Unferth is one of Hrothgar’s men, and he is a respected warrior who, like most of the Danes, dreams of achieving a heroic status. Unferth holds an important role in the novel as one of the only humans whom Grendel truly communicates with. While Beowulf mainly speaks at Grendel rather than to him, Unferth and Grendel share a genuine dialogue, which begins when Unferth first attempts to kill Grendel. When Unferth advances, he challenges Grendel via a poetic, lyrical speech, exposing the romantic lens through which he views battle. It’s clear to Grendel that Unferth has completely internalized the mythical “hero” that the Shaper and the Danes’ society at large have put on a pedestal. Sensing an opportunity to use his sharp wit and philosophical prowess, Grendel begins to taunt Unferth by deconstructing the concept of the hero. Grendel’s questioning of Unferth’s life purpose is so damaging that Unferth’s beliefs are shaken, and he begins to cry. Recognizing that killing Unferth would only give him the hero’s death he so desires, Grendel concludes his embarrassment of Unferth by pelting him with apples.

In presenting a verbal attack to Unferth, Grendel not only forces Unferth to engage in a battle he’s woefully unprepared for—an intellectual one of arguments and ideas rather than a physical one of swords and brute strength—but also unintentionally begins a minor but nevertheless meaningful relationship with Unferth. Soon after Grendel and Unferth’s initial fight, Unferth makes his way to Grendel’s cave, this time armed with carefully considered arguments about heroism. While Grendel ultimately gains the intellectual upper hand on Unferth yet again, Unferth does articulate ideas that are thematically important in Grendel, such as whether concepts like heroism and morality bring true meaning and purpose to life. While Grendel has an advantage over Unferth in the debate—he’s had centuries to contemplate the relevant arguments and counterarguments, while Unferth has had only decades—and he soon has Unferth flustered and beaten, their discussion foreshadows the far more powerful interaction that Grendel will have with Beowulf surrounding the same themes and questions. In this sense, Unferth acts as a primitive Beowulf. While Unferth yearns to be a hero and tries his best to defend his romantic worldview against Grendel’s piercing nihilism, he eventually gives up, quite literally falling asleep after the debate, and he never achieves true heroism in his lifetime. On the other hand, Beowulf doesn’t yearn to be a hero—he already is one, and his unyielding belief in meaning, destiny, and life ultimately ends in Grendel’s physical defeat and certainly gives Grendel something profound to consider before his death.