “not told as such,” but set in a frame: “the flitting between Unferth and Beowulf” (Malone 144). This contention or challenge between the hero and a rude challenger appears not only in Beowulf but in other heroic poetry like the Odyssey. When Beowulf and his crew of brave Geat warriors arrive to the court of King Hrothgar of Denmark, one of the king’s retainers, Unferth by name, has been drinking too heavily of the mead. This puts him into a drunken state of mind wherein he unwisely and rudely challenges the hero regarding a swimming contest sometime earlier: Unferth, Ecglaf’s son, rose to speak, who sat at the fee of the lord of the Scyldings; he unbound a battle-rune - the journey of Beowulf, the brave seafarer, caused him chagrin, for he would not grant that any other man under the heavens might ever care more for famous deeds than he himself: “Are you the same Beowulf who challenged Breca to a swimming match on the open sea? There out of pride you both tested sea-ways, through foolish boasting risked lives on the deep. None could dissuade you, friend or foe, keep either of you from that hapless trip, when you went swimming out of the bay, your arms embracing the crests, sea-currents, flung out your hands to measure the sea-roads, the ocean of wind. The steep seas boiled in winter’s pourings. You both toiled seven nights driven by the waves, and in that swimming he overcame you, had greater strength.(499ff.) So far Unferth, a proud warrior himself, tells Beowulf that the hero is foolish and that he has been bested in this sea-competition by his opponent – both of which are big, embarrassing putdowns. Unferth continues to rub it in: The sea cast him up on the Heatho-Raems’ shore; from there at daybreak he sought his homeland, beloved by his people, came back to the Brondings, fair peace-fort where he had subjects, stronghold, and treasures. The good son of Beanstan had truly fulfilled his whole boast against you(519ff.) Nothing like siding 100% with the foe! Before even hearing both sides of the story! Finally, in concluding, Unferth states his minimal expectations of Beowulf considering the latter’s utter failure against Breca:

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