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"Beowulf replies haughtily to Hunferth" (1910) by John Henry F. Bacon

In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, Unferth or Hunferth is a thegn of the Danish lord Hrothgar. 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.


Unferth's name can be understood in a number of ways. A common reading, by Morton W. Bloomfield[1] among others, is to see it as un + frith, "mar peace": similarly, J. R. R. Tolkien considered the name to mean Unpeace/Quarrel, or perhaps 'Unfriend'.[2] Another reading, by Fred C. Robinson[3] 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 exclusively as hun in the sole 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.[4]

Appearances in Beowulf[edit]

Unferth appears a total of five times in Beowulf.

Challenge of Beowulf (lines 499-558)[edit]

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 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.

Change of heart (lines 980-984)[edit]

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.

The King's spokesman (lines 1165-1168)[edit]

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."

At the mere (lines 1455-1472)[edit]

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.

Parting (lines 1807-1812)[edit]

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.

Analysis of Unferth in Beowulf[edit]

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."[5] Etymologically, thul comes from the same root as the verb thula (= to speak).[6] Thula also translates as "a song", like in the Edda poem Rígsþula ("Rig's song").[7] In Hávamál, Odin himself is called "the great thul".[8]

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.[9] 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.”[10]

Unferth as Social Taunter[edit]

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.”[11] 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.

Modern influence[edit]

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 in film[edit]

In the 1981 animated film Grendel Grendel Grendel, Unferth (voiced by Ric Stone) captures Hrothgar in a bear pit, and blackmails him into making him his heir. Tension however arises from the two when Unferth falls in love with Wealhtheow and Hrothgar shows no sign of intending to keep his promise. Unferth begins to plot against the king with the court minstrel, but is murdered on Hrothgar's orders by Beowulf.

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 suggests to Hrothgar that they should also pray to "the new Roman God, Christ Jesus" after Grendel attacks Heorot at the beginning of the film). 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 in 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. Cain takes the role of the slave who upsets the dragon in the original story.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, University of Notre Dame Press, 1963, pp. 155-164.
  2. ^ C. Tolkien ed, J. R. R. Tolkien: Beowulf (2015) p. 209 and p. 386
  3. ^ Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope, University of Toronto Press, 1974, pp.127-31.
  4. ^ Fulk , R. D. "Unferth and His Name." Modern Philology, Vol. 85, No. 2. (Nov., 1987), pp. 113-127.
  5. ^ [1][dead link]
  6. ^ "Ase-folkets vandring - 19. Jólablót - juleceremonien". Historie.syd-fyn.dk. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  7. ^ "Norrřn Mytologi". Lind.no. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  8. ^ "de beste bron van informatie over normanni i. Deze website is te koop!". normannii.org. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  9. ^ Sisam, Kenneth. The Structure of Beowulf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19651, p. 41.).
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ http://connection.ebscohost.com/content/article/1021972859.html;jsessionid=D52C179C4A118D8DEB57ED76955FCEEB.ehctc1[dead link]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bjork, Robert E. "Unferth in the Hermeneutic Circle: A Reappraisal of James L. Rosier's 'Design for Treachery: The Unferth Intrigue'." Papers on Language and Literature 16 (1980): 133-41.
  • Bjork, Robert E. "Digressions and Episodes." In A Beowulf Handbook, ed. by idem and John Niles. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. 193-212: 205-8.
  • Boenig, Robert. "Very Sharp/Unsharp, Unpeace/Firm Peace: Morphemic Ambiguity in Beowulf." Neophilologus 76:2 (1992 April): 275-82.
  • Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Oxford, 1965. 17-24.
  • Bonjour, Adrien. "Unferth: A Return to Orthodoxy." In idem, Twelve Beowulf Papers, 1940-1960. Neuchâtel, 1962. 129-33.
  • Church, A.P. "Beowulf's ane ben and the Rhetorical Context of the 'Hunferþ Episode'." Rhetorica 18 (2000): 49-78.
  • Clover, Carol J. "The Germanic Context of the Unferþ Episode." Speculum 55 (1980): 444-68.
  • Einarsson, S. "Old English Beot and Old Icelandic Heitstrenging." PMLA 39.4 (1934): 975-93.
  • Eliason, Norman E. "The Þyle and Scop in Beowulf." Speculum 38.2 (1963 April): 267-84.
  • Enright, Michael J. "The Warband Context of the Unferth Episode." Speculum 73.2 (1998): 297-337.
  • Fulk, Robert D. "Unferth and His Name." Modern Philology 85 (1987): 113-27.
  • Hardy, Adelaide. "The Christian Hero Beowulf and Unferð Þyle." Neophilologus 53.1 (1969 January): 55-69.
  • Hollowell, Ida Masters. "Unferð the þyle in Beowulf." Studies in Philology 73 (1976): 239-65.
  • Hughes, Geoffrey. "Beowulf, Unferth and Hrunting: An Interpretation." English Studies 58 (1977): 385-95.
  • Kabell, Aage. "Unferð und die danischen Biersitten." Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi 94 (1979): 31-41.
  • Martin-Clarke, D.E. "The Office of Thyle in Beowulf." The Review of English Studies 12.45 (1936 January): 61-6.
  • Nagy, Michael S. "A Reassessment of Unferth’s Fratricide in Beowulf." Proceedings of the Medieval Association of the Midwest 3 (1996): 15–30.
  • Ogilvy, J.D.A. "Unferth. Foil to Beowulf?" PMLA 79.4 (1964 September): 370-5.
  • Pope, John C. "Beowulf 505, 'gehedde,' and the Pretensions of Unferth." In Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature: Essays in Honour of Stanley B. Greenfield, ed. Phyllis R. Brown, Georgia R. Crampton and Fred C. Robinson. Toronto, 1986. 173-87.
  • Rich, Carroll Y. "Unferth and Cain's Envy." South Central Bulletin 33 (1973): 211-3.
  • Roberts, Jane. "Old English un- 'very' and Unferth." English Studies 61 (1980): 289-92.
  • Robinson, Fred C. Tomb of Beowulf and Other Essays on Old English. Cambridge, 1993. 20-35 ("Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence"), 219-23 ("Personal Names in Medieval Narrative and the Name of Unferth in Beowulf").
  • Rosier, James L. "Design for Treachery: The Unferth Intrigue." PMLA 77.1 (1962 March): 1-7.
  • Silber, Patricia. "Rhetoric as Prowess in the Unferð Episode." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23 (1981): 471-83.
  • Sisam, Kenneth. The Structure of Beowulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.
  • Vaughan, M.F. "A Reconsideration of Unferth." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 77 (1976): 32-48.

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