There is much to be learned about our past by studying the stories we have told ourselves over the years, the omnipresence of agriculture or textile manufacture, the power dynamics of royalty and inheritance, but sometimes it is interesting to look at the things that are almost totally absent. Swimming for instance.
Nowadays we are quite used to the idea of swimming and water safety being taught to everyone at a fairly young age, toddlers who can barely walk splashing around with floatation devices in the gradually yellowing waters of the shallow pool. Just as well too, although the UK statistics for accidental drowning have been falling steadily and fairly dramatically since 1985, it is still the worldwide bronze medal winner for unintentional human fatality. The ubiquity of at least some aquatic ability is, however, a new thing.
In folktale it is extremely rare for anyone to swim for any reason. Entering water voluntarily is almost unheard of. Witches famously won’t even attempt to cross running water, possibly very wisely since giants, thieves and villains of all stripes are enticed or forced in to water in any number of denouements, breathing their last on the ocean floor or at the bottom of a well. Protagonists have less to fear from H2O, nevertheless rivers, moats and lakes are all crossed by the aid of boats, bridges, fords, swans, fish or wading. An occasional lucky Jack will survive a shipwreck but not by swimming; they grasp a barrel or spa and hang on until they are washed up on some far shore. This is historically pretty accurate: Hardly anyone learned to swim before the 1900s, not even sailors who considered it irrelevant at best and bad luck at worst.
Maritime superstition aside, the ability to swim is, to the medieval mind, an extraordinary skill. Only a limited number of legendary characters with bloodlines traceable to a deity actually choose to come on in, and the water is rarely lovely. The Anglo Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, devotes several pages to the re-telling at a feast, of a swimming match between the eponymous hero and a childhood friend. For some reason it is held at night and in the face of a storm. The thrashing waves separate the two competitors, sharks or sea monsters attack Beowulf and drag him to the bottom where he dispatches all nine of them with the sword he is carrying for exactly that purpose, the brief delay costs him the race but Beowulf considers his feat to be greater.
This episode pre-figures the climax of part one, where Grendel’s terrible mother, after trashing Hrothgar’s famous feasting hall and several of his best warriors, takes sanctuary in a heathland lake. All present are about to give up the chase: how can they possibly pursue her in the water? However Beowulf, wearing full armour of course, dives in and swims down for a day or so until he finds and destroys the monstrous family. No other warrior had the skills to carry out the rescue of Heorot from the demons that plagued it: no warrior save Beowulf!
Swimming is in effect presented as a super power, almost akin to flying, but if anything more unusual.