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 didn’t. The only change in Unferth from Beowulf to Grendel is his realistic characterization in Grendel.
After the drunken Danes give Beowulf his warm welcome, Unferth unleashes his anger in an attack on Beowulf. This petty proclamation which points out Beowulf’s 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 Unferth’s 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 god’s 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 Grendel’s siege, the smell of apples fresh in the air, Unferth tries to be the Grendel’s 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 beast’s mercy for twelve years only to have Beowulf disembowel Grendel in one night.
On the beach as Beowulf is about detach mama’s 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 Unferth’s last attempt at contributing to his beloved Herot. If he can’t 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 Grendel’s Unferth and Beowulf’s 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 in Grendel.