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Unferth Character Analysis

One of Hrothgar’s men, Unferth is a strong, proud hero. When he attempts to fight Grendel, though, he is humiliated. Grendel mocks his ideas of heroism and refuses to allow Unferth to die a heroic death. Grendel’s toying with Unferth reveals that a hero needs a cooperating monster in order to be heroic. By refusing to play the part of the monster for Unferth, Grendel denies him his heroic identity and robs Unferth’s life of purpose.

Unferth Quotes in Grendel

The Grendel quotes below are all either spoken by Unferth or refer to Unferth. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Grendel published in 1989.
Chapter 6 Quotes

“It will be sung,” he whispered, then paused again to get wind. “It will be sung year on year and age on age that Unferth went down through the burning lake—” he paused to pant “—and gave his life in battle with the world-rim monster.” He let his cheek fall to the floor and lay panting for a long time, saying nothing. It dawned on me that he was waiting for me to kill him. I did nothing. I sat down and put my elbows on my knees and my chin on my fists and merely watched.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Unferth (speaker)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Unferth is a self-described hero who lives in the village. He tries to hunt down Grendel and kill him, claiming that his acts of bravery will be remembered forever. In short, Unferth is heroism incarnate. Unferth genuinely believes in the myths that the Shaper sings: he genuinely believes that it's worthwhile to sacrifice one's life for the greater goods of combat, courage, and being immortalized in art.

As we can imagine, Grendel is very irritated with Unferth--he needs to take Unferth down a couple notches and show him that heroism is just a sham. Grendel is tempted to kill Unferth, but of course, doing so would only allow Unferth to win in the long run: Unferth would be celebrated forever for his noble sacrifice (and, based on this passage, clearly wants precisely this to happen). Instead, Grendel decides to spare Unferth's life, successfully disillusioning Unferth to the silliness and arbitrariness of heroism and any kind of artistic immortality.


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Unferth Character Timeline in Grendel

The timeline below shows where the character Unferth appears in Grendel. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 6
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Then, a man named Unferth appeared. Grendel calls Unferth his salvation. Taller than the other men, Unferth took on Grendel... (full context)
Heroism Theme Icon
Grendel returned to his cave. Three nights later, Unferth arrived, having followed him. Grendel woke up startled, stopped his mother from going to Unferth,... (full context)
Heroism Theme Icon
Frustrated, Unferth told Grendel that he was wrong about heroism, that it really did exist and that... (full context)
Heroism Theme Icon
Unferth fell asleep and Grendel carried him back home, leaving him at the meadhall door. Grendel... (full context)
Chapter 7
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
...the Shaper. She softened tempers and mediated arguments, her beauty resolving men’s disputes. She calmed Unferth when other men teased him about having killed his own brother. (full context)
Chapter 9
Nature and Time Theme Icon
All the men but Unferth are asleep. As Grendel doesn’t usually raid in the winter, he heads back to his... (full context)
Chapter 11
Heroism Theme Icon
Unferth rises and asks Beowulf if he is the one who supposedly swam for seven nights... (full context)