In Beowulf, when the hero is challenged by a somewhat inebriated Unferth (who claims that Breca defeated Beowulf in a swimming contest), Beowulf tells the tale of his amazing adventure with Breca, his boyhood friend. Swimming for many days and nights in chain mail, armed with his sword, Beowulf fended off all manner of nasty sea creatures and came succesfully to the Finnish shore.

After telling this tale, Beowulf shames Unferth by pointing out his poor swordmanship and referring to Unferth's killing of his own kinsmen - which information Gardner uses to good effect in Grendel.

This is a section of the Breca story from the 1910 Francis Gummere translation of Beowulf. It has its charms - such as its daunting adherence to alliteration - but it probably poses a challenge to many of our late 20th century bare-boned word-hoards. More recent translations, such as the one by Seamus Heaney, are able to speak - and sometimes sing - to our modern ears. We twain had talked, in time of youth,
and made our boast, -- we were merely boys,
striplings still, -- to stake our lives
far at sea: and so we performed it.
Naked swords, as we swam along,
we held in hand, with hope to guard us
against the whales. Not a whit from me
could he float afar o'er the flood of waves,
haste o'er the billows; nor him I abandoned.
Together we twain on the tides abode
five nights full till the flood divided us,
churning waves and chillest weather,
darkling night, and the northern wind
ruthless rushed on us: rough was the surge.
Now the wrath of the sea-fish rose apace;
yet me 'gainst the monsters my mailed coat,
hard and hand-linked, help afforded, --
battle-sark braided my breast to ward,
garnished with gold. There grasped me firm
and haled me to bottom the hated foe,
with grimmest gripe. 'Twas granted me, though,
to pierce the monster with point of sword,
with blade of battle: huge beast of the sea
was whelmed by the hurly through hand of mine.

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