Although Unferth does not appear in much of the poem, his role in the poem is pivotal because he is established as a foil to Beowulf. Unferth, a dishonorable man, challenges Beowulf’s honor. This challenge is a particular affront because Unferth has killed his own brothers. Unferth’s challenge of Beowulf seems to stem largely from jealousy of the attention and accolades that Beowulf receives from the king. He believes that Beowulf is receiving too many accolades and will not be able to defeat the monster. However, Unferth’s criticism seems questionable as soon as he speaks it, because he is still alive, indicating immediately to the reader that has not attempted to kill Grendel because the monster has defeated all opposition.
Unferth’s statements help highlight some elements of the heroic code. It was considered appropriate for Beowulf to boast about his accomplishments; not only were there were no prohibitions against boasting, but it was even viewed as a way to help establish a reputation. However, there were social norms dictating that disparaging others, even in the guise of boasting, was considered inappropriate. When Unferth transitions from boasting to challenging Beowulf, he is engaging in socially inappropriate behavior. That Unferth’s challenges prove unfounded is even greater evidence of his failure to comply with social norms.
While Unferth demonstrates that he is an unlikable character, it is critical to realize that, like many of the other characters in the poem, he is more complex than he initially appears to be. Unferth does not want Beowulf to fail; instead, it appears that Unferth is so frightened and intimidated by Grendel that he does not believe that Beowulf will be successful. He does not sabotage Beowulf’s efforts against Grendel in any way. On the contrary, when Beowulf has his confrontation with Grendel’s mother, Unferth actually gives him a sword to use. This does not transform Unferth into a hero; he is consistently too afraid to try to fight the monsters himself in the story. However, it does...
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