In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, Unferth or Hunferth is a thegn of the Danish lord Hroðgar. The name Unferth does not appear in any Old English manuscript outside of the Nowell Codex, which contains Beowulf, and the meaning of the name is disputed. Several scholarly theories about Unferth have been proposed. Unferth is also the name of a character in the modern novel Grendel by John Gardner, based upon the Beowulf epic.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Appearances in Beowulf
- 3 Analysis of Unferth in Beowulf
- 4 Unferth as Social Taunter
- 5 Modern influence
- 6 Unferth in film
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Unferth's name can be understood in a number of ways. A common reading, by Morton W. Bloomfield1 among others, is to see it as un + frith, "mar peace". Another reading, by Fred C. Robinson2 among others, is to see it as un + ferth, "no wit".
Numerous other scholars have suggested that Unferth’s name should not be associated with frið (peace) but with ferhð, which translates as “soul, spirit, mind, and life.” R.D. Fulk writes that it is difficult to assign significance to names in Beowulf because some of the characters involved are historical figures. However, Fulk argues that this can be done in the case of Unferth because the name Un-ferth is not known to appear in history, or in any manuscript other than the Nowell Codex.
The first element of the name, un, appears as hun in the original manuscript of Beowulf. There is some question as to why hun appears when the author means un, and Fred C. Robinson suggests that this h is a Celtic scribal habit which indicates that u has a vocal function by adding an unpronounced graphic h. Fulk argues, however, that this use of the letter h does not appear anywhere else in the Beowulf manuscript.
In Old English, un usually means "not". However, some scholars have argued that it can also mean "very". (cf. German Untiefe, un-depth, which means a place in the water of either very great or very shallow depth.) In Old English, unhar means "very old", and some argue that this use of un could also be attributed to Unferth. Despite the vast amount of research that has gone into the etymology of Unferth’s name, scholars continue to disagree on its true meaning.3
Unferth appears a total of five times in Beowulf.
Unferth first appears at line 499:
Unferð maþelode, Ecglafes bearn,
þe æt fotum sæt frean Scyldinga.
Unferth spoke, Ecglaf's son,
He who sat at the feet of the lord of the Scyldings.
The poet states that Unferth is envious of Beowulf's fame (since Beowulf has offered to defeat the monster Grendel, which Unferth has failed to do).
At line 506, Unferth challenges Beowulf, bringing up the story of Beowulf's swimming-contest with Breca the son of Beanstan. Unferth makes fun of the young Beowulf's foolish decision to have a swimming-contest in the North Sea, ignoring all advice, and declares that he lost. He ends by predicting a bad result if Beowulf dares face Grendel.
Beowulf answers the challenge by boasting that he is the strongest swimmer in the world, and entertains the company with a tall tale about how he swam the North Sea in full armor while carrying a sword, killed nine huge sea-monsters who dragged him to the ocean floor, and still won the swimming-contest, towing the exhausted Breca behind him with one hand.
Beowulf says that he has never heard of anyone else having such a great sea-fight as he had; and then adds particularly that he has never heard such stories told of Unferth, and in fact the story people tell about Unferth is how he killed his brothers. Unferth silently concedes defeat and the feast continues.
After Beowulf kills Grendel, Unferth seems to have a change of heart. When Beowulf hangs up Grendel's torn-off arm at the door of Heorot, the poet says that "no man was more silent than Ecglaf's son", and that he made no more boasting speeches.
At the celebratory feast after the killing of Grendel, the poet repeats that Unferth sat at the feet of the king, and calls him a ðyle (cf. Old Norse: þulr meaning "bard" or "wise man"); translators are divided on the meaning of this word, offering various renderings, among them "spokesman", "counsellor", and "jester." The Rundata project translates ðyle as "reciter" which suggests the title referred to one who was associated with reciting or preserving oral tradition. The poet goes on to say that everyone knows of Unferth's courage and fealty, "though he did not show mercy to his kin in sword-play."
When Grendel's mother attacks the hall, the Danes and Geats pursue her to the mere where she lives. As Beowulf arms himself to enter the mere, Unferth lends him his sword, Hrunting. Unferth is here referred to as a ðyle for the second and last time. The poet says that Unferth "did not bear in mind" his earlier challenging insults that he had spoken "when drunken", but acknowledged that Beowulf was "the better sword-fighter." The poet adds that Unferth "did not dare" to dive into the mere to attack Grendel's mother, and thus "his fame was lessened."
Beowulf is grateful for the loan, however, and at line 1488 he tells King Hroðgar that if he, Beowulf, does not return from the mere, then his own sword should be given to Unferth.
The morning after the celebratory feast on the occasion of Beowulf killing Grendel's mother, Beowulf and his people prepare to return to their home. Beowulf returns the sword Hrunting to Unferth, praising the weapon and its owner: he has "no ill word" for the sword (although it had not helped him against Grendel's mother), and he thanks Unferth for the loan. This is Unferth's last appearance in the poem.
