Anti-Heroes in Beowulf
In the famous masterpiece Beowulf both characters Grendel and Unferth have almost the same roles of anti-heroes; by this technique the author sort of establishes amplifies the purpose and meaning of Beowulf. Most obviously these two characters are tarnished by acts of fratricide which make them social outcasts. Unferth is never given the opportunity to explain his action, and Grendel himself did not physically commit Cain’s crime, yet both are punished. Beowulf tells that “It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall,” until Grendel came to Heorot for the purpose of joining the crowd. (ln. 87-89)
Also, a significant component of each of their downfalls was pride. Grendel, greedily lusting for human blood, was too proud for caution in his last deadly fight. Unferth, too, became the target of Grendel’s malice in Gardner’s novel through his self-righteous pride. Desirous of a glorious death in defense of his country, Unferth assumed his opponent to be very primitive. He was instead rewarded with public humiliation and the disgrace of being continually spared from harm.
Both were required to set great stakes on each fight or encounter because of the reputations they had to fulfill. Although neither was accepted by society, they were nevertheless part of it, and without maintaining their roles very precisely, they might lose their place – a great fear for beings hanging on the cusp of the populace already. Grendel, once forced into the role, must remain the Destroyer, killing sometimes reluctantly “so (he) wouldn’t be misunderstood.” (Gardner 90) Every human creature has a basic need for purpose and activity. As the dragon points out, Grendel is not only defined by his role to the Danes, but he helps define them as well. Men are constantly being defined by something, and if Grendel refuses to be “man’s condition,” then he will be replaced. (Gardner 73) Unferth is desperately clinging to the quickly fading reputation as “a hero among the Scyldings,” and seeks to prove that his valor will override his fratricide by challenging Grendel. (Gardner 82) If he succeeds in killing the beast, he will be honored for saving his people, and if he is killed, he will be remembered for his selfless act of heroism. Taken out of context it must seem strange that a man would be so displeased with his salvation and the compassion of the monster. When he informed Grendel that “This one red hour makes your reputation or mine,” he truly thought that no matter the outcome of the fight, he would win back his reputation. Grendel, sensing this, dishonored his combatant in his first positioning as Unferth’s anti-hero. The audience sympathizes with Unferth’s desires and willingness to sacrifice his life for them as most people dislike witnessing others being shamed.
However, neither enjoys his role as prescribed by the Danes. Grendel would rather have been accepted by the men, and continually seeks to improve them in his mind, while Unferth is resentful of the behaviors required of him to maintain his status as “hero.” They both seem to devalue men’s beliefs, especially when it comes to their definition of heroism and view of the heroic. Demonstrating a streak of existentialism uncommon for his society but mirroring Grendel’s own beliefs, Unferth criticizes people for their clinging to the “golden trinket” of heroism, no more than a spell woven by clever storytellers. (Gardner 87) The nature of a hero, as Unferth describes it, is quite similar to Grendel’s before his visit with the dragon as, “the hero sees values beyond what’s possible… it makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile.” (Gardner 89) They each seek an ideal separate from those of society for which Grendel can live, and Unferth can die. Yet Unferth comes to realize, as Grendel did, that true heroism is nothing, for after “glimpsing a glorious ideal, (he) had struggled toward it and seized it and come to understand it, and was disappointed.” (Gardner 90)
Yet these two remarkably similar characters, through their interactions with each other render Unferth heroic. Subtleties within Gardner’s writing subconsciously help to lead his audience of current, English speaking readers. For instance, Unferth challenges Grendel to make peace with his “god,” while Unferth’s own “God” will know the truth of his heroism. Also, Unferth is the only Scylding who isn’t drunk during the apple fight. Gardner’s audience might typically think little of the blear-eyed debauchery of the warriors, respecting Unferth for his steadfastness. Grendel’s first description of Unferth introduces a tall, intense youth who, “stood out among his fellow thanes like a horse in a herd of cows,” which mirrors the Danish coast-guard’s description of Beowulf in the epic poem, and goes on to describe him as “a new kind of Scylding.” (Gardner 82) Unferth is also the first to understand Grendel’s speech, and to communicate with him and face him as a man, rather than a beast. Respect for his foe, who Gardner portrays as at least worthy of men’s deference, shows Unferth to be intelligent and honorable, traits of noble men. A primary difference between Unferth and Grendel is that while the former looks for hope and value in the world, the latter is over-eager to condemn everything to futility and prove to himself the uselessness of things he naturally finds touching or wholesome. Unferth also continually labels himself as a hero, whereas Grendel does not, reminding the audience of his intentions; and according to pre-Socratic theories, his desire for heroism leads to its existence on some plane of existence.
Grendel delights in his epithet of Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings, Shadow Shooter, Earth-Rim-Roamer, reveling in his wickedness. Unferth, however, was upset by Grendel’s insinuations that he was only motivated by the glory he could acquire as a hero. His motivation to reclaim his honor by serving his king is perhaps generally superficial, but when compared to Grendel’s seeming lack of purpose, the presence of values alone makes Unferth appear gallant to an audience obsessed with morals.
Unferth tells Grendel that all a hero asks for is a chance. For this reason as well, Grendel comes across as the anti-hero because he had chances to achieve his goal of befriending men and failed. Whilst stuck in the tree, they initially planned to feed him, but ended up hurling an axe towards him. When he approached the men with his offering of friendship, it was not accepted and his life was again threatened. He has either run out of chances or given up trying. Unferth, on the other hand, is taking his chance to redeem himself from his murderous deeds. Nor does he cease taking these chances, and his determination through increasingly bad odds marks him as heroic when compared to Grendel’s defeatist behavior.
Thus, a character primarily created as a foil for a hero can, when compared to a more villainous anti-hero, be seen as honorable and worthy. Although Unferth’s act of fratricide justly marks him as a detestable person, the cold, spiteful destruction of Grendel creates a side of Unferth that people relate to. People, like Grendel, want to make the best of others. Therefore, a scoundrel such as Unferth can be made heroic when contrasted to a true anti-hero.