“Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum / þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon, / hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon” translates to “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns” (ll. 1-3). Thus begins the Old English poem Beowulf, which offers one of the few remaining glimpses of Anglo-Saxon culture. Oral poetry, perhaps even more so than the written word, shows a clear picture of the expectations and values of a culture; Plato, in theorizing his Utopia, proposed to ban all storytellers, as he felt they influenced society too greatly (Osborn 49). Marijane Osborn quotes Eric A. Havelock, who referred to oral verse as “[an] instrument of a cultural indoctrination, the ultimate purpose of which was the preservation of group identity” (49). Even Sigmund Freud found that another’s story may have a serious impact on a person’s identity if it is seen as a model upon which to base one’s own actions (49). One could, therefore, look at Beowulf as not only a story of mighty deeds and monsters, but as part of a template meant to show others how to act in Anglo-Saxon society. Beowulf is a tale of violence and vengeance, feats of strength and acts of mercy, and, perhaps accordingly, few women. Outside of tales and boasts told within the framework of the poem, there are only two women who have a real impact on Beowulf's central narrative: Queen Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife, and Grendel’s dam, or mother. The rest, including Hildeburh, Hygd, Frewawaru, and Modthryth, are relegated mainly to side stories and cautionary tales. Given this lack of female presence, and the dearth of lines given to them, one might be excused for believing that women were trivialized in Anglo-Saxon society, much as they are trivialized in the story: the women are shouldered out of the spotlight to make way for the big, burly heroes who must invariably kill some horrendous monster. A closer and more nuanced look, however, reveals a far deeper and more layered treatment of its subjects, in regards to the characters of Wealhtheow and Grendel’s mother as well as the titular hero, Beowulf.
In order to examine the depictions of Wealhtheow and Grendel’s mother, one must first gain some understanding of the context in which they are portrayed, as well as the usual roles of women in other Old English writing and the thematically and linguistically similar Icelandic sagas. While it may be tempting to label all women depicted in such literature as helpless, marginalized maidens pushed to the outside of the narrative, this is rarely the case. Despite being a highly patriarchal society, Anglo-Saxon culture shows that women are often depicted in roles which, while far from the equality sought today, are invested with more importance and capability than more modern texts. In the essay “Vows, Boasts and Taunts, and the Role of Women in Some Medieval Literature,” Michael Murphy claims:
[I]t is, in every respect, a long way from Wealhtheow to Isabella [of Castile]. Not the least ironic of the contrasts between their two positions is the real possibility of female influence in the predominantly male world of the epic, and the joke that such an idea has become in the ‘feminized’ world of Romance. (112)
Murphy is referring to the popular European legend that the term isabelline, a dingy, grey-white color, was created during the siege of Granada; so sure was she in her husband Ferdinand's ability, Isabella of Castile vowed not to remove her shift until the city was taken. The siege, however, lasted longer than expected, and by the time Ferdinand stood victorious, it is said her shift was, well, isabelline. While only a popular legend, it illustrates that women—and their vows—were looked at with a comical disdain in the more ‘civilized’ Late Middle Ages; this contrasts sharply with the depiction of both in the earlier, more ‘barbaric’ age of Beowulf (Murphy 112).
The most common of female Anglo-Saxon duties is the role of peacemaker; indeed, women are most often found in Old English and Icelandic lore as peacemakers. As explained in Robert Morey’s essay, within their families (and courts, in the case of noblewomen), women engendered peaceful relations between fathers and sons, lords and retainers, and even visiting royalty. The Beowulf poet states this explicitly in the tale of Queen Modthryrth, proclaiming, “A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent / with loss of life for imagined insults” (ll. 1942-3). In Beowulf, Wealhtheow aptly plays this peacemaking role as she greets Beowulf and his entourage, then serves as cup-bearer, ensuring the diplomatic relations amongst all present (ll. 612-30). Wealhtheow performs a similar service a second time after she listens to the story of Finnsburg, and once more offers a goblet with splendid gifts as a sort of talisman to protect her family from the fate shared by Queen Hildeburh in the story (ll. 1167-1231).
