I wrote this for a class in response to a question about supporting roles.
Like buttresses in cathedrals, the supporting characters or side characters In Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight play important roles. Buttresses support the cathedrals and are located on the sides of these grand buildings ("gothic cathedral and church construction"). Without buttress support, cathedrals have a limited height ("gothic cathedral and church construction") and would not be quite as grand. In literature, supporting/side characters strengthen and enrich the story-line. Giving the hero someone to act off of and they also play functional roles in these grand tales. Unferth, Wiglaf, and Sir Gawain's guide are side characters with important roles. They act as foils, reflections, and springboards to the heroes of the tales, respectively, while also upholding themes from the work.
Unferth is a foil to Beowulf. A "foil" is "any person or thing that, by strong contrast, underscores or enhances the distinctive characteristics of another"(The American Heritage Dictionary). Through Unferth’s antagonistic tale and Beowulf’s response, both men’s true natures are revealed. Thus Beowulf’s positive traits are brought to the fore by comparison with Unferth's ignobility.
Unferth first appears at a feast in Heorot after Beowulf made known that he had come to slay Grendel. Unferth was jealous of Beowulf’s renown: “Beowulf’s coming, / his sea-braving, made him sick with envy: / he could not brook or abide the fact / that anyone else alive under heaven might enjoy greater regard that he did” (44). Out of his envy he speaks and attacks Beowulf’s reputation. He accused Beowulf of “vanity” (44) saying that this was the only reason he engaged in a swimming match (44), stubbornness: “no matter who tried, / friend of foe, to deflect the pair of you, neither would back down (44),” and obsession: “the sea-test obsessed you” (44). Thus he attacked Beowulf’s character on three points and additionally criticized the fact that he engaged in the swimming competition by making it appear as folly and should not have occurred. For he says the only reason Beowulf did it was vanity alone and no other higher reasons (such a rescue). Also Unferth makes the fact that Beowulf could not be dissuaded seem as if he ought to have been dissuaded. Unferth attacks Beowulf’s strength and ability with “he outswam you, /came ashore the stronger contender” (44). Unferth puts Beowulf down by saying “So Breca made good his boast upon you and was proved right (44). “You,” in this situation is accusative, plus, if Breca was “right” then Beowulf must be "wrong." Unferth sums up his argument saying that Beowulf will again “be worsted; no one has ever / outlasted an entire night against Grendel” (44-45).
However, Unferth did not tell the tale truthfully, giving Beowulf a chance to correct him. He informs Unferth that he was not defeated but victorious (45). Recounting more details about the swimming challenge, Beowulf reveals even more of his strength and fighting abilities. He mentions the cold (ln 546), the churning condition of the sea (546,548), the sea-monsters he fought (553-567), and also the fact that he wore chain mail (550-552) and carried a drawn sword (539-540). Thus the conditions were even harder than already mentioned by Unferth, and the hearer/reader begins to see that Beowulf is insanely strong and perhaps deserving of the acclaim given by the narrator when Beowulf was first introduced: “There was no one else like him alive. / In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth, / highborn and powerful” (pp 38). Before this interlude with Unferth, no accounts had yet been offered to prove Beowulf's abilities. Their dialogue is essential to the story in that it shows Beowulf to be already an experienced warrior and super strong. The removal of Unferth would result in the loss of this evidence.
Furthermore the event sheds light on Beowulf's character. He is bold and forthright in his dealings with Unferth. He tells Unferth that he is under the influence of alcohol, “But it was mostly beer / that was doing the talking”(45). He bluntly says, "The truth is this:” (45). Contradicting Unferth’s story forthrightly, he declares, “I was the strongest swimmer of all” (45). Without Unferth to say this too, Beowulf would never have uttered these beautiful lines: "The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly/ as keen or courageous as you claim to be / Grendel would never have got away with / such unchecked atrocity, attacks on you king, havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere" (46). Again, Beowulf chooses the direct approach. Very importantly, Beowulf's ethics are revealed. He is not just a brute thirsting for blood; he believes in the protection of one's liege and hall through courage. Beowulf criticizes the Danes for their lack of courage (46). Unlike them, Beowulf is brave for he decided to face Grendel: he says so himself (46). Not only does Beowulf define heroism but he adheres to it in his actions for he came to conquer Grendel (47) and succeeded (61). Without these revelations of Beowulf's character and thought life, much texture would have been lost.
Unferth also serves as an example of what is not a hero. He has not fought in any comparable fights, is not known for his swordsmanship, or bravery in battle (46). Instead he slew his kinsmen (46). According to Beowulf, Unferth is destined for damnation because of this misdeed (46) and the narrator too condemns such actions (79). Unferth is a liar for Beowulf implies that he is not as brave as he claims to be (46). A hypocrite, Unferth accuses out of envy which is similar to the vanity of which he accuses Beowulf.
Interestingly even Unferth’s account of the swimming test is strangely complimentary to Beowulf. Perhaps an attempt to describe him as reckless, Unferth uses terms that also sound very masterful: “you waded in, embracing the water, / taking its measure, mastering currents” (44), Basically, Beowulf is unafraid, welcoming the challenge of the sea, working with it, and proving stronger. Unferth recounts that the men were in the water for seven nights (44). Seven nights! A magnificent feat in and of itself, but Unferth also recounts that they did this in winter (44), making the feat all the more amazing because the air and water would have been even colder than usual. Unferth is perhaps recounting these details to make the challenge seem increasingly foolish, but one cannot help but be astounded by the stamina of these men, and since both Breca and Beowulf survived the ordeal, it was obviously not so foolhardy a thing for them to attempt.
