On the Depiction of Women in Beowulf
Well, well – quite the blast from the past. Fiddling around with an old computer has yielded quite the treasure trove of old documents and university essays of mine, most of which I had thought lost forever. Today, I thought I would share one of them, an essay on Beowulf that was pretty well-received at the time (2008, or thereabouts I believe), and which potentially acts as a companion post to my series on female characters in Tolkien.
Alas, I have been unable to save the footnotes. Apologies in advance for that – the essay as submitted was not lacking in them, and the Bibliography was more detailed. The salvageable version reproduced here seems to have been a late draft, before the references were put in – there was certainly no plagiarism. And, no, notwithstanding the cited sections below, I can’t actually read Old English. My method with this essay was to read the text in modern translation, note the appropriate line(s), and then find the equivalent in the original Beowulf text.
Discuss the depiction of women in Beowulf (not forgetting Grendel’s mother!).
The depiction of women in Beowulf has been the focus of serious scholarship only in the last few decades, a situation that is hardly surprising given the overtly masculine focus of the poem’s central action, and the comparatively few women who actually appear. It is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous 1936 article ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,’ arguably one of the most important single pieces of Beowulf literary criticism ever written, does not mention a single female character until the appendices. Wealhtheow and company, as side characters of the human world, are pushed to one side by the monster-centric nature of the article, and, as for Grendel’s Mother, Tolkien treats her female status as being subsumed by her status as a monster. Tolkien already has Grendel and the unnamed dragon to reference – why mention the other monster when thematically she serves much the same cosmic purpose as her son? This scholarly neglect of women in Beowulf has been somewhat rectified since around 1970, even if it is only to note, like G.R. Overing does, that Beowulf’s female contingent are somewhat background figures.
Background figures or not, the depictions of the named women in Beowulf: Wealhtheow, Hygd, Hildeburh, Thryth, and Freawaru, as well as that of Grendel’s Mother, and various unnamed and alluded-to side characters, nevertheless make for an interesting series of literary snapshots. D.C. Porter’s enthusiastic, if flawed, attempt at enhancing the social importance of women in the poem provides a useful starting point.
Put simply, in Porter’s view, they each fulfil one of three broad literary functions: that of generous hostess, that of political ‘peace-weaver,’ or that of social saboteur. To these categorisations of Porter’s might be added a number of other roles played by females throughout the poem, such as funeral mourning, being active political players in their own right, being an object of male affection, being part of the Queen’s retinue, or merely being a household servant.
Beowulf’s women thus fulfil a role other than being mere decorative wallflowers to the masculine action: they have their own designated spheres of occasionally not inconsiderable influence, with arguably much of the social saboteur issues arising from females who simply cross the line over into the male domain (Thryth being the classic example, but Grendel’s Mother being also being a possibility, depending on how one views her).
In looking at the depiction of the woman as hostess, and indeed the depiction of socially acceptable human women in general, by far the most important character is Wealhtheow. While debate has long raged about the implications of her apparently peculiar name (it does seem odd that an highly respected Queen should have a name whose standard translation is ‘foreign slave’), Wealhtheow provides us with a portrait of a female character following her social duties to the letter, and in doing so providing a feminine ‘gold standard’ for her counterparts. We first encounter Wealhtheow when she is passing the mead-cup around the hall, letting each warrior drink in turn (612-630):
… Eode Wealhþeow forð,
cwen Hroðgares, cynna gemyndig,
grette goldhroden guman on healle,
ond þa freolic wif ful gesealde
ærest Eastdena eþelwearde,
bæd hine bliðne æt þære beorþege,
leodum leofne. He on lust geþeah
symbel ond seleful, sigerof kyning.
Ymbeode þa ides Helminga
duguþe ond geogoþe dæl æghwylcne,
sincfato sealde, oþþæt sæl alamp
þæt hio Beowulfe, beaghroden cwen
mode geþungen, medoful ætbær;
grette Geata leod, gode þancode
wisfæst wordum þæs ðe hire se willa gelamp
þæt heo on ænigne eorl gelyfde
fyrena frofre. He þæt ful geþeah,
wælreow wiga, æt Wealhþeon,
ond þa gyddode guþe gefysed
There is a very ceremonial flavour to Wealhtheow’s actions here, which is made explicit by the poet when he tells us that she is cynna gemyndig: mindful of ceremony. As various commentators, such as M. Enright, point out, Wealhtheow’s order of movement is also very deliberate: she starts off giving the cup to her husband, Hrothgar the King, then moves among the various other Danes on the mead benches, before finally going over to the foreign visitor, Beowulf. Clearly Wealhtheow is more than a simple cheerleader who walks around handing out drink: as Queen she has clearly delineated duties as a hostess, and is very well aware of customary practice and procedure. For his part, Beowulf also knows how the game is played; his reply greatly pleases the Queen, who, having completed her circuit with the cup, goes back to sit with her husband (639-641):
ðam wife þa word wel licodon,
gilpcwide Geates; eode goldhroden
freolicu folccwen to hire frean sittan.