Equally important is the noblewoman’s duty of ensuring peace between tribes through intermarriage. To participate in a political marriage to settle disputes and put a stop to feuds was perhaps the most important role a woman could play in Old English poetry. Many of the women mentioned in Beowulf, from Hildeburh and Wealhtheow to Freawaru, are from foreign tribes, married to their husbands in an attempt to broker peace (Morey). Though it may prove somewhat offensive to modern views, such betrothals afforded women one of the only true methods of ensuring an end to the seemingly endless cycles of violence and revenge that are so prevalent in literature from this period. The role of peace-weaver carried such importance that the poem itself seems to imply, according to Alaric Hall, that Hygelac, Beowulf's lord and king of the Geats, was foolish to give his only daughter to his retainer Eofor as a reward for killing the Swedish king Ongentheow. By using his daughter as a reward for further violence, rather than as a peace offering to the Swedes to end their feud, Hygelac has perpetuated the cycle of vengeance that modern literary analysis has painted as such a major theme in Beowulf (Hall 81).
This cycle of vengeance is an important aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture, and is key in understanding women’s role in society. In addition to their role as peace-weavers, women are often shown in another light: that of the inciter. Vow-making and boast-making are integral parts of early English literature: women are often the 'unofficial' taunters in these situations, spurring the hero on to action (Murphy 105). Looking to the Icelandic sagas, particularly those which focus on family, women are the ones most frequently found to cultivate the act of revenge. Thus, as explained by Paul Acker, while inciting vengeance is considered women’s work, the act itself is reserved for men (705). Murphy supports this stance, writing, “the strong-willed and forceful women of the [Icelandic] sagas have been much written about, for they are strikingly different from the women in most other medieval literature. Nevertheless, we can see traces of such female influence even in a poem as unfeminine as Beowulf” (105). Though Wealhtheow does not serve as the ‘taunter’ per se in Beowulf, it is worth noting that it is only after she has spoken to Beowulf and he has made his vow to her that Beowulf is definitively set as Hrothgar’s champion (Murphy 111). Accepting the cup from Wealhtheow, Beowulf says to her:
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead-hall. (ll. 634-8)
Acker argues that Helen Damico goes a step farther, claiming that Wealhtheow's act of presenting a cup to Beowulf represents a “symbolic incitement and [is] a reflex of typical Valkyrie behavior” (Acker 706). With such an ingrained sense of revenge and use of violence, one can see the dual roles of both peace-keeper and inciter are powerful responsibilities. This sense of ‘an eye for an eye’ is so accepted in Anglo-Saxon culture that neither the narrator of Beowulf nor its characters ever condemn Grendel's mother for her actions, which may have well seemed not only logical, but expected after the death of her son (Hennequin 516). So the role of women in Anglo-Saxon society, at least according to Beowulf, is far from simple or marginalized; from brokering peace to reminding the men of their vows and pledges, women are the “‘mortar that cements the bricks;’ they facilitate relationships among men” (Morey).
One aspect of Beowulf that more specifically separates the women from the men is the presence of monologue, or the lack thereof. As an oral piece that was later transcribed, inner monologues and deliberations in Beowulf are illustrated through soliloquies and not silent thought. This technique is to be expected given the difficulties of conveying unspoken inner monologues through verbal speech. Twice in Beowulf, however, there occurs deliberation which is, uncharacteristically, not conveyed directly to the reader. As stated in her paper, “‘The Wealth They Left Us’: Two Women Author Themselves Through Others’ Lives,” Osborn points out that both instances of silent deliberation are focused on women considering stories about other women (56). The first instance is after Wealhtheow hears the story of the Finnsburg conflict. She clearly takes stock of the tale of Hildeburh (ll. 1167-1231), and immediately afterwards, without showing any obvious signs of processing the poem, takes extra precautions to ensure that her children do not share the fate of Hildeburh's loved ones:
Here each comrade is true to the other,
loyal to lord, loving in spirit.