Wiglaf is Beowulf's kinsman (90). He embodies the same values as Beowulf: protect your lord and refuse to be a coward. Along with the other warriors Wiglaf initially ran for safety from the dragon as Beowulf fought it (88). Beowulf had given these men armor and riches and in turn they were expected to protect him (94). Unlike the others Wiglaf returned to defend his lord (89) and the pair slew the dragon (88).
During the fight with the dragon, the narrator says of Wiglaf, "the noble son of Weohstan /…displayed his inborn bravery and skill" (90). So, like Beowulf he is brave and skilled in war craft. Wiglaf is named a "young hero" by the narrator (93), just as Beowulf was a hero (he saved the Danes from Grendel and his mother, and his people from the dragon).
Wiglaf also has hard words for cowards: "a stern rebuke was bound to come / from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards." He tells them that, "A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame," (94) and that Beowulf died because not enough men were there to protect him (94). Additionally he informs them they shall be dispossessed (94). Unlike Beowulf's unworthy followers, Wiglaf will continue in the tradition of Beowulf as a courageous warrior. Therefore he is essential to the story as Beowulf's legacy. His presence also softens the blow of the loss of such a mighty man as Beowulf.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the lead character, Sir Gawain is escorted by a nameless guide. He is first mentioned as Gawain leaves the castle, "And went on his way alone with the man / That was to lead him ere long to that luckless place" (204). The man encourages Sir Gawain, who he believes is going to his doom, to leave the area without encountering the Green Knight. If Sir Gawain had accepted this, he would have betrayed his honor as a knight. The guide says to him, “I have your good at heart and hold you dear” (204), showing that this man is not just offering advice because he ought to warn of danger to those ignorant of it but because he actually cares about Sir Gawain, and believes his advice to really be in his interest. He tells Gawain about the fearsome Green knight (204) and then advises him to not seek the Green Knight, “And so, good Sir Gawain, let the grim man be; Go off by some other road, in God’s good name!” (205). Assuring Gawain that he will not tell that he did not fulfill his duty, the guide says, “I shall…/…give you my word / That I shall swear by God’s self and the saints above, by heaven and by my halidom and other oaths more, that ever you fled for fear from any that I knew.” Thus he places temptation before Sir Gawain by providing an escape for Gawain in his last moments before meeting the Green Knight, when the reality of his probable death is imminent and Gawain is most likely to take up such an offer. Sir Gawain did not want to die (210) so this temptation was dangerous. Gawain had already broken his word by keeping the green girdle that might possess the power to save his neck. Obviously Gawain is fallible; he may yet again decide that life is more important than honor.
According to the man the green knight is "a villain, the veriest on earth…/…he is rugged and rude, and ready with his fists, And more immense in his mold of mortals alive" (204-205). He does not respect station or worth "heedless of right, / For be it chaplain or churl that by the Chapel rides, / Monk or mass-priest or any man else, he would as soon strike him dead as stand on two feet" (205). All in all, he is a fearsome fellow and this account may increase the fear in Gawain's heart and lessen his resolve to keep his promise.
Now, Sir Gawain must respond, and either accept the offer or go on to his probable doom. Courteously (demurring (204)) beginning with “Many thanks!.../…Fair fortune befall you for your friendly words! /And conceal this day’s deed I doubt not you would” (205) but ending by rejecting the offer: “if I turned back now, / Forsook this place for fear, and fled, as you say, / I were a caitliff coward; I could not be excused” (205). The man answers tartly, "I see you are set to seek your own harm, / If you crave a quick death, let me keep you no longer!" (205). But after telling Gawain the directions he says good bye with, "Now goodbye in God's name, Gawain the noble!" indicating perhaps that he recognizes Gawain's heroism in going to meet his doom despite the possibility of an ignoble escape.
The guide cares more about his own fate and is very afraid of the Green Knight since he says, "For all the world's wealth I would not stay here, / Or go with you in this wood one step further!"(206). He then road away as fast as he could (206). This man's fear and description of the Green Knight heightens the fear and suspense the reader feels as Gawain approaches his dwelling and give insight into the Green knight's unorthodox behavior that could not be gathered from Gawain's observations.
This tale is a series of temptations which test Sir Gawain’s virtue. He is tempted to commit a number of vices including sexual immorality, dishonesty, greed, and cowardice. Volunteering for a game of blow exchanges with the Green Knight, Sir Gawain swears that he will journey to the home of his opponent the following year and undergo the return blow (170). Magically, the Green Knight survives decapitation by Sir Gawain and leaves the hall with bearing his head (171). True to his word Gawain sets out to find the home of the Green Knight and assumes that he will die by the return blow (176). The temptation to break his word and escape is the next to final trial Gawain experiences; it is the last temptation before he re-encounters the Green Knight.
Each of these supporting characters has different roles and functions. Unferth is a foil to Beowulf and demonstrates un-heroic behavior while Wiglaf carries on the traditions of heroism. Additionally, Sir Gawain's guide is an important figure in the story because he guides Sir Gawain to the Green Chapel where one of the most pivotal scenes occurs and figures as another tempter in a tale about temptation.
"foil." The American Heritage Dictionary. 1976. Print.
"gothic cathedral and church construction" 23 November 2010. Abelard.org. 23 November 2010. Web.
Reidhead, Julia. ed. The Middle Ages. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W W Norton and Company, 2006. 7 vols. Print.
Seamus Heaney. Trans. Beowulf. 34-100.
Marie Borrof. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 162-231.