Wealhtheow also plays the gracious hostess role to Beowulf a second time – after Beowulf defeats Grendel. Here the first thing she does after giving the cup to Hrothgar is to take it over to Beowulf, where in the best traditions of the popular Dark Age Germanic aristocrat, she proceeds to lavish him with generous gifts (1192-1196):
Beowulf Geata, be þæm gebroðrum twæm.
Him wæs ful boren ond freondlaþu
wordum bewægned, ond wunden gold
estum geeawed, earmreade twa,
hrægl ond hringas, healsbeaga mæst
þara þe ic on foldan gefrægen hæbbe.
Gift-giving (and gift-displaying: Wealhtheow is adorned with rings, as compared with the poor hapless Queen of the Swedes, who has all her jewellery taken from her) was a critical social customs among these people, since it reinforced social bonding. Once again the depiction of Wealhtheow is as a Queen who does what is expected of her, in terms of being a generous hostess, and in rewarding the heroism of her visitor, who has certainly been bumped up the list of mead-cup recipients after his exploits.
Apart from Wealhtheow, we also encounter two other females playing an active role as hostess: Hygelac’s Queen, Hygd, and Hrothgar’s daughter, Freawaru. We first encounter Hygd when Beowulf arrives back at Hygelac’s hall after his Danish adventures (1926-1931):
… Hygd swiðe geong,
wis, welþungen, þeah ðe wintra lyt
under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe,
Hæreþes dohtor; næs hio hnah swa þeah,
ne to gneað gifa Geata leodum,
This summation of the Geat Queen makes her sound like a Wealhtheow in training; despite her young age and comparative inexperience, Hygd is depicted as discerning, versed in courtly customs, and generous. Later it will also be seen that the similarities do not end there: Hygd, like Wealhtheow, is quite capable of playing the politics game. At the moment, however, the reader is presented with Hygd the courteous courtly hostess, who naturally does the obligatory mead-cup circuit (1980-1983):
… Meoduscencum hwearf
geond þæt healreced Hæreðes dohtor,
lufode ða leode, liðwæge bær
hæleðum to handa. …
Carrying mead-cups around the hall, speaking kindly to the warriors, and handing out wine: all very familiar. It is a similar case of déjà vu all over again when Beowulf recounts to Hygelac the behaviour of Freawaru (2020-2024):
Hwilum for duguðe dohtor Hroðgares
eorlum on ende ealuwæge bær;
þa ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, þær hio nægled sinc
Freawaru’s major interest to the reader is, however, not so much as yet another depiction of the female hostess wandering around with the ale-horn and providing drink for thirsty warriors, but rather as one of the poem’s two major examples of the female as inter-tribal ‘peace-weaver’. The idea behind the concept of the peace-weaver is that marrying a high-ranking woman of one tribe to a high-ranking man of another is a good way of burying the hatchet between those two tribes. In his speech to Hygelac, Beowulf starts off giving a description of Hrothgar’s plan to marry Freawaru off to Ingeld, in order to settle strife between the Danes and the Heathobards (2025-2029):
… Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafað þæs geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond þæt ræd talað,
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
However, Beowulf then expresses his lack of confidence in peace-weaving as a concept; he believes, not without reason, that tribal feuds are very hard to overcome (2029-2031):
… Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!
Beowulf then goes on to present us with a hypothetical scenario where Heathobard/Dane conflict would completely ruin Freawaru’s future marriage. All this, of course, only adds to our admiration for Wealhtheow, whom in passing is referred to as a famed, successful, peace-weaver (2016-2019):
… Hwilum mæru cwen,
friðusibb folca, flet eall geondhwearf,
bædde byre geonge; oft hio beahwriðan
secge sealde, ær hie to setle geong.
We might, of course, just be dealing with peace-weaver here as a generic kenning for women (Thryth, before marriage, is referred to as a peace-weaver), but given Wealhtheow’s ‘foreign’ name, it is certainly possible that she is the real deal. In any case, Freawaru is not alone in the poem in being depicted as a (probably) ‘failed’ peace-weaver. There is also Hildeburh, the poor unfortunate creature whose tale is sung by Hrothgar’s poet after Beowulf defeats Grendel, and who is subject to a struggle between the Frisians and the Danes. Hildeburh’s depiction as peace-weaver is particularly interesting from a sociological angle, since it seems implied that such women, given a conflict, are still expected to side with their blood relatives over their new in-laws:
Ne huru Hildeburh herian þorfte
Eotena treowe; unsynnum wearð
beloren leofum æt þam lindplegan,
bearnum ond broðrum; hie on gebyrd hruron,
gare wunde. þæt wæs geomuru ides!
