Beowulf is an epic poem written back in the Anglo-Saxon time period. While the epic poem features a significant amount of female characters such as Grendel’s Mother and Wealtheow, it is obvious that the men and their affairs are the focus of the story. A critic once pointed out that “the poem’s powerfully sexist disposition is apparent in its largely male cast of characters and in relatively minimal attention given to women who do appear”.
As part of the heroic culture present in the poem, it is commonplace for women to be married off to men of rival tribes in order to insure observance of peace treaties. At first glance, it seems that the women of Beowulf are there simply to serve the men as servants or bargaining chips. Is this the case? Or do the women of Beowulf hold more influence than we think? In this essay – using two of the poem’s most important female characters as example – I argue that in terms of word choice and the language of the poem itself, the women of Beowulf are portrayed as bed mates or wives first, and people second. However when it comes to the poem’s plot, the women do hold a significant amount of influence.
The first major female character to whom we are introduced to is Wealhtheow, described as “Hrothgar’s queen…. Adorned in her gold” (Beowulf, lines 613-614). A few lines later she is referred to as “Wealhtheow/Hrothgar’s queen and bedmate (Beowulf, lines 664-665). Neither time is Wealhtheow referred to as simply Wealhtheow or even as the queen of the Danes, but as a companion to Hrothgar. Hrothgar on the other hand, is consistently referred to as simply “Hrothgar” or as “Halfdane’s son”. This is evidence that the strong patriarchal values of the heroic culture found within the poem.
That is not to say, however that Wealhtheow is completely powerless. Beowulf still feels the need to impress her addressing his boast, which “pleases the lady well” (Beowulf, line 640). Why would Beowulf think it’s necessary to impress the queen if she were considered lesser and what would have happened had she not been satisfied with his boast? Wealhtheow’s influence is shown again when she shows her support for Beowulf, convincing Hrothgar that “He is noble and will use the young ones well. He will not let you down.”. Obviously, the queen’s opinion is enough of value for Hrothgar to take what
she says into serious consideration. Also, it is Wealhtheow who addresses Beowulf’s victory and presents him with mail from the Danish armory. The queen, as it seems, is permitted to speak freely without requiring any sort of permission from the king. After her speech, Wealhtheow returns “to her place” which is “between two good men, uncle and nephew” (Beowulf, lines 1232, and 1162-1163). This shows that she is permitted to sit with the rest of the male royalty, signifying that she is of equal status. Grendel’s mother is the poem’s most prominent female figure, described as a “monsterous hell-bride, brooding on her wrongs” (Beowulf, lines 1259). She makes her way to Herot, “grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (Beowulf, lines 1279. Once there she “does away with a great warrior, ambushing him at rest” (Beowulf, lines 1298-1299). Grendel’s mother fits into what is called the “bad girl” stereotype. “Bad girls” are “violent, aggressively worldly, monsterous”, which implies “that if a woman does not accept her patriarchal gender role, then the only left her is that of a monster”. This describes Grendel’s mother perfectly, as she does not fit into her patriarchal gender role, and is potrayed as a monster.
Let us expand upon Grendel’s mother and how she does not fit into her patriarchal gender role. A critic once noted that “Grendel’s mother acts aggressively, arguably in a fashion reserved for men”. Not only this, but she also shows that other traits considered to be an accordance with traditional male gender roles, which “cast men as… strong, protective, and decisive”. During her fight with Beowulf, she catches him in her “brutal grip” of “terrible strength”, causing “the strongest of warriors to stumble and fall” (Beowulf, lines 1502, 1519, 1544). Were it not for “the mesh of chain-mail on Beowulf’s shoulder,” she would have succeeded in defeating one of – if not the – strongest men in the world (Beowulf, lines 1547-1548). For a female character to demonstrate physical strength sufficient enough to nearly kill a man of almost superhuman strength is surprising, considering that such characters are rare even by modern standards. Grendel’s mother even harbours the negative male stereotypes of revenge and rage. Upon discovering that the men at Herot have caused the death of her child, she travels to the mead hall with the goal of taking one life in exchange for her son’s. Curiously enough, Beowulf later kills her for this same reason,
claiming “it is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (Beowulf, lines 1384-1385). Mourning, in this case, would most likely be the duty of woman. Grendel’s mother rejects this duty, and the men consider her evil and a monster because of it. Also, Grendel’s mother does not have difficulty taking only one life upon her arrival at Herot. Due to our patriarchal society, hysteria has been “defined as a female problem”. By showing restraint and only taking one life, Grendel’s mother demonstrates that she does not fit the stereotypical construct of the hysterical, grieving mother, and that she is entirely capable of being logical and rational.
As you can see, the poem’s language demonstrates a sexist, patriarchal portrayal of female characters, while the events or plot of the poem show these same characters in a much more powerful and influential light. Why is that? What I consider most likely, is that the poet tried to portray the women as powerful and somewhat equal to men, yet was limited by the conventions of language that existed in their time period. Women were considered inferior to men, and the language would have reflected such things. Unfortunately, due to Beowulf’s anonymous authorship, we may never know the true answer to this question