AMONG the number of youths who were in thrall to Hygelac was Beowulf, his nephew. Like so many great heroes of old, Beowulf was the son of his king’s sister. As a small boy, Beowulf had shown such strength of body that Hygelac had early named him one of his thanes. So his mother and father gave him up, and young Beowulf went to live with his uncle, to learn the arts of war and the handling of ships.
For several years he led a lonely life, for so great was the strength of his limbs that even among those men of vast vigor he was a youth to be marveled at. As the years slipped by and he grew to manhood, he became more and more sullen in his strength, and his companions dubbed him “The Silent.” His movements were clumsy. He tripped over his sword. He broke whatever he touched. The other youths laughed at him for his awkwardness, but in secret they envied the immense spread of his shoulders and the terrible swiftness of his stride when he hunted in the forests.
When he was sixteen years of age, Beowulf was challenged by one of his companions, Breca by name, to a swimming race in the sea. He accepted the challenge because he had been called lazy, and in his heart he was angry that his strength had never truly been tried.
For five days and five nights he and Breca fought the waves of the sea, until Beowulf reached shore victorious. Later, when he was accused of cowardice in this race, he told the true story of those black nights in the water, and what he related then was to go down in song as a famous legend.
From “The Story of Beowulf”