Unferth’s challenge to Beowulf’s honor differentiates him from Beowulf and helps to reveal some of the subtleties of the heroic code that the warriors must follow. Unferth is presented as a lesser man, a foil for the near-perfect Beowulf. (A foil is a character whose traits contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character.) The bitterness of Unferth’s chiding of Beowulf about his swimming match with Breca clearly reflects his jealousy of the attention that Beowulf receives. It probably also stems from his shame at being unable to protect Heorot himself—he is clearly not the sort of great warrior whom legend will remember. While boasting is a proper and acceptable form of self-assertion, Unferth’s harsh words show that it ought not to be bitter or disparaging of others. Rather than heroism, Unferth’s blustering reveals pride and resentment. Later, Unferth’s gift of his sword for Beowulf’s fight against Grendel’s mother heals Unferth’s breach of hospitality, but it does little to improve his heroic status. Unlike Beowulf, Unferth is clearly afraid to fight the monster himself.
More characters from Beowulf
A Dane, the son of Ecglaf, and a follower of Hrothgar. Unferth is presented as contrast to Beowulf, providing a glimpse of a poor warrior in contrast to Beowulf's good warrior. Unferth is boastful, just as Beowulf is, but unlike Beowulf Unferth lacks the moral courage to back up his boasts (and unlike Beowulf Unferth never does anything to stand against Grendel). Further, Unferth appears to be jealous of Beowulf and never responds to Beowulf's taunt that Unferth once killed his own brother, which could signal either Unferth's incompetence or some sort of moral failing. Unferth does become more generous after Beowulf defeats Grendel, and lends Beowulf his family sword to fight Grendel's mother.
Unferth Character Timeline in Beowulf
The timeline below shows where the character Unferth appears in Beowulf. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Beowulf, completely without fear of death, puts on his armor and grasps his weapons. Unferth lends Beowulf Hrunting, a sword that has never failed and has been passed down in... (full context)
In the morning Beowulf returns the sword Hrunting to Unferth, and thanks him for the loan even though the sword failed. (full context)
Florman, Ben. "Beowulf Characters: Unferth." LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 22 Jul 2013. Web. 13 Mar 2018.
Florman, Ben. "Beowulf Characters: Unferth." LitCharts LLC, July 22, 2013. Retrieved March 13, 2018. http://www.litcharts.com/lit/beowulf/characters/unferth.