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Women of Beowulf
Violence and honor governed the Scandinavian culture the story of Beowulf originates. Beowulf, an Old English epic poem,was originally an oral story that was written down by Monks around the tenth century. The violence and tribal wars that were prevalent during the time of this poem introduces the idea of someone to be the hero for a group of people. The character, Beowulf is the hero in Beowulf. He travels from his native land to help a neighboring tribe with their problems with monsters and later helps his own tribe with a terrorizing, greedy Dragon. The poem revolves around the heroic exploits of Beowulf. But women play a part in Beowulf’s adventures. And, even though women are discussed, they are discussed in terms of how Beowulf sees and describes them. According to Beowulf, every woman in the poem can be categorized into three groups: successful, peace weaving queens, unsuccessful peace weavers, and tyrannical monster women. These women are defined by how they fit into the male-dominated world they exist within and are placed into one of the three categories, thus making them examples of how to act and how not to act.
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In the world of Beowulf, women have roles they need to fulfill. One of those roles is the role of a peace weaver, a woman who is married to a king or prince of an enemy tribe. Her job is to bring and maintain peace between both tribes as well as with other tribes. Hygd and Wealhtheow are two of the women in the story who are successful at peace weaving. Hygd is the wife of Hygelac and Queen of the Geats. And, Wealhtheow is the wife of Hrothgar and Queen of the Danes. As peace weavers, both women are hostesses during feasts and provide guidance for their husbands. In the first scene, that Wealhtheow is introduced, she is passing around the mead cup and she follows the hierarchy established in the court. She first hands the cup to Hrothgar then everyone else with Beowulf being the last person. She leaves him for last to fulfill another part of her role, which is to be welcoming and thankful. The other part of her job as a peace weaver is to provide guidance for her husband. When Hrothgar said that he wanted to adopt Beowulf, Wealhtheow entreated him to think about his kingdom and his sons. This happens after Beowulf fights Grendel’s Mother and she tells Hrothgar, “Raise up your goblet, entertain the Geats/ Duly and gently, discourse with them,/ Be open-handed, happy and fond./ Relish their company, but recollect as well/ All of the boons that have been bestowed upon you./ The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed/ And now the word is that you want to adopt/ This warrior as a son. So, while you may, / Bask in your fortune, then bequeath/ Kingdom and nation to your kith and kin, / Before your decease” (ll. 1169-1179). She trying to help Hrothgar keep the balance in the kingdom, but also wants him to be generous to the Geats just not be too generous to take what belongs to her sons. When Hygd is introduced she is being the hostess and cup-bearer like Wealhtheow. She is welcoming Beowulf and the other warriors and letting everyone drink from the mead cup. And, when her husband died in battle later in the poem, she offered the throne to Beowulf. She knew her son was too young to be King, but she wanted the Geats to have a strong and capable leader. So, she offered the thrown to Beowulf. As peace weavers, women have political power and bring some femininity to the story. They can give advice to the kings, but men have the final say. And peace weavers continue to keep the peace, distribute treasure, be a cup-bearer at feasts.
In contrast to the successful peace weavers of Beowulf, there were the unsuccessful peace weavers. These women, Hildeburh and Freawaru, were used to make a comparison between the women who could create peace and those who could not. They were only every brought to attention when either Hygd or Wealhtheow’s peace weaving abilities were mentioned. The story of Hildeburh was mentioned at the feast after Beowulf defeated Grendel but before Wealhtheow’s abilities as a peace weaver are shown. Hildeburh’s inability to create peace or fulfill the role she was trained in from a young age creates a contrast with Wealhtheow’s ability. She was married to the King of Frisians an enemy to her father, the King of the Danish. But she was unable to keep the peace between the two kingdoms, because of their deep-seated hatred for each other. In the end, she loses her brother, son, and her husband in a war between the kingdoms which resulted in her returning to her home kingdom. As for Freawaru, her future as a peace weaver was a prediction made by Beowulf that does not have a happy ending. She is not yet married but is betrothed to a prince of an enemy tribe. Beowulf believes that the training her mother, Wealhtheow, gave her and her charms will not be enough to keep the peace between the Danes and her future husband’s kingdom. He predicts that their wedding celebration will rekindle the animosity both sides felt because someone will make a remark about the other’s jewelry or weaponry. Beowulf predicts that “on both sides the oath-bound lords/ Will break the peace, a passionate hate/ Will build up in Ingeld and love for his bride/ Will falter in him as the feud rankles” (ll. 2063-2066). The job of a peace weaver brings with it pressure to maintain peace when her power is at the mercy of the attitudes of the men in her home kingdom and her husband’s kingdom. Even though peace weaving is a woman’s role in the story, men ultimately have the power. Men decide whether they will continue to fight with each other despite the peace weaver’s intention to keep the peace.
The final category Beowulf has put women is that of tyrannical monster women. Grendel’s Mother and Queen Modthryth are the women that are part of this group. They do not fill the role of a peace weaver and they experience most of the masculine domination present in the story. These two women show more masculine qualities than both the successful and unsuccessful peace weavers. Grendel’s Mother and Modthryth are in powerful positions but not trying to maintain peace among different tribes. Grendel’s Mother firstly does not get a name even though the other women have a name. Also, her fight with Beowulf was more demanding than his fight with Grendel. She is stronger and does not exist under the rule of a man. But according to Beowulf and the Danes, she needed to be dealt with. During her fight with Beowulf, there was a sexual undertone in the way he needed to be on top and take her down. And, when she was the first to attack, he immediately went into action to be on the offense. When she had the advantage and power, he would attack back harder to gain control. She was a grieving mother who sought revenge for the death of her son, and everyone saw her as an unruly, tyrannical monster. The other woman in this category is Queen Modthryth, who would kill anyone who said anything negative about her. She was the tyrannical daughter of a King. She would kill any man who walked into her hall or who looked her in the eye. But all of this changed after “Hemming’s kinsman put a halt to her ways/ And drinkers round the table had another tale:/ She was less of a bane to people’s lives, / Less cruel-minded, after she was married/ To the brave Offa” (ll. 1944-1948). She is then described as kind and always doing good deeds. This only happened when she was brought under control of King Offa. She was known as the murderous princess and the kind Queen. In the end, both unruly women were brought under control by either by death or marriage, both bring balance to the male-dominated world.
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Women have one role that they play in the story of Beowulf and that is to be the peace weaver. But this does not mean that they are always successful at keeping the peace between kingdoms. Some are unsuccessful because the peace is dependent upon the actions and attitudes of the men. They perform their tasks to the best of their abilities and have a small amount of political power, but men will make the decisions in the end. The men will decide if they go to war or who will be the king after them. Women can voice their opinions, but that does not mean it will be considered. On the other hand, if women do not fill the role of a peace weaver and act in more masculine ways they need to be brought under control. They are considered more monstrous and they resolve to utilize their physical strength and power to have an impact on society rather than by marriage or their words. The qualities they exude goes against what is required and accepted by men during this time who expected women to be unassertive and unquestionably serve her king and people. The female sex is suppressed by the men in the story of Beowulf either by the way of following what the men require of them or controlled in some way.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major
Authors, 10th ed., vol. 1, W.W. Norton and Company, 2019, pp. 42–109.
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