The thanes have one purpose, the people are ready:
having drunk and pledged, the ranks do as I bid. (ll. 1228-31)
This reinforcement of social unity, and the authority which with Wealtheow speaks (“doð swa ic bidde,” literally, “you do thus I bid”) must be a reaction to the Finnsburg poem as it is recited: otherwise, it would make little to no sense to be placed directly afterwards (Osborn 56). The second occasion for such deliberate thought through action is in the case of Queen Hygd, who is married to Beowulf's lord, Hygelac. Initially portrayed as a generous and wise queen, the reader later learns that she has probably based her behavior on the second half of the story of Queen Modthryth, who was wicked and vengeful before she was married to Offa, but then became just and beloved. The poet, by placing Modthryth’s tale immediately after the description of Hygd, links the two queens, thus implying the aforementioned foundation of Hygd’s personality on Modthryth’s mistakes (ll. 1926-62). Both examples show that while the inner monologue is never portrayed to the reader, the presence of these stories clearly altered the behavior of the women who saw in them a mirror of their own situations (Osborn 56-7). Thus, the women in Beowulf are portrayed not only as the foundation of Anglo-Saxon society, but intelligent, decisive characters, fully ready to interpret information and change their approaches without waffling or seeking aid from others.
Queen Wealhtheow, as the poem’s largest non-monstrous female presence, deserves special consideration. Traditionally, she is seen as a marginal player in Beowulf, an extension of Hrothgar’s power and little more. According to Dorothy Carr Porter, in Lady with a Mead Cup, Michael J. Enright argues that Wealhtheow and other noblewomen of her status have little impact on politics, with their only real power being limited to within the tribe. Wealhtheow’s speech after Grendel is defeated, however, disputes this claim. Here she requests that Hrothgar honor Beowulf, but not make him heir to the Danish throne: “now the word is that you want to adopt / this warrior as a son... bequeath / kingdom and nation to your kith and kin” (ll. 1175-9). The ‘kith and kin’ Wealhtheow is referring to is Hrothgar’s nephew, Hrothulf, who, she assures Hrothgar, “will treat our children truly and fairly” (ll. 1182). Porter asserts, “In this act, Wealhtheow is actively protecting her own interests, and the poet gives no indication that her words were ignored or not accepted into consideration by Hrothgar.” Therefore, Wealhtheow is shown to have some agency and influence over the Danish politics of inheritance.
Wealhtheow’s second speech, issued soon after the hall is regaled with the tragedy of Finnsburg, is also a key instrument in understanding her character. While Porter pairs Wealhtheow with Hygd as a “Hostess” Queen, other scholars have paired her with Hildeburh, the Queen in the Finnsburg story. In the story, Hildeburh finds her son and brother both lying dead on the field of battle, members of different warring factions engaged in an old feud. This outbreak of violence results in the death of those Hildeburh loves the most. She arranges her son and brother on a pyre side-by-side as companions, and later her Frisian husband, Finn, is also slain when old promises are broken:
Thus blood was spilled, the gallant Finn
slain in his home after Guthlaf and Oslaf
back from their voyage made old accusation:
the brutal ambush, the fate they had suffered,
all blamed on Finn.(ll. 1146-50)
It is clear that Wealhtheow takes this lesson to heart, and understands that the fate of Hildeburh may yet befall her and her family, with an ailing husband and sons too young to take the throne. There is little doubt that her following speech, where she tries to clarify the lines of succession and enforce peace in the coming upheaval, is a direct response to Hildeburh's tale of woe. Osborn points out that W.W. Lawrence went so far as to ask, “May it not be, too, that the story of Queen Hildeburh was here designedly brought into connection with the tragedy in store for Queen Wealhtheow, which must have been well-known to the people for whom the poet of Beowulf wrote?” (58). Adrian Bonjour replies to this question by answering that “the parallel between Hildeburh and Wealhtheow is unmistakable” (58). Osborn goes a step further, suggesting that the tale of Finnsburg as it is presented in Beowulf is not what the scop, or poet, is actually reciting to the assembly, but rather is filtered through Wealhtheow's concerns. Osborn claims the reader is hearing the story colored by the direct application it has to Wealhtheow’s own situation, and this is why Hildeburh’s tale of woe seems so applicable (59).
