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As a character, Wiglaf is of tremendous importance to the overall structure of the poem. He's the young warrior who helps Beowulf, the aging king, in his battle against the dragon, in much the same way the younger Beowulf helped King Hrothgar in part one. In this sense Wiglaf is the link between the two parts of the poem. He's also a perfect example of the idea of comitatus, the loyalty of the warrior to his leader. While all his fellow warriors flee in fear, Wiglaf alone comes to the aid of his king.
Wiglaf is described by the poet as being of Swedish descent. He's the son of Wextan, and it's with his father's sword that he wounds the dragon. He enters the battle fearlessly, ignoring the dragon's flames when they engulf his armor. But he's not only brave; he has his head on his shoulders as well. Instead of attempting to strike the dragon's head, he pierces the dragon "lower down," sapping its strength so much that Beowulf-with one blow of his sword-is able to sever its head.
Wiglaf plays the role of Beowulf's son, in much the same way Hrothgar performed the role of Beowulf's father. Even though he's filled with grief at the death of his king, he's still able to sound clear-headed and dignified when he addresses his cowardly comrades. Like the young Beowulf, he's a model of self-control, determined to act in a way that he believes is right.
The name Unferth means "strife" (un-peace), and when we first meet this character he certainly seems to be living up to his name. A courtier in King Hrothgar's court, he's jealous of Beowulf, and drunkenly accuses the young hero of foolishly risking his life in a swimming match with Brecca years before. He's anxious to dent Beowulf's self-confidence, and tells the hero that his luck will change when he goes up against Grendel.
Beowulf responds by telling the correct version of his swimming match with Brecca. He taunts Unferth, accusing him of cowardice for not defeating Grendel himself, and for having killed his own brother.
Later the poet mentions Unferth in connection with Hrothulf, the king's nephew, implying that Unferth is connected with Hrothulf's ambition to seize the throne after Hrothgar's death. He appears in the poem a third time, as Beowulf is about to descend into the lake to battle with Grendel's mother. Unferth, obviously impressed by Beowulf's strength against Grendel, presents Beowulf with his sword, called Hrunting, as a sign of reconciliation. (Beowulf accepts the gift, but the sword proves useless against the monster.)
We last see Unferth as Beowulf is about to depart from Denmark. Once again he offers the hero his sword as a gift, and Beowulf, not wanting to leave Denmark with any ill feeling, accepts it, making it clear to Unferth that he's forgiven him for his jealous outburst.
What is Unferth's relevance to the story? As a typical warrior of the time-yet one not frightened to speak his mind-he must be seen purely in relation to Beowulf. By presenting an opponent to the young hero, the poet reveals Beowulf's strength of character, his generosity, and his capacity for forgiveness. If Unferth considered himself, and was considered by others, a brave warrior, how much more courageous Beowulf must seem in comparison.
Grendel, the first of the three monsters Beowulf kills, lives in the bottom of a lake, or mere, not far from Herot, the great hall that Hrothgar built to house his warriors. According to the poet, the monster is a descendant of Cain, one of many monsters whom God punished for the crime of Abel's death.
Grendel is hostile to humanity. He's inspired to attack Herot after hearing the joyous singing of the warriors. He is enormous, possessing superhuman strength, and appears only at night. For twelve years he has terrorized Denmark, bringing suffering and misery to Hrothgar and his warriors.
Like the Devil, to whom he's often compared, Grendel is an extreme example of evil and corruption. He possesses no human feelings except hatred and bitterness toward mankind. Unlike human beings, however, who can contain elements of good and evil, there's no way Grendel can ever be converted to goodness. As much as he stands for a symbol of evil, he also represents disorder and chaos-a projection of what was most frightening to the Anglo-Saxon mind.