Beowulf

Lines 301-709

Interestingly, up until this point of the poem, Beowulf’s decision to come to Hrothgar’s aid has been described by the narrator as a heroic act of Beowulf’s own deciding rather than an act of obligation or a payment of debt. When Beowulf explains his visit to the Danish coast guard, he again presents his journey as one made of his own free will. He doesn’t respond directly to Hrothgar’s story about Ecgtheow, perhaps wanting to bolster his claim that he has come seeking the monster of his own volition, not because he owes Hrothgar on behalf of his father.

The second digression, Beowulf’s account of his swimming match against his childhood companion Breca, comes when Unferth challenges Beowulf’s heroic status. As there were no witnesses to Beowulf’s exploits, his story cannot be corroborated. Beowulf can respond only with a series of elaborate boasts about his doings to preserve his honor. Throughout Beowulf, boasting is presented as a key component of one’s reputation, a valid way to assert one’s position in a hierarchy determined by deeds of valor. Beowulf’s boasting, which especially pleases Wealhtheow, actually increases his honor and raises the level of expectations—for both those around him and the reader—as to how he will fare in the impending battle with Grendel.

But such boasting is a delicate social operation, and this scene helps to clarify the difference between proper and petulant boastfulness. Feeling upstaged by Beowulf, Unferth calls Beowulf’s exploits foolhardy and accuses him of vanity. But it is Unferth himself who is guilty of vanity, since he is jealous of Beowulf. Etiquette dictates that it is inappropriate for Unferth to attempt to dishonor a guest; once he does, however, Beowulf’s retaliation is appropriate and even necessary to maintain his reputation. Hrothgar’s behavior, by contrast, is more dignified. He acknowledges that there is a certain “humiliation” in the fact that the Danes cannot solve their own problems, but he does not allow this disgrace to make him resentful of the superior warrior who has come to help (although one can argue that his assertion that Beowulf owes him on behalf of Ecgtheow helps him lessen his embarrassment at having to ask for help).

Reading closely, we find that the story that Beowulf tells is communalist in spite of its boastful tone. He depicts the culture of competition in which he and Breca were raised as fraternal and respectful, not vain and obsessive as Unferth would have it. Though he makes a sharp stab at Unferth when he points out his ineffectuality against Grendel, Beowulf ends his oration with a beautiful image of restored peace and happiness for his hosts, the Danes. Beowulf’s correction thus not only better represents the true values of the society but also illustrates the proper way to tell a story. His story is more in keeping with the values of the code of honor than is Unferth’s bitter speech.