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Unferth is brought onto the stage and introduced as a self-important toady who can’t stand the greatness of others.
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“Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf*
he who sat at the foot of the Scylding lord,
unbound battle words**, that venture of Beowulf’s,
the courageous sea-farer, a great grudge***,
for he would not allow that any other man
over all the earth and under heaven
could ever achieve fame to match his own:****”
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*”Ecglaf” – “sword-leaving/Sword-heirloom” Hm. So he’s a child of war? Or is this a ref to penis?
**onband beadu-rune: unbound his ‘secret of a quarrel’ [HALL, MERRIT]//battle words/hostile words [CL WRENN] = unbound + war/battle/fighting/strife + mystery/secrecy/secret/counsel,consultation;council;runic character, letter;writing – Is this meant to be a foil to beowulf’s “unlocked his word hoard”? Hm…
***interweaving structure starts up here. This clause refers back to the battle words.
****Gets really, really tangled in terms of regular ModE syntax here. A literal translation is
“|that any other man//ever fame compared to greater|in earth//care for under heaven| than he himself:”
-Unferth introduced as one who sits at the feet of Hrothgar, a close councilor, a coward who is close to Hrothgar to avoid fighting. Does this relate to his father’s name? Is my impression of him as wormtongue because he could be the template for wormtongue or because I encountered wormtongue first? Hm…little help, Tolkien?
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Unferth’s first impression – a success?
Beowulf is not a poem that’s full of characters or character introductions. Many of those that do appear in it are just dropped into place. Wulfgar, Hrothgar’s trusted councillor and herald is a great example of this class of character. Major characters like Hrothgar and Beowulf, on the other hand, get more of an introduction.
And then there’s Unferth.
This guy, whom I’ll forever remember as being well-played by John Malkovich in the mostly terrible Zemeckis Beowulf of 2007, is a character of a third sort.
Unferth occupies a grey middle ground between protagonist and antagonist. In this position he’s able to become a much more interesting character than most of the others in the poem. Yet these seven lines are his introduction, and set the tone for his character going forward.
So what can we say about him?
Being told that he comes from the foot of Hrothgar, tells us that he’s very close to the elder Dane. He’s probably a councillor in a similar capacity to Wulfgar.
However, his breaking into the poem with the line “Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf,” (“Unferð maþelode, Ecglafes bearn” (l.499)) gives the impression that he’s been holding his tongue until this very moment, at which, like a coiled cobra, he strikes into the din of the partying troop.
Nonetheless, he’s saved from being entirely maligned in the reference to his father that the poet adds in for alliterative reasons.
Though what kind of a father a man named “sword heirloom” was is up for debate. Maybe he was the son of some sort of illicit, war-time love affair. Or, maybe more crudely, his name’s a play on simply being a “sword’s leavings.” Either way, it’s not him but his son (whose name in the manuscript is reported as “Hunferth”) that we’re concerned with here.
After the next line in which we’re told that he was sitting at Hrothgar’s foot the poet decides to shuffle the syntax of his line halves around. This means that, as had happened in some of Hrothgar’s dialogue, one line contains two halves that combine with the next line’s opposite halves to create full thoughts.
Making this change in descriptive poetry rather than dialogue, where we’ve mostly seen it before, leaves me with the impression that these lines are made to endure. They’re given extra care in their making, and so are meant to stand as important. Of course, the single phrase “unbound his battle words” (“onband beadu-rune” (l.501)) also marks this as important. For the poet earlier used a similar phrase to set off the first speech of the poem’s hero himself.
As a gamer immersed in the lore of The Legend of Zelda, I can’t help but take this parallel sort of setup as a cue to view Unferth as Shadow Beowulf.
This man is a reflection of Beowulf’s darker side and what he could become were he to use his powers for ill.
The poet doesn’t give much leeway for such an interpretation after this echoing phrase, though, since we’re told in some of the most tangled Old English I’ve ever read, that Unferth can’t stand the thought that anyone is considered more famous than himself.
Nonetheless, Beowulf’s key characteristic up to this point is his optimism. His boasts are claims of great power and the ability to defeat Grendel despite the odds. He willingly faces death with high hopes for glory.
Here, though, we’re shown that Unferth’s outlook is inherently pessimistic since he refuses to acknowledge anything great from outside of himself. To some extent, this portrayal makes him Beowulf’s foil. It also makes him a character that forces Beowulf to reflect on his own goals and aspirations. This gives Beowulf some room to grow spiritually, perhaps something that’s required of him to overcome Grendel.
It’s also got to be said of Unferth that I can’t decide if I view him as a slimy toady sort of character because I first encountered a similar type in Tolkien’s Wormtongue or if I see him as such because Tolkien used him as a template for Wormtongue.
What do you think is more likely? What came first in terms of impressions – the slimy underling Wormtongue or the shady and suspect Unferth?
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Unpacking the battle runes
Carrying on from something mentioned above, let’s take a look at the phrase “onband beadu-rune” (“onband beadu-rune” (l.501)) Starting, of course, with the definitions of each word.
The verb here, “onband,” is quite close to its Modern English equivalent: “unbound.” It could also mean “untie,” “loosen,” “release,” or “disclose.”
The word “beadu” translates as “war,” “battle,” “fighting,” “strife.”
And, finally, the word “rune,” along with its less than helpful translation to the Modern English “rune” could also mean “mystery,” “secrecy,” “secret,” “counsel,” “consultation;” “secret council;” “runic character,” “letter,” or “writing.” Translating it as “words” is kind of a stretch, but it’s one that fits well and makes clear sense of the phrase.
But those first four definitions of the word are tempting. The word “rune” is clearly one that’s quite coloured by things unknown, unseen.
Perhaps it’s the poet’s use of this word rather than something more straightforward like, well, “word” that puts me in mind of Tolkien’s Wormtongue as I read this passage.
The word “rune” is definitely not used for reasons of alliteration, since it’s the only word that starts with “r” in the line. In fact, people who know more about Old English prosody than I could probably argue that “rune” could be substituted for with “word” with only a small change to the quality of the line.
So then why is it there? Why choose the word “rune” if it has these associations with the mysterious rather than a straightforward word?
I think it’s used here because it suggests that Unferth is about to say things that Beowulf would rather have hidden. He is about to challenge Beowulf not with swords but with facts to undercut his boasts.
In a metaphorical sense, this makes Unferth a representation of Beowulf’s doubt.
A hero of so clear a purpose and one-track a mind can’t be clouded by complex internal strife, and so the self-doubt that a normal person would feel in Beowulf’s position is placed in another character all together. Personifying Beowulf’s doubts like this allows him to overcome and disprove them, basically to work through them, in the forum that Heorot provides. It gives Beowulf a chance to speak through the secrets and possibly less-than-heroic facts of his past.
That Unferth would utter such secrets does nothing for his character, though. The idea that he can’t stand the existence or idea of there being people more famous than himself around boldly paints him as a schemer and underhanded coward. He’s a cad who would sooner undercut a boaster than suffer him to try to actually fulfil his boasts.
I think that quality in his character – an apparent desire to impose his own limits on other people – is what gives the lasting impression of Unferth’s villainy. He is made to personify the antithesis of the idea of grasping beyond what you expect is your reach.
As a people interested in treasure and in venturing off to new locales, I think it goes without saying that the Anglo-Saxons prized such a characteristic in people. It’s definitely a strong one in Beowulf and he’s the poem’s hero after all.
So maybe my reaction to Unferth is less learned and more cultural.
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But just what are the secrets that Unferth lets out of the bag? Well, find out in next week’s extract!
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.