John Gardner introduces the reader of Grendel
to an intimate side of Unferth unseen in the epic poem Beowulf. In Grendel
we behold what a pathetic, sniveling wimp Unferth has become. In Beowulf
all that we see is a jealous bastard. Why did Gardner make the character
of Unferth so different from the original depiction? He didnt. The only
change in Unferth from Beowulf to Grendel is his realistic characterization
After the drunken Danes give Beowulf his
warm welcome, Unferth unleashes his anger in an attack on Beowulf. This
petty proclamation which points out Beowulfs not- so triumphant swimming
contest with Brecca, shows the reader (or listener) that Unferth is nothing
more than a spineless bastard. In Grendel we find that Unferths bitterness
is well founded. John Gardner shows Unferth as the most pathetic man to
ever call himself a hero. Unferth is degraded once in the apple battle
(he was beat by flying fruit for gods sake!!!) and then again in the cave.
In the cave Unferth begs Grendel to take his life but Grendel gives him
fate worse than death. Grendel leaves him alive and impotent. Unferth knows
that he cannot kill Grendel yet he cannot be a martyr to Herot either.
All during the first year of Grendels
siege, the smell of apples fresh in the air, Unferth tries to be the Grendels
martyr. Oh the heroic Unferth who died trying to save the people of Herot.
Unfortunately he never got to die, not even dressed up as a goat, a pig
or an elderly women. This continuing life of impotence lead Unferth to
an immense sense of bitterness. Poor Unferth to be at a beasts mercy for
twelve years only to have Beowulf disembowel Grendel in one night.
On the beach as Beowulf is about detach
mamas head from her body, Unferth gives Beowulf his sword in a touching
moment of peace between Beowulf and Unferth.
Well that is not quite right. This touching
moment is Unferths last attempt at contributing to his beloved Herot.
If he cant kill the beast at least his sword can. Unferth is reaching
for martyrdom. Unferth never redeems himself as a hero no matter how unselfish
or heroic he was as he handed over his beloved sword. Unferth would never
be a hero again. His one chance of “inner heroism” was gone when Grendel
refused take his life in the cave.
Unferth is the same man in both novels,
there is no doubt about that. The strands of similarity are to thick to
ignore. He is dying to be a martyr in both Grendel and Beowulf. The only
difference between Grendels Unferth and Beowulfs Unferth is the detail
and depth to which his character is taken. John Gardner brought a relatively
small character from Beowulf , and made him the second most defined character