Nalles holinga Hoces dohtor
meotodsceaft bemearn, syþðan morgen com,
ða heo under swegle geseon meahte
morþorbealo maga, þær heo ær mæste heold
worolde wynne. (1071-1080)
Het ða Hildeburh æt Hnæfes ade
hire selfre sunu sweoloðe befæstan,
banfatu bærnan ond on bæl don
eame on eaxle. Ides gnornode,
geomrode giddum. (1114-1118)
The people Hildeburh is mourning are her son and brother, and the shared funeral pyre is all about shared kinship. The fact that her brother fell fighting the people of which she is now ostensibly Queen does not influence her feelings. There is also no corresponding mention of Hildeburh mourning the death of her new husband, the Frisian King, Finn, with whom she has had her son. Indeed all we get is a brief reference to Hildeburh being taken back to her own people by the triumphant Danes (1157-1159):
… Hie on sælade
drihtlice wif to Denum feredon,
læddon to leodum.
No wonder Beowulf is so negative about Freawaru’s chances with the Heathobards: this is a world where ties of marriage are fragile things compared with the bonds and obligations of actual blood relationships. It takes a rare individual indeed (possibly Wealhtheow) to transcend those sorts of obstacles and become a true weaver of peace between two conflicting peoples. It is also noteworthy that these descriptions of Hildeburh depict her wailing at her brother and son’s funeral pyre: a probably deliberate parallel with the unnamed woman who wails at Beowulf’s funeral.
Having discussed two of Porter’s categorisations of Beowulfian women, there is also the third, darker, category to consider: the two non-conformist, social saboteur females of the poem, Thryth and Grendel’s Mother. We encounter Thryth in a digression that is clearly aimed at contrasting her with the admirable figure of Hygd, and providing an historical lesson on not what to do as Queen (in much the same way as Heremod serves as an historical example of not what to do as King)(1931-1943):
… Mod þryðo wæg,
fremu folces cwen, firen ondrysne.
Nænig þæt dorste deor geneþan
swæsra gesiða, nefne sinfrea,
þæt hire an dæges eagum starede,
ac him wælbende weotode tealde
handgewriþene; hraþe seoþðan wæs
æfter mundgripe mece geþinged,
þæt hit sceadenmæl scyran moste,
cwealmbealu cyðan. Ne bið swylc cwenlic þeaw
idese to efnanne, þeah ðe hio ænlicu sy,
þætte freoðuwebbe feores onsæce
æfter ligetorne leofne mannan.
Whereas Hygd is taking the Wealhtheowian route of achieving social respectability through generosity and courtesy, Thryth goes down the path of tyranny. Proud, perverse, and pernicious, to quote Crossley-Holland’s translation, Thryth turns peace-weaving into trouble-stirring with her high-handed cruelty towards men; as the poet explicitly notes, such behaviour is simply not acceptable from females in this society. Fortunately, from the point of view of social normality, Thryth then subsequently mends her ways after being shipped off to marry Offa (1944-1957):
Huru þæt onhohsnode Hemminges mæg;
ealodrincende oðer sædan,
þæt hio leodbealewa læs gefremede,
inwitniða, syððan ærest wearð
gyfen goldhroden geongum cempan,
æðelum diore, syððan hio Offan flet
ofer fealone flod be fæder lare
siðe gesohte; ðær hio syððan well
in gumstole, gode, mære,
lifgesceafta lifigende breac,
hiold heahlufan wið hæleþa brego,
ealles moncynnes mine gefræge
þone selestan bi sæm tweonum,
While there is an element of the female being put in her place, it should also be pointed out that the newly virtuous Thryth is said to have ruled with vision. Or, in other words, being socially acceptable does not necessarily imply sacrificing all one’s brains or ability on the altar of conformity.
And then, of course, there is Grendel’s Mother. She, like her monstrous cannibal son, is very much outside society in any conventional sense, living at the bottom of a lake. But, on the other hand, she is arguably not completely alien: her desire for vengeance is all-too understandable in the context of a Germanic society, so much so that it has been seriously suggested that one major reason she puts up such a fight (in spite of being demonstrably weaker than her son) is because the poet semi-sympathises with her predicament.
Counter-balancing this, however, is the notion that, monstrousness aside, vengeance is very much a man’s game in this society. Grendel’s Mother, as a female effecting vengeance, and also one who has ruled her own little domain for many a year, is intruding on the twin masculine domains of violence and leadership. Thryth is unacceptably violent, yet the murders she commits are not done with her own hand, nor does she ever aspire to pseudo-kingship. Grendel’s Mother thus goes even further than Thryth in terms of perverting acceptable gender roles. And, as with Thryth, this situation cannot endure: Thryth is tamed by marriage, whereas Grendel’s Mother is tamed by death.