Though Porter classifies Hildeburh as a freothuwebbe, or peace-weaver, and Wealhtheow as a hostess, it is not a stretch to consider Wealhtheow as fulfilling both roles at once. Though never explicitly stated, it may be gathered from contextual evidence that she was married to Hrothgar from her own people, the Helmingas, as a way to brook peace between them and the Danes. In this aspect, Wealhtheow is among the most successful peacemakers, as many of the other peace-weaver queens have failed to ensure peace between the tribes. John M. Hill feels that Wealhtheow is a strong counter-example to the flawed marriages and relationships of both Hildeburh and Freawaru. Porter quotes him as saying, “there is no suggestion that her own marriage to Hrothgar has been anything but a success.” It also should be mentioned that when these other marriages fail to foster peace, it is due to the flaws of men, not of the women or marriages themselves (Hall 85).
Why, then, is Wealhtheow traditionally considered a weak, minor character in Beowulf, when she seems to yield substantial power both as a peace-weaver and Hrothgar’s queen? While one may place the blame on her name, which can be literally translated as “foreign servant / slave,” this seems more a product of denoting her status as a foreigner in Hrothgar’s court (Hall 85). One may be well-served in more closely examining the English translation of Beowulf by Frederick Klaeber, a German philologist who, for almost a century, was responsible for the only canonical version of the Beowulf manuscript. As Josephine Bloomfield asserts in her article, “Diminished by Kindness: Frederick Klaeber's Rewriting of Wealhtheow,” while Wealhtheow’s appearance in Beowulf may be limited, “it is also powerful and revealing.” Bloomfield later points out the significance “that in the fifty-five-line passage describing Wealhtheow's motivations and exhortations during the victory celebration for Beowulf, Klaeber glosses five separate words (milde, glaed, freondlapu, lide, gedefe) in seven occurrences as ‘kind’ or ‘kindness.’” This translation shifts Wealhtheow “from peace weaver and power broker to tender maternal care-giver...by this series of uniform glosses to emphasize personal affection over tribal necessity.” Many of these words which Klaeber translated to “kind” or “kindness” have more logical and powerful translations based on not just Beowulf but other Old English literature as we know it. It is telling that, rather than represent the patriarchal view of Anglo-Saxon society, the character of Wealhtheow may very well illustrate the views of the more modern societies which have studied and translated her (Bloomfield). Rather than simply being an extension of Hrothgar's influence in Heorot, Wealhtheow proves herself to be a clever, intelligent woman, who is not only adept at maintaining peace in the violence-soaked world of Beowulf, but also at preparing for the future and learning from the mistakes of others. She is the voice of wisdom, of peace, and of welcome, and, for a woman in Anglo-Saxon society, she serves as an ideal to be admired.
