Beowulf, an Early Olympic Swimmer

Phelps vs. Lochte

I’m always surprised by how I get drawn into the Olympics. Once again I find myself enthralled by sports that I think about only once every four years (like beach volleyball and water polo). This Olympics so far has had something for everyone, including (for Roger Federer fans like myself) the longest three-set match in the history of the open era. Spectators, including Kobe Bryant, were riveted as the Swiss maestro beat Argentine Juan Del Potro 4-6, 7-6, 19-17 in a 4 hour 26 minute semi-final match.

Since much of the Olympic drama has occurred in the swimming world—a phenomenal young Chinese woman swimming faster than the men, Michael Phelps losing races where he was favored  but then winning multiple golds–I share the most dramatic swimming contest to be found in literature. It involves Beowulf and fellow countryman Breca. To make the contest more interesting—kind of like The Hunger Games—sea monsters and frigid temperatures are involved. Oh, and the contestants must swim several days in the North Sea holding swords and wearing armor. Here’s Beowulf’s account:

[W]hen the going was heavy in those high waves,”
I was the strongest swimmer of all.
We’d been children together and we grew up
daring ourselves to outdo each other,
boasting and urging each other to risk
our lives on the sea. And so it turned out.
Each of us swam holding a sword,
a naked, hard-proofed blade for protection
against the whale-beasts. But Breca could never
move out farther or faster from me
than I could manage to move from him.
Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on
for five nights, until the long flow
and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold,
night falling and winds from the north
drove us apart. The deep boiled up
and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild.
My armor helped me to hold out;
my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked,
a fine, close-fitting filigree of gold,
kept me safe when some ocean creature
pulled me to the bottom. Pinioned fast
and swathed in its grip, I was granted one
final chance: my sword plunged
and the ordeal was over. Through my own hands,
the fury of battle had finished off the sea-beast.
             Time and again, foul things attacked me,
lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
gave as good as I got with my sword.
My flesh was not for feasting on,
there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating
over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.
Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping
the sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated
like the ocean’s leavings. From now on
sailors would be safe, the deep-sea raids
were over for good. Light came from the east,
bright guarantee of God, and the waves
went quiet; I could see headlands
and buffeted cliffs. Often, for undaunted courage,
fate spares the man it has not already marked.
However it occurred, my sword had killed
nine sea-monsters. Such night dangers
and hard ordeals I have never heard of
nor of a man more desolate in surging waves.
But worn out as I was, I survived,
came through with my life. The Ocean lifted
and laid me ashore, I landed save on the coast of Finland.

I like to think of Beowulf and Breca here as Phelps and Ryan Lochte, each finding it difficult to “move out farther or faster from me than I could manage to move from him.” Beowulf’s carefully crafted armor sounds as intricate, and as expensive, as the whole-body polyurethane swim suits used in the Beijing Olympics (but banned in this one). The monsters, however, will have to be mental—although I notice there is an ad that has Lochte (I think it’s Lochte) swimming across the Atlantic to the London Olympics. So someone else uses ocean images to capture the strength and endurance it takes to participate in high class swimming contests.

Maybe the sea monsters are competitive doubts that have to be overcome or the deep psychological resistance to the insane number of practice hours. Certainly the swimmers at the end of a race feel as desolate and exhausted as Beowulf when he is lifted up by the ocean and deposited on the shore.

The poem even gives us a hostile spectator, Unferth, who attacks Beowulf for (1) having engaged in a foolhardy race in the first place and (2) for having lost said race:

It was sheer vanity made you venture out
on the main deep. And no matter who tried,
friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you,
Neither would back down: the sea-test obsessed you.
You waded in, embracing water
taking its measure, mastering currents,
riding on the swell. The ocean swayed
winter went wild in the waves, but you vied
for seven nights; and then he outswam you,
came ashore the stronger contender. . .

So Breca made good
his boast upon you and was proved right.

Beowulf’s counter response is like an early instance of two guys in a sports bar arguing over what really happened. As Beowulf notes,

Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say
about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer
that was doing the talking. 

The reason Unferth baits Beowulf is because he regards him as a young upstart who is stealing the limelight from himself. Unferth is also upset because Beowulf is willing to take on Grendel, which Unferth is afraid to do. In the next scene we are entertained with an epic wrestling match.

Beowulf as a champion swimmer and a champion wrestler? Sounds like Geatland would have a respectable medal count.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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