Beowulf: The Words of Unferth

This story is part of the Beowulf unit. Story source: The Story of Beowulf by Strafford Riggs with illustrations by Henry Pitz (1933).

The Words of Unferth

THAT night, after Beowulf and his companions had rested, for the first time in twelve years there was a great banquet in the hall of Heorot. The place was decorated with fine hangings, the goldbright roof burnished until it shone like the sun, and the benches scraped and polished by many willing hands. Huge fires were built on the hearths, and the smell of roasting meats pervaded the hall.

Then the company assembled to partake of the meat and wine of Hrothgar, although the ranks of the king's earls had been sadly diminished through the evil deeds of Grendel. In all, it was not a very joyful gathering that night in Heorot, and the twelve-year dread of Grendel lurked in the hearts of the Danes.


In the king's high place sat Hrothgar, arrayed in a fine red robe of lamb's-wool, a golden crown upon his white locks. Beside him was his queen, Wealhtheow the Beautiful, dressed in garments of snowy whiteness, embroidered with bands of silver, a silver circlet on her fair brow, silver bracelets on her slim wrists. Her hair was the color of bright copper, and she wore it in two straight braids which fell on either side her face.

The tables were spread with viands such as warriors crave and there was much mead in great cups. The drinking-horns were passed from hand to hand, and many healths were drunk that evening to Beowulf and his earls, and many cups were raised to the destruction of Grendel.

Beowulf sat in the place of honor at Hrothgar's feet. He was clothed in scarlet and gold, with gold bracelets upon his mighty arms, a golden wire necklet of his king's giving about his throat.

To his right sat Aescher, the close companion and trusted counselor of Hrothgar. He wore a blue mantle over his broad shoulders, and costly jewels glinted on his breast.

On Beowulf's left was Unferth, the king's favorite, of whom the Wanderer had sung in no uncertain terms concerning his lack of bravery. He was lean and black of hair, with a black divided beard, and he was dressed from head to foot in black and silver.

Aescher leaned toward Beowulf and engaged him in deep converse, enjoying his company and praising him for his valor. But Unferth, the black son of Ecglaf, sat moody in his place, scarcely touching the meats before him, and drinking only lightly of the mead as it was passed to him.

A gloom hung over the vast hall, and only the noble lords of Geatsland were gay in that sad company. They talked a great deal and praised everything about them, especially the hall of Heorot with its gold-bright roof, a hall larger and more magnificent than anything they had ever seen before.

Then they fell to boasting of their leader Beowulf and spoke pridefully of his strength and virtue. In this they were upheld by Aescher, who had heard of Beowulf's feats of strength. And while they talked and toasted one another in the bright ale, Unferth the Black lapsed more and more into sullen silence, and offered no word of praise to Beowulf, and never once lifted his beaker to the lord of Geatsland.

Beowulf noticed this presently and, turning to Unferth said, "You are very silent, O valiant son of Ecglaf. Come, let us hear your deeds of valor that we may in turn praise you. Speak, friend Unferth, that I may drink from your cup with you."

Then Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, rose in his place, and his look was blacker than the night which hung over the land of the Danes. The torches flaming against the walls flickered on his cheeks, which were paler than the cheeks of a dead man.

"Beowulf!" he cried, and there was scornful anger in his tones. "Beowulf! Look you, my noble earls of Daneland, at this stripling who comes so proudly among us, saying that he will deliver us from Grendel's toils and spells!

"Who is this boy, beardless and white of skin, that he should come over the sea-fields in a boat with his fourteen thanes? Where are his vaunted courage and strength, I ask?

"For let me tell you: once upon a time this same Beowulf swam a race with one Breca, another young lord of the Geats, called the Bronding, and the story of that race is a shameful thing for honest men to hear. For in this race with Breca the Bronding, Beowulf failed almost before he had started, and the Bronding beat him sorely, so that my lord Beowulf was the laughing-stock of his uncle's court, and ever since he was a boy he has been known for his sluggard nature and his avoidance of battle and his sloth in hunting. And I say to you, my brothers, put no trust in this pale upstart. What the Danes have been unable to accomplish, this stripling from Geatsland cannot hope to achieve. Let him, I say, go back to his own country, and swim honest races with his fellows, and not remain here to mock those in sorrow."



(900 words)






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