The Role of Women in Beowulf

In the epic poem dubbed ‘Beowulf,’ women portrait various parts, which are critical to its development. Though it mainly focuses on stout men, the poem has outlined many different roles women play, ranging from entertainers and peacemakers, to the ones that contradict social expectations. The women presented in the poem are central to the ways the society assumes its roles.

The poem gives expression to women that offer influence over the predominantly male group, while also highlighting how women provide the voice of reason to their husbands. Women depicted in the poem include peace weaver, hostesses, and a monster. The events that transpire in the poem suggest women should not be taken lightly, as they play an essential role in society. The two queens in the poem are Wealhtheow and Hygd, and they played a major role.

Not only were they deemed as hostesses from their roles during the hall ceremonies, they also took part in diplomacy (Shelley 37). In the Anglo-Saxon society, the gallant women played a central role by bringing people together at the hall. Mainly, the hall was used as a communal place, where people would come to fully discuss the various issues that transpired in their society. Wealhtheow is vividly described in the poem as being not only polite, but also as a noble-hearted queen.

As a hostess, she ensured that she carried the mead cup and passed it on to the king and warriors. This illustrated her noble status in the society as an ideal wife for the king. Hygd is young, beautiful, kind, and always gentle. Conversely, she is often contrasted with queen Modthryth, due to Modthryth’s cruelty and wickedness. The queens play crucial roles in influencing how politics are conducted in the kingdom.

For instance, during the celebration of Grendel’s death, Wealhtheow addresses Hrothgar by pointing out the need to be gracious towards the Geats. She also argues with Beowulf by insisting that he should not be made the heir of the kingdom (Shelley 45). This is because she heard that Beowulf wished to take the warrior to be a son to him. It is for this purpose as to why she encouraged Beowulf to make Hrothulf his heir as a means of protecting her sons. The latter implies that Wealhthoew is safeguarding her interest by making sure someone from the family inherits the kingdom, as opposed to letting an outsider rise to the position of power.

The issues she raised were taken into consideration, and this indicates she has some influence on the decisions that Hrothgar made. When Wealhtheow presented the gift to Beowulf, she urged him to accept it. The words she used to express herself to Beowulf signify that she was not only generous, but also kind. The act of giving gifts established reciprocity – leading to the existence of meaningful exchanges between the giver and the receiver (Weekes 68). Further, these exchanges are what led to the formation of succession in the kingdom.

Additionally, the speech that Wealhtheow gave reflected confidence and self-assurance, which reveals the gift she had to influence people easily. Hygd displays another example of political power. For instance, after her husband passed away she tried to pass the kingdom to Beowulf, while insisting that her son was not ready to rule the Geats. Hygd’s gesture places her in the role of her husband by making key decisions he would have made, which is another indication that women in the poem are not marginal (Shelley 50).

Instead, they are playing central roles by having a significant influence on political decisions and giving orders when they feel there is a need to do so. Hildeburh and Freawaru are regarded as peace-weavers because they were married into rival groups as a means for maintaining peace. However, when the opposing groups found peace and united, the women had a significant influence on both groups by being used as a connection through marriage. For instance, the daughter of the Danish king, Hildeburh, was married to Finn, the king of the Jutes to establish long-lasting goodwill between the two groups. Hildeburh’s commission as a peace-weaver was rooted through Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel (Taylor 89).

Recognizing her role, she married a Jute and had a son with him – mixing the blood of the Danish with the Jutes. Nevertheless, this union was short lived, as the two groups kept on fighting, leading to the deaths of Hildeburh’s brother, son, and husband. An additional attempt at unity is conveyed through King Hrothgar’s daughter, Freawaru with her marriage to Ingeld, who was the king of the Heathobards. This was regarded as an insult because the two groups had been enemies for several years.

On the contrary, there are two monstrous women in the poem, Thryth and Grendel’s mother. They are seen as villians because they are not only comfortable, but also satisfied with using violence to solve disputes (Weekes 74). Grendel’s mother is independent and has no problem defending herself. She lives in her own house and even takes the initiative to confront Beowulf in rataliation for Grendel’s death.

Thryth, who is depicted as not only an evil princess, but also one who is guilty of committing many crimes, including murder. Like it or not, even female villains play a powerful role in Beowulf. Yet, there is one significant difference between the two women – one never had social status, and the other was a princess. Thryth functioned well in society and had significant social status (Taylor 102). Perhaps, the community surrounding her contributed to her transformation and finding love with Offa had something to do with it too.

Correspondingly, Grendel’s mother was shaped by the death of her son, so in a roundabout way she was influenced by society as well. The happenings illustrated in the story show the critical roles women played. The duties they carry out include peace weavers, cupbearers, and hostesses, among others. Women also take part in active politics, while making critical decisions that affect the way the kingdom is run. Women seem to have it all in the epic poem, and they can be gracious like Wealhtheow, evil like Thryth, or independent like Grendel’s mother.

Works Cited

  1. Shelley, Mary. ‘Frankenstein.’ Medicine and Literature, Volume Two. CRC Press, 2018. 35-52.
  2. Taylor, Kimberly. ‘Challenging the Gender Dichotomy in the Victorian Era: Reading Hemingway’s’ Up in Michigan’ and Mansfield’s’ Frau Brechenmacher’ Together.’ Inquiries Journal 10.03 (2018).
  3. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Vol. 1 (4th edition), edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar; Longman, 2010.
  4. Weekes, Ann Owens. Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
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