Beowulf's sorhfullne sið with Breca

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Abstract

The story of Beowulf's youthful adventure with Breca has featured prominently in critical discussions of the poem, usually in the context of one of two arguments. The episode is used either as evidence about the character of Unferð – is he a trusted advisor of Hroðgar or a court jester? – or with a view to proving that the two men were rowing boats rather than swimming, a detail which alters our view of Beowulf's character and, once again, Unferð's. These emphases are, of course, entirely justified; Beowulf is clearly the protagonist of the poem and Unferð's motives and attitudes are crucial to understanding not only the confrontation between him and Beowulf, but the nature of the Danish court and Beowulf's own character. The virtually complete neglect of Breca himself has been an understandable side-effect of these emphases. The reconsideration of Breca's role offered here begins by attempting to answer a simple question: why does Unferð call their adventure sorhfullne? In a text as tightly woven as Beowulf, tugging on any given thread seems to affect the interlacing of other parts of the pattern, and consideration of that question leads to a number of interpretive consequences.

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