This short passage is uttered by Beowulf in response to some remarks made by Unferth about Beowulf’s supposedly inferior status as a warrior. Beowulf starts with a criticism of Unferth and Breca, claiming that they were no great swordsmen and that they killed their own kith and kin (585-6). At the same time, Beowulf acknowledges Unferth’s “cleverness and quick tongue” but turns this into a negative by showing that Unferth’s deeds do not match up to the high opinion that he has of himself. The main meaning of the text is to show how Beowulf responds to Unferth’s taunts with counter-accusations and a claim to be a better warrior than any of the local members of Hrothgar’s entourage.
This passage is important because it reveals the true character of Beowulf, who turns out to be every bit as clever and eloquent as Unferth. Unlike Unferth, however, he embodies the virtues of a true warrior, who would never kill his own lord or family, but who stands up for those who are dear to him. Beowulf’s words are a condemnation of the weakness of the local warriors and an expression of determination to show how much better the Geats are in battle.
This passage marks a significant moment of departure for the story. Beowulf publicly sets himself the goal of a battle with Grendel, which he expects to win when he speaks the words “I will show him how Geats shape to kill in the heat of battle” (line 603). This battle will end the devastation that Grendel has brought to Hrothgar’s court, and it will demonstrate also Beowulf’s loyalty to Hrothgar, and his prowess as a warrior. At this point in the story, Beowulf wins the battle of words with Unferth, but later he will win also the actual fight with Grendel and establish himself without doubt as a greater warrior than all those who listen to him.