Unferth is a much maligned character in Beowulf with neither the hero nor the poet having much sympathy for him. As a result, critics (and the two Beowulf movies) also think very little of him. In my paper I would like to tilt the balance a little more in favour of Unferth. He is, after all, an honoured person at Hrothgar’s court. Unlike the other Danes, he recognizes Beowulf, and knows a story about him no other person seems to know. And Unferth is right: Beowulf did indeed lose the swimming match. Breca swam for seven days, but Beowulf only for six (a fact Beowulf implicitly acknowledge in line 545 ff. but which he side-steps with an ad hominem attack). Much has been made of the fact that Unferth killed his brothers, but no one, to my knowledge, has suggested that he may have been faced with a cruel choice, namely that of defending his lord against his brothers, or siding with his brothers and failing to protect his lord. Unferth, it seems, defended his lord and was therefore greatly honoured by Hrothgar. And finally, Unferth recognizes Beowulf’s greatness by offering him his own sword. Leaving Hrothgar aside who, as lord, had to reward Beowulf, no other Dane displays such generosity. There are good sides to Unferth, which Hrothgar and Beowulf recognize, but which the poet and most critics ignore. Hence the need to tilt the balance.
The Beowulf manuscript displays an interesting confusion on Cain’s name in both its occurrences (lines 107 and 1261). Such imprecision, either authorial or scribal, is in line with a well documented medieval conflation which associated Cain with another biblical figure, Cam. The paper will discuss such conflation, both in a general survey and with specific interest on Beowulf, and will propose a possible source for its inclusion in Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon Genesis.
This paper will explore the relationship between the royal kin, the tribe and the monsters in Beowulf. While the poem focuses almost exclusively on the life of the royal kin we are nevertheless constantly reminded of the wider interests of the tribe through repeated references to the leod, þeod or folc. At the centre of the poem is the image of the dynasty, within which king, atheling, queen and princess all have important responsibilities towards the tribe. But when dynastic succession falters, the tribe are exposed to foreign attack and internal discord. The fear of dynastic crisis and its consequences is dramatised in the poem by the advent of the monsters, enemies of the people.