If there is indeed a gender-role ‘line’ that female characters are not permitted to cross, where does this leave Wealhtheow, Hygd, and company? Are they merely coat hangers for pretty jewellery, political pawns for their husbands and fathers, and polite hostesses fulfilling niceties while their male counterparts go about ruling and fighting? The answer appears to be no. Even ignoring the previously mentioned reference to a redeemed Thryth ruling with vision, both Wealhtheow and Hygd appear to wield some hefty political influence, influence that seems largely directed at working in the best interests of their sons. Consider Wealhtheow’s speech to Beowulf after the latter’s defeat of Grendel (1215-1232):
Wealhðeo maþelode, heo fore þæm werede spræc:
“Bruc ðisses beages, Beowulf leofa,
hyse, mid hæle, ond þisses hrægles neot,
þeodgestreona, ond geþeoh tela,
cen þec mid cræfte ond þyssum cnyhtum wes
lara liðe; ic þe þæs lean geman.
Hafast þu gefered þæt ðe feor ond neah
ealne wideferhþ weras ehtigað,
efne swa side swa sæ bebugeð,
windgeard, weallas. Wes þenden þu lifige,
æþeling, eadig. Ic þe an tela
sincgestreona. Beo þu suna minum
dædum gedefe, dreamhealdende.
Her is æghwylc eorl oþrum getrywe,
modes milde, mandrihtne hold;
þegnas syndon geþwære, þeod ealgearo,
druncne dryhtguman doð swa ic bidde.”
Eode þa to setle.
Wealhtheow has noted that Beowulf is sitting next to her two sons, and has noticed that Hrothgar’s nephew, Hrothulf, the greatest political threat to their future, is sitting next to Hrothgar. She correspondingly attempts to enlist Beowulf in support of her endangered sons, while at the same time making it very clear (doð swa ic bidde) that her ‘side’ of the succession battle is not without support – Wealhtheow is someone Hrothgar’s thanes listen to, trust, and (apparently) obey. Hrothgar’s Queen has thus gone from being a mere dispenser of ceremonies, gifts, and alcohol to an active participant in Danish politics; while she herself may not personally lead the Kingdom, she can exert a fair amount of influence over the ascension of those who will.
Similarly, in the Geatish crisis following the death of Hygelac in the ill-fated Frisian raid, Hygd starts playing kingmaker, offering the throne to Beowulf. Unlike Wealhtheow, Hygd is actively trying to avoid her son’s ascension to the throne, but she is doing so for the best possible reasons: fearing that her young son will be unable to hold it in response to outside pressures, she is simultaneously trying to avoid trouble for her son, while at the same time trying to ensure that the Geats have a strong and effective leader on the throne.
The most interesting aspect of all this, however, is not so much why Hygd might offer the throne to Beowulf, but the fact that she is in a position to play kingmaker at all. Since, as Porter points out, there is no reason to suspect that Hygd is suffering from delusions of grandeur, once again we are confronted with an example of a female playing power politics without slipping into Thryth (or Grendel’s Mother!) territory. Were the poem more social-focused and less monster-focused, these individuals might have had a better chance of avoiding their long marginalisation at the hands of literary critics (albeit that a Beowulf without the monster-focus would be entirely lacking a raison d’etre!).
In conclusion, the depiction of women in Beowulf is limited – we are really only dealing with four Queens, a Queen-to-be, and a monster – and something of a thematic backwater. Beowulf is, first and foremost, and despite the reinterpretive efforts of the likes of Porter, a man’s world. That said, it would be altogether wrongheaded to dismiss the female characters who do appear as utter irrelevancies; this overlooks the social context of characters such as Wealhtheow, Queen and ceremonial hostess extraordinaire, Hildeburh, ill-fated peace-weaver, or Thryth and Grendel’s Mother, socially unacceptable females on the inside and outside of society respectively. Moreover, it ignores the fact that individuals such as Wealhtheow and Hygd have fairly shrewd political brains in their own right (arguably shrewder than their respective husbands), and are in a position to use that intelligence to further the cause of their own bloodline. Beowulf’s female characters may be facing rigidly delineated social spheres, but within these spheres (and outside them, if we consider Grendel’s Mother), they wield a degree of power and social purpose that is not to be ignored.
Overing G.R., “The Women of Beowulf: A Context for Interpretation,” in Beowulf: Basic Readings, Peter S. Baker, ed., 1995, pp.219-260.
Porter, D.C., “The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context,” in The Heroic Age, Issue 5, Summer/Autumn 2001.
Puhvel, M., “The Might of Grendel’s Mother,” in Folklore, Vol. 80, Issue 2, 1969, pp.81-88.