Unferth's presence in the poem has been a point of much scholarly debate. He is called a thyle, a term related to Old Norse thul, as in the inscription on the Danish Snoldelev Stone, a runestone from Snoldelev, where it is translated as "reciter."4 Etymologically, thul comes from the same root as the verb thula (= to speak).5 Thula also translates as "a song", like in the Edda poem Rigsthula (= Rig's song).6 In Havamal, Odin himself is called "the great thul".7
He only speaks once – an insult aimed at Beowulf – is described as intelligent, a murderer, and is responsible for lending Beowulf his legendary, yet ill-fated sword, Hrunting. Kenneth Sisam, in his book The Structure of Beowulf, argues that readers would be advised not to speculate beyond these basic facts as laid out by the poet.8 Another thought comes from Professor Carroll Rich, who notes that the biblical tale of Cain and Abel is deeply woven into the poem, and as Unferth is a character who is notorious for slaying his own brother, a parallel might exist. He observes that “the depiction of Unferth as an envious fratricide makes clear the threat he poses to Beowulf and to a society dependent upon mutual trust.”9
The social taunter has many roles, as has been stated by Thalia Phillies Feldman in her article, "The Taunter in Ancient Epic: The Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, and Beowulf.”10 In a society of kings and warriors, the social taunter acts as the spokesman of the court, revealer of truths, means of social control, and provocateur. Unferth performs these functions, thus fulfilling the role of social taunter. He is able to do so mainly because of his characteristic fast tongue, unabashed speech and wit. The taunter, as opposed to a satirist, is able to make personal attacks on specific characters. He reveals a character’s flaws and failures that other court members may not be aware of, or are too afraid to point out. Unferth does this as he questions the events that took place during the swimming contest. Because of Unferth’s taunt, Beowulf has no choice (in fact it is part of his duty to defend his honour) but to correct Unferth’s version of the story and to rectify himself once again. Unferth’s taunt spurs Beowulf into action and reignites Hrothgar’s and the people’s faith in him. Their exchange also provides dramatic tension between the hero’s arrival and the fight with Grendel.
Unferth is also the anti-hero of John Gardner's novel, Grendel. Portrayed as a boastful but weak-willed warrior, Unferth is mocked by Grendel for false piety, hypocrisy, and failing to live up to the ideals of the heroic culture that Unferth claims to embrace. Late in the novel, Unferth is mocked publicly by Beowulf. In Gardner's adaptation of lines 580-607 of the epic, Beowulf responds to Unferth's verbal attacks by reminding all present that no one sings of Unferth's courage, and that Unferth is best known in the northern lands for having murdered his brothers. Beowulf concludes by telling Unferth and assembled guests that Unferth "will prowl the stalagmites of hell" for his crime (Gardner 162). Gardner's novel concludes with Grendel's death.
Unferth's role is expanded on in the 2007 animated film where he is played by John Malkovich. In this film he is shown to be the king's advisor and openly hostile but also learned in the ways of Christianity (he suggest to Hrothgar that they should also pray to "the new Roman God, Christ Jesus" after Grendel attacks Heorot at the beginning of the film). Unferth taunts Beowulf about his swimming race with Brecca, but in return is taunted about a shameful rumor that Unferth killed his brothers for sleeping with his mother. He is again humbled after Beowulf defeats Grendel.
Deviating from the poem, Unferth's sword melts when Beowulf is seduced by Grendel's mother, forcing Beowulf to concoct a lie about having to leave his sword buried in Grendel's mother's corpse or else she would come back from the dead. Unferth also remains a part of the story until the final act. His family is killed in an attack by the dragon, which then has Unferth deliver a message to Beowulf - "the sins of the fathers" - revealing that the dragon is the son of Beowulf and Grendel's mother.
In the film Unferth has a servant named Cain which he continually abuses for the slightest mistake (such as spilling mead). Cain takes the role of the slave who upsets the dragon in the original story although the altered story causes a slight change. Instead of a goblet stolen from the dragon's lair, Cain finds the Golden Dragon Horn - an item awarded to Beowulf by Hrothgar which the former trades with Grendel's mother along with a son to appease her and keep him in power. Unferth therefore takes the role of the cruel master from whom the slave in the original poem was trying to escape.
- An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, University of Notre Dame Press, 1963, pp. 155-164.
- Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope, University of Toronto Press, 1974, pp.127-31.
- Fulk , R. D. "Unferth and His Name." Modern Philology, Vol. 85, No. 2. (Nov., 1987), pp. 113-127.
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- Sisam, Kenneth. The Structure of Beowulf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19651, p. 41.).
- Rich, Carroll Y. "Unferth and Cain's Envy." The South Central Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 4, Studies by Members of SCMLA. (Winter, 1973), pp. 211-213.
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