So far relatively little has been said of Grendel’s mother, and for good cause; set up as one of three antagonists, she is far removed from the other women of Beowulf. Jane Chance claims that Grendel’s mother is actually “a sort of anti-queen, an inversion of the peace-weaver and ides” (Hennequin 503-4). Rather than perform a peacekeeping or diplomatic function, Grendel’s mother plays the part of the avenger and ruler. This is notable, for, in Old English and Icelandic verse, these roles are almost solely male domains. Though often portrayed as peace-weavers, and sometimes inciters, women are rarely, if ever, seen as the avenging force. The aggressiveness of Grendel's mother is seen by Jane Chance as an act of “masculine aggression” contrasted against the more passive, feminine methods of Hildeburh and Wealhtheow (Hennequin 504). This sense of wrongness may be what makes Grendel’s mother so terrifying; in an age where women were empowered primarily through their sons, a situation where the son is slain and the mother seeks revenge must have seemed horrifyingly alien. Acker writes, “That a female creature and more particularly a maternal one takes this revenge may have highlighted its monstrousness. Unlike Hildeburh and Wealhtheow, Grendel's mother acts aggressively, arguably in a fashion reserved for men” (704-5). Acker later highlights the sheer wrongness of the situation, comparing the relationship between Grendel and his mother to something so far removed as the animal kingdom: “such a figure could only be a monster from the frontiers of the human world, on the borders of the animal world, in which for instance a mother bear might come roaring from her den to protect her cub” (707). Though it may seem strange to modern audiences, the notion that a female would play the role of an avenging kinsman, and thereby assume the mantle of masculinity (and a sense of noble masculinity at that), would have made the Anglo-Saxon listeners very uncomfortable. The link between Grendel’s mother and masculinity was no mistake or subtle reference. The poem twice labels Grendel’s mother’s vengeance as masculine; first, the narrative refers to her as a wrecend, which is a masculine form of ‘avenger’; second, Beowulf refers to her as Grendel's “kinsman,” and uses masculine pronouns to refer to her in that passage (Hennequin 512).
In addition to assuming a masculine role in seeking vengeance for her son, Grendel’s mother also takes on the role of male nobility in that she, not Grendel, is the ruler of her realm, the mere. Notably, it is said that she has ruled her realm for fifty years, which happens to be the same amount of time both Hrothgar and, later, Beowulf, rule their respective kingdoms (Hennequin 511). She is not a noble woman, meant to maintain peace among both her own family and neighboring tribes, but a nobleman, of the business of shattering that peace and managing aggression. By serving as a ruler, Grendel's mother assumes yet another masculine stereotype, and as a ruler, when she returns to Heorot to take revenge, she is neither committing murder nor seeking justice; she is “þa fæhðe wræc”—“avenging the feud” (Hennequin 512).
Grendel’s mother becomes most terrifying when seeking vengeance; she is the horrible but inevitable pinnacle of a society built of feuding tribes and uneasy peace: a mother so fiercely protective of her son, so empowered with rage and a drive for revenge, that she is capable of threatening “not just an individual man's dominance but the whole system of male dominance... she does not ‘respect borders, positions, rules’” (Acker 708). This disrespect of masculine rule is the true source of her power, both in the narrative and as a cautionary tale to Anglo-Saxon society. Her threat to male dominance is very real in her fight with Beowulf; if he embodies the masculine ideal, it is here when, for once, that ideal fails him. His battle with Grendel is presented simply, as Grendel is “out-manned” by someone with greater strength than his own; the battle with his mother, however, takes a different form, as she refuses to face Beowulf in such a basic contest of strength and instead lures him into her den, where his armor is torn from his body and his sword proves ineffective for the first time in his life (Acker 708). Indeed, one could see undertones of a reversed sense of sexuality in the battle: Beowulf is disarmed and then wrestled to the ground, where Grendel's mother sits on him and attempts to skewer him with a large knife. Though she is eventually defeated, the encounter is perhaps the most memorable of Beowulf's three battles, the instance when the fury of a mother seeking revenge threatens to overwhelm the male ideal and, possibly, the gender roles of their society.
The fight with Grendel’s mother is not the only time Beowulf's masculine role in the story may be called into question. In Morey’s essay, “Beowulf's Androgynous Heroism,” he posits that “when he [Beowulf] crosses tribal lines to aid Hrothgar's Danes, however—even though his conduct there includes some sweaty brutality—Beowulf becomes distinctly feminized.” Morey argues that, by killing Grendel and ensuring the peaceful existence of Hrothgar’s mead-hall, Beowulf is forging a bond between Geats and Danes, one which shares many similarities to the previously mentioned bonds forged through marriage. This relationship is perhaps even stronger, as Hrothgar proclaims, “So now, Beowulf / I adopt you in my heart as a dear son” (ll. 945-6). Beowulf seems to echo this sense of kinship, as before he dives into the mere he asks if Hrothgar “would act like a father to [him] afterwards” if he is slain (l. 1479). In this case, by establishing a bond that can be seen as a blood relationship, Beowulf is acting almost as, to quote Morey, a “commodified bride.”
