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.”
And Unferth folded his hairy arms over his silver breastplate and glared at Beowulf in rage and hatred. For it must be remembered that this same Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, had never undertaken to fight for Hrothgar the king, against the fiend Grendel, and he was wroth with all those who had done so in his stead. Many words of advice had he offered, to be sure, concerning this attack, but never once the strength of his black arms.
Now Beowulf rose in anger, also, and faced the dark brooding Unferth, but he had his anger and his tongue in better control than his adversary, because he knew the words spoken against him to be false, and he replied softly, but in a clear voice, to the accusations against him.
“It is true,” he began, “that I was called Sluggard when I was a boy, but I have killed my dragons with the best of my companions, and no one has ever called me coward. What have you done, O Black Unferth, against the arch-demon Grendel?”
Unferth made no answer, and sulked shamefully in his seat, his face averted from the gleaming Beowulf who stood so tall above him.
“And as for Breca,” Beowulf went on, “that man and I swam a great race, and all know that during it I battled against vast odds, and came out victor. We plunged into the sea, the Bronding and I, and we were in full battle array, and carried swords in our hands to ward off the dangers of the deep. And for five days and nights we fought the sea-demons and the winds and the waves. Until finally I was cast ashore in some place far from home and I was forced to make my way back on foot, and alone. All Geatsland can swear to my valor, O son of Ecglaf, and no one until to-night has ever dared call me coward. I charge you, Unferth, to take back those foul words. It is not honorable that I should come to Daneland with my lords, in all friendliness offering to render service to your country and to your king, and be called a coward!”
From both Danes and Geats a murmur of approval went up for these noble words, and Hrothgar the king stood up in his place and spoke for the discomfited Unferth.
“All have heard,” he said, “the temperate words of Beowulf, and they are the words of a hero. Beowulf will, I know, forgive us if one among us has spoken unwisely, for in our hearts there has been sorrow these twelve long years, and sorrow long continued oft wears down the spirit and makes the tongue bitter with reproaches that we do not truly feel.
“Come now, my queen,” he said to Wealhtheow, “pass the great cup among the lords of Geatsland, and give Beowulf first to drink. This is no time for foolish quarrels, and I enjoin you all to be of one mind and grateful to these young and noble men who have braved the wind and the waves to come to us in a time of need.”
With these words, Hrothgar lifted to his lips the jeweled cup that Wealhtheow brought him, and then his lady took it again from his hands, and went down from the king’s high table and came near to Beowulf.
He took the cup from her and drank deep from its golden depths, and then Wealhtheow went from one to another of the Geatish earls, and each drank in his turn to the glory of Hrothgar and his queen, and to the destruction of Grendel.
After this exchange, the banqueting was resumed with a good will, and many were the speeches made by the Danes praising the land of the Geats, and the earls of Hygelac were loud in their praise of the noble and venerable Hrothgar and his lady, Wealhtheow the Beautiful.
Then the king rose and gave the signal for their withdrawal. Taking his queen by the hand, to lead her from the hall, he turned to his retainers and said:
“It is time, now, that we hasten to our bowers. Come, my friends, let us away from here, that Beowulf and his earls may rest after their travel. And the gods grant that Grendel come not this night to trouble their sleep.”
Then summoning Aescher and Unferth to his side, and with his hand upon his queen’s wrist, Hrothgar departed from Heorot and left Beowulf and his companions to whatever fate might await them in the darkness of the deep night.
From “The Story of Beowulf”