An epic tale of heroes and monsters, the story of Beowulf is filled with excitement and adventure, However Beowulfs importance goes far beyond that of just an excellent literary piece. It also offers many insights into the world of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon culture. One of the things that is very prevalent in Beowulf is how women are portrayed and expected to act in this society. Anglo-Saxon women that are peaceful and unassertive are considered to be following their roles in society, by greeting guests and serving mead to the men in the mead hall. One such example of the Anglo-Saxon women following this role is Welthow, the queen of the Danes. Women are also portrayed on the opposite end of the spectrum; a perfect example of this would be Grendel’s mother. She is a strong and fierce monster whom Beowulf must kill. By reading about these two women in Beowulf, we can understand the different ways women are portrayed in this society. Throughout the story of Beowulf, the author subtly supports the traditional Anglo-Saxon views of women by praising the actions of Welthow, condemning Grendel’s mother, and showing the need to stop feminine forces like Wyrd; however, the author also contradicts these views on a few rare occasions by sympathizing with Grendel’s mother, allowing Welthow to assert herself in support of her family.
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In the story of Beowulf, Welthow is by far the one that one would think of when they picture a typical Anglo-Saxon women in these times. The instance that best demonstrates this is after they all return to Hrothgar. “Then Welthow, Hrothgar’s gold-ringed queen, greeted the warriors’ a noble woman who knew what was right, she raised a flowing cup to Hrothgar first, holding it high for the lord of the Danes to drink, wishing him joy in the feast. She thanked god for answering her prayers, for allowing her hands the happy duty of offering mead to the hero’s.” (Raffel 28-29) This passage gives a detailed example of what is expected of women in these times. Even on into later years, Women were still expected and encouraged to serve drinks. “The wife grew the grapes, harvested the grapes, made the wine, and sold the wine”(Collins 26). Even though she is operating as a typical Anglo-Saxon woman she is still a queen. This is evident in her role from that of a traditional Anglo-Saxon woman to a peace maker when she gives a toast in the meadhall “Celebrate his courage, rejoice and be generous while a kingdom sits in your palm, a people and power that death will stealâ€¦. I know your nephew’s kindness; I know hell replay in kind the goodness you have shown him.” (Raffel 51-52) With everyone gathered for the toast, Hrothulf would have second thoughts about betraying his family and taking the throne. In another similar way, in the poem Les Voeux de Paon, a family is quarreling and with the help of a young woman peacemaker, they put down their disagreements, “Elyses, a young woman, goes to each knight asking for them to vow to discharge their obligations to arms”(Murphy 6) She continues to gently persuade each of them until they all give in to laying down their weapons. However, on the other end of the spectrum we have Grendel’s mother.
Grendel’s mother defies the traditional role of an Anglo-Saxon woman by being powerful and aggressive. The main difference between Welthow and Grendel’s mother is that Welthow’s influence is much more subtle and nonviolent than that of Grendel’s mother. Being a monster, Grendel’s mother possesses “great warrior-strength” (Raffel 57). Grendel’s mother attacks Herot. ” She’d taken Hrothgar’s closest friend, The man he most loved of all men on earth”, “The wise old kind, trembled in anger and grief, his dearest friend and adviser dead” (Raffel 57). The next morning, Beowulf follows her tracks back to her underwater lair. Beowulf goes into her underwater lair and they fight. However Beowulf did not consider the enormous strength she would have. In order to defeat Grendel, Beowulf grabs one of his arms and rips off; on the other hand, Grendel’s mother fights with Beowulf and almost defeats him. Beowulf only wins the fight because of divine intervention, “The ruler of the world, showed me, hanging shining and beautiful on a wall, a mighty old sword” (Raffel 71) When later recounting his battle with Grendel’s mother, he says she fought with such strength that would surpass any man.
Despite Beowulf being the hero and Grendel’s mother being portrayed as a monster, he creates sympathy for Grendel’s mother by accepting her motive for vengeance and suggesting a close mother-son bond. When Grendel’s mother is first introduced, she is depicted as a mother mourning her son and out for vengeance. It shows some reason for her attack instead of just being evil. The author continues to build sympathy for Grendel’s mother by presenting her as having a clear emotional bond with her son. After her attack on Herot, Grendel’s mother takes the arm of her slain son. Further evidence of the strong emotional attachment between the two is the fact that Beowulf finds Grendel’s dead body in his mother’s underwater lair. The last we hear of Grendel, he is fleeing from Herot with a mortal wound. One can only assume that Grendel’s mother was mourning the death of her son and unable to let him go.
The continued reinforcement of appropriate female roles by presenting two separate and opposing supernatural forces that strongly influence the plot of Beowulf: a masculine God and a feminine Wyrd, suggesting that feminine forces require suppression. Wyrd is a mysterious force that acts as a fate, bringing the heroes of Beowulf ever closer to agony and death; however, God protects Beowulf and helps him in battle. Wyrd works to bring disorder and doom to Beowulf, just as Grendel’s mother wages war on Hrothgar and his kingdom. Beowulf is able to kill Grendel’s mother, ending her influence, however he is unable to do anything about the Wyrd except to look to God for help.
The story of Beowulf helps paint a picture of what it must have been like to be an Anglo-Saxon woman in those times. The woman who followed the traditional roles are considered good and those who don’t are cast out as monsters.
Raffel, Burton. Beowulf. 2nd ed. London: Signet Classic, 2008. Print.
Collins, James. “French Historical Studies.” French Historical Studies. 16.2 Print.
Murphy, Michael. “English Studies.” English Studies. 66.2 105. Print.
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