Minor Characters in the Poem ‘Beowulf’ Translated by Seamus Heaney
A minor character is a character who plays a smaller role in a story. These characters interact with the main characters in order to help contribute to the plot. Every single detail within a story is planned for a specific reason. Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic poem Beowulf introduces a titular protagonist, Beowulf, who encounters many minor characters. Their appearances in the epic are very brief and infrequent but, that does not mean they are not shining when they are in the spotlight. The root for each character plays an essential function within the epic. The journey of a young Geatish warrior whose kingdom is being terrorized by many monsters gets the chance to meet many different characters. Shield Sheafson, Wealtheow, and Unferth are all minor characters, but to demonstrate foreshadowing, depiction of women, and a foil character.
Firstly, at the beginning of the novel, the poet starts with a recountment of the founding of the Danes. Shield Sheafson’s appearance is brief and only ever mentioned during the introduction, but his appearance plays a very significant role by foreshadowing within the poem. He was a King of the ancient Danes, who inaugurated a long line of Danish rulers. Sheafson was known as “…scourage of many tribes, / a wrecker of mead-benches, ramping among foes”. This continues on and describes how he was seen as a great leader:
‘In end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.’
He embodied the Danish tribe’s highest values of heroism and leadership and that is why his people adored and stayed loyal to him. Loyalty was a key ingredient of Anglo-Saxon society since it was rarely found. Sheafson rose from orphan to a warrior-king. But unfortunately, he passed away in the prime of his life. His body was covered in gold, gems, and armour, placed on a boat, and casted off into the sea. The poet specifically starts the poem off with Shield Sheafon’s legacy to foreshadow the end of the poem with another funeral of a great king, Beowulf:
‘The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,
stacked and decked it until it stood four square,
hung with helmets, heavy war shields
and shining armour, just as he had ordered.
Then his warriors laid him in the middle of it,
Mourning a lord far-farmed and beloved.’
Both Beowulf and Shield Sheafson were both great kings and shared many similarities. They were known for their heroism, as well as the kinship they had with their people. Shield Sheafson was only mentioned once at the beginning, but had such an important effect on the poem since it created the future ending of the poem. This effective use of foreshadowing creates dramatic tension and builds anticipation for the readers for the end of the epic.
Secondly, Seamus Heaney showcases the depiction of women by introducing Wealhtheow. Wealtheow is the Queen of the Spear-Danes and the wife of King Hrothgar. Within the Anglo-Saxon culture, women were not very important and did not have a say in their life plans. They were considered to be the weaker sex and held very little power. Wealhtheow was offered to King Hrogthar to advocate peace between the two tribes, the Scyldings and Helmings. The poet states “A queen should weave peace…”. Being a peace-weaver was a very typical practice for the Anglo-Saxons. However, despite women not having the capability to make their own choices, Wealhtheow was not repressed from being politically powerful. Heaney created Wealtheow to be in the poem to demonstrate that she is strong and a leader with humility:
‘and now the word is that you want to adopt
this warrior as a son, So, while you may,
bask in your fortune, and then bequeath
kingdom and nation to your kith and kin,
before your decease. I am certain of Hrothulf.’
After Hrogthar adopts Beowulf, he implies that he wants to bestow Beowulf with the kingdom. But, Wealhtheow voices her objection to the idea of this. Although Beowulf may be a great warrior, she secures her sons’ rights to the throne. She did not stand up to just any man, but to a king, the one that holds the most political and social power. This scenario is very rare within the Anglo-Saxon society. Therefore, Wealhtheow proves that this really does make her powerful.
Lastly, Heaney utilizes a foil character named Unferth to further reveal Beowulf’s heroism, honor, and nobalism. Unferth is the son of Ecglaf and one of Hrogthar’s courtiers. He displays himself as jealous, bitter, and boastful. The readers see that he is presented as a lesser man than Beowulf. The bitterness that Unferth holds against Beowulf reflects his jealousy of the attention Beowulf always receives. Everybody knows that Beowulf is a strong leader and warrior, but Unferth is a failure and has no heroic stories of his own to prove he is any better. This leads to the humiliation Unferth possesses due to the fact he had failed to protect Herot himself. An embarrassed Unferth attempts to belittle and criticize Beowulf’s actions to make himself seem more superior. Unferth questions Beowulf’s abilities in a swimming contest against Breca:
‘You waded in, embracing water,
taking its measure, mastering currents,
riding on the swell. The ocean swayed,
winter went wild in the waves, but you vied
for seven nights; and then he outswam you,
came ashore the stronger contender.’
When saying “waded in” Beowulf is given a Godly feature, just like Jesus waded in the water. Unferth tries to imply that Beowulf struggled, attempting to suggest that Beowulf lost the swimming competition. In addition, Beowulf replies to Unferth with, “Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say / about Breca and me”. Beowulf starts with using the word “friend” as opposed to going off on him and insulting him. This reveals that Beowulf has honour and is too noble to stoop down to Unferth’s level. Now, Unferth may be a foil character that opposes Beowulf, but he is the only one with a lot of character growth. After Beowulf has a defeat against Grendel, Unferth admits to his dominance. He offers Beowulf a sword for the battle against Grendel’s mother as a truce. Through everything Unferth has said to Beowulf, Beowulf accepts the sword, showing respect and his humbleness.
One may think that minor characters are absurd and pointless, but they do in fact play an essential part within the plot. Authors tend to add these characters specifically to add an additional effectiveness to the plot. They interact with the main characters throughout to help keep the plot moving forward. Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic poem Beowulf, contains many different characters throughout the whole epic. A young Geatish warrior who journeys through life encountering different monsters, motivations, and values. Characters introduced in the epic like Shield Sheafson, Wealtheow, and Unferth, all have functions that demonstrate foreshadowing, depiction of women, and a foil character.
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