This instance of gender ambiguity serves as a precursor to the fight with Grendel's mother, which is certainly the most obvious instance of gender swapping in Beowulf. Grendel's mother—who, as previously mentioned, acts with a characteristically male drive and intensity—temporarily manages to subdue Beowulf and inverse their positions. As he lies on his back and attempts to avoid being stabbed by Grendel's dam, the roles have clearly been reversed. This is the moment where Beowulf is shown, as Morey puts it, “the feminized object of his antagonist’s male-imagined sexual violence.” It is only after this, when Beowulf manages to break free and regain his “manhood” (in this case, a sword “from the days of the giants”) that he manages to prevail (Beowulf, l. 1559). The language which follows—proclaiming the sword “one that any warrior would envy” and closing the fight with the line, “The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated”—is highly suggestive of the sexual act; the poet seems almost amused at the similarities (ll. 1560, 1569).
It is important to note, at the end of the poem, it is not Beowulf's violent antics the Geats speak of in mourning their great king. Never is the subject of Grendel or his mother, nor his battle against the sea serpents, nor even the fight with the dragon, mentioned as they say farewell to him, except to regret the tragedy of that encounter. Rather, Beowulf is remembered as “the man most gracious and fair-minded, / kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (ll. 3182-3). Even in his fierceness, he can be seen as a peace-weaver; the messenger who delivers the news of Beowulf's death predicts that soon, without Beowulf to stop them, the Geats shall be at war with the Franks and the Frisians, and even the Swedes will want their revenge from Hygelac’s actions. Therefore, the warring of feuds comes full circle, because, without Beowulf keeping the peace, the Geats shall be overrun by their enemies in a culmination of the feuds he had helped to deter with his very presence. It is perhaps, then, no coincidence that several of the words spoken to eulogize Beowulf in the final two lines of the poem—þwære, milde, liþe, that is, gentle, merciful, and kind, respectively—had been placed together in only one other instance: the speeches of Wealhtheow (Morey). One can only guess that this is done purposefully, and Morey claims “the image of the hero that closes the poem hearkens back to what is arguably the most sublimely peaceful scene of the poem, and the image links Beowulf with the poem's finest female peace-weaver, Wealhtheow.” In doing so, the Geats look not to the violence and heroic exploits of Beowulf, but to the aspects of his character which make him a great king: his kindness, his fairness, and his ability to broker peace—aspects that he shares with the women of Beowulf.
The traditional view of the women in Beowulf as weak, extraneous characters used only to pass mead and worry about their children is patently false. Wealhtheow is a strong, intelligent character, shown to be both shrewd and competent in her duties as peace-weaver and hostess, and plays a pivotal role in the narrative. Grendel’s mother, on the other hand, is far from the mindless monster, as the modern reader may think of her, and serves as both an amalgamation of gender roles and, perhaps more importantly, a grim warning to society if feuding remains unchecked. On the other hand, Beowulf is not nearly the unrestrained image of masculinity that he is often depicted as: never marrying, often coming in peace, he is perhaps one of the most successful “females” in the poem (Morey). If one is to understand Anglo-Saxon culture from Beowulf, it is necessary to avoid superficial analysis of both its women and men. An oversimplification of the themes of Beowulf into an easy-to-swallow pill of ‘men are powerful, women are weak’ is a disservice both to Beowulf as a piece of literature and Anglo-Saxon society as a whole. The theme and characters of the poem, even those who appear for only a handful of lines, are far too complex to be reduced to simple caricatures. The women of Beowulf have had their legacy damaged by biased translators and surface-level analysis; continued academic analysis and discourse, however, will return them to the position of respect they were never meant to abdicate.