Unferth's Challenge in Beowulf

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  • 0:01 The Epic Poem
  • 0:35 Who Is Beowulf?
  • 1:53 Unferth As a Foil
  • 2:26 Unferth's Challenge
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Beowulf embodies the characteristics of the perfect hero. He is brave, strong and intelligent. That kind of perfection can lead to jealousy in some. Read about Unferth's challenge to Beowulf and how not everyone loves a hero.

The Epic Poem

Beowulf is widely considered one of the greatest epic poems ever written. No one knows for sure who wrote the masterpiece. There's a chance it was written by one author, but most likely it was compiled from a collection of short stories. We do know that it was probably first written down by an Anglo-Saxon poet between the 8th and 11th centuries. The poem is considered the oldest major work of English Literature. It is made up of 3,182 alliterative lines and takes place in Scandinavia.

Who is Beowulf?

According to the story, Hroogar the king of the Danes built Heorot Hall, a place for his people to gather and enjoy. However, the hall was invaded by a troll-like monster named Grendel, who killed many of the Danish warriors in their sleep. The people became petrified of Grendel, so they abandoned Heorot.

A legendary warrior named Beowulf hears of the attacks and travels a great distance to help Hroogar fight the monster. Of course, Beowulf is not only a strong and brave warrior, but he's also fair. So he determines that he should fight the beast without his sword because the weapon would give him an unfair advantage. Needless to say, Beowulf and Grendel engage in an epic battle. It ends with the great warrior ripping Grendel's arm off his body using only his bare hands.

And that is just the first battle. Beowulf goes on to fight Grendel's overprotective mother. After he defeats her, the warrior returns home to Geatland and soon becomes king, where his reign spans over fifty years. One day, Beowulf finds himself in a fight with a dragon, a beast so fierce that every warrior flees from its presence except the king and one other man. Beowulf is able to slay the dragon but is mortally wounded in the process.

Unferth As a Foil

It can be said that Beowulf exemplifies the traits of a near perfect hero. Oftentimes, storytellers will add a foil into the mix of characters. A foil is a secondary character whose traits contrast those of another character in order to highlight distinctive characteristics. So where Beowulf is brave and honorable, his foil Unferth is cowardly and dishonorable.

Unferth is a warrior for the Danes. However, he has not been able to defeat Grendel, which is why Beowulf had to come save them in first place. Also, Unferth is known for killing his brothers.

Unferth's Challenge

When Beowulf arrives at Heorot Hall to help the Danes, there is a celebration in the warrior's honor, and the men talk of Beowulf's heroic feats. But not everyone is happy to see him. In fact, Unferth is jealous of Beowulf's celebrated reputation and probably a little embarrassed that he can't defeat Grendel himself. So in order to knock Beowulf down a peg, he begins to tell a story for everyone to hear that challenges the honor of the future king.

According to Unferth's accounts, Beowulf once lost a swimming contest with a man named Breca. Unferth figures that if Beowulf could not beat Breca, then he will never be strong enough to defeat Grendel.

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