Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Role of Female Characters in Beowulf

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Beowulf’s story is one filled with violence and power, but above all it is a story filled with strong men. Beowulf, Hrothgar, Hygelac and Grendel are described as strong and powerful. In this particular manuscript, men are the main characters and they overshadow the female ones. Beowulf is a brave and tough warrior who in the beginning of the story helps Hrothgar regain control over his realm. He is continuously referred to as “the son of Ecgtheow” (ll. 631); however, his mother’s name is not mentioned often which makes it seem as though mentioning her name does not add anything to his case or the story. Hrothgar is a Danish king who is too old to defend his people on his own (ll. 129-133). Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle and Beowulf takes his place and becomes the new king, because Hygelac’s son, Heardred, is not fit to do so (ll. 2371-2372). These men are given names, purpose and power. According to Bernice W. Kliman this has to do with the fact that they are seen as weak (32), which is why they are treated differently in this story. “A glance at the genealogical charts which accompany most texts of Beowulf will show that most females are unnamed” (33).  Women fulfill different roles within this poem: they serve male characters by being their mother or wife. In some situations, they serve as useful tools to bring peace to their people, in which case they are called peace-weavers. Their purpose is to bring together two opposing groups (Porter 4). In Beowulf the female characters serve to serve the male characters by acting as peace-weaver, wife or mother.

There are several examples that illustrate this statement, which are represented by various female characters in Beowulf, one of which is Wealhtheow. She is described as Hrothgar’s wife: “Wealhtheow came in, Hrothgar’s queen, observing courtesies” (ll. 612-613). When introduced she is not referred to as ‘the daughter of’ like most male roles in this manuscript are referred to as ‘the son of’. She first appears as a hostess, serving her husband and the men with a goblet filled with a drink (ll. 615-628). However, she does not seem to primarily serve as the queen of her lord husband. She seems to be serving her two sons: this is apparent in how she addresses her husband after she gets word of what Hrothgar told Beowulf (ll. 945-946): “now the word is that you want to adopt this warrior as a son. So, while you may, bask in your fortune, and then bequeath kingdom and nation to your kit and kin, before you decease” (ll. 1175-1179). She worries her sons will not get access to their birth right. Hrothgar does not answer her (Kliman 34) nor does Beowulf when she later addresses him with regard to the same issue (ll. 1224-1229). He returns to his home country and leaves the land to Hrethric and Hrothmund, the sons of Hrothgar and his queen (ll.1818-1820). However, it is unclear whether or not Wealhtheow’s words made it so or whether Beowulf came upon this decision himself.

Freawaru is another female character in Beowulf. She is first introduced in the story when Beowulf tells Hygelac of his adventures (ll. 2022). Freawaru is Hrothgar’s daughter. Up to this point she was not mentioned due to the fact that she had no purpose, in contrasts to her brothers who were mentioned earlier in the poem. However, when Beowulf mentions her, he does so in order to discuss her future as peace-weaver. She is to be married to Ingeld, the king of the Heatho-Bards (ll. 2024-2025). Here it becomes apparent that female characters remain unimportant until they start to serve a purpose to men. Her character is used to address the issues between two rival groups (Porter 5). Ingled his father was killed by the Danes and Hrothgar hopes that Freawaru will: “heal old wounds and grievous feuds” (ll. 2027-2028).

In contrast to the previously mentioned female roles, Grendel’s mother is a character who is able to fight much like the men do in this poem. According to Dorothy Carr Porter, Grendel’s mother is portrayed as a stronger being than Grendel himself (6) which seems to contradict the role women serve in this poem. However, she is referred to as ‘Grendel’s mother’ the entire time, she is never given a name. Much like Freawaru, Grendel’s mother is first introduced (Orchard 138) when she starts to serve a purpose (ll. 1258), which in her case is to try to avenge her son (ll. 2118).

Hygh is character who at first hand seems to go against the role of women in Beowulf. Much like Wealhtheow, she is a queen, a wife and a mother (ll. 1926) but in contrast to Wealhtheow she does not defend her son when it comes to his birth right. After the death of her lord husband Hygelac, she asks Beowulf to become the new king rather than give the honour to her son. She believes her son is incapable of defending the people (ll. 2369-2372). However, in a different light this could be seen as a mother trying to protect her son from humiliation, a wife trying to protect her deceased husband’s kingdom or a peace-weaver trying to do what she was assigned to do. “Thus, it is in her power to be a king-maker, although she cannot rule the land herself. In other words, a woman may continue her role of peace-weaver by being a conduit of power, choosing the right man to lead” (Kliman 35).

Women play an important part in this story. They are mothers and peacekeepers, without whom there would be no new kings nor peace between some opposing kingdoms. However, the characters themselves seem unimportant, which is why some of them are not given names. Giving the impression that their roles could be fulfilled by any woman rather than a specific woman. “The women in Beowulf can achieve their greatest good only by functioning in the man’s world. She can save her sons only by manipulating men” (Kliman 49), which is exactly what Wealhtheow and Hygd try to do.

Works Cited
Heaney, Seamus. “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology English Literature: The Middle Ages. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, James Simpson and Alfred David. 9th ed. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2012. 36-108. Print.
Kliman, Bernice W. "Women in Early English Literature, Beowulf to the Ancrene Wisse." Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 21 (1977): 32-49. Periodicals Archive Online. Web. 19 Feb. 2016
Orchard, Andy. “Beowulf.” The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. 137-58. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Porter, Dorothy Carr. “The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context.” The Heroic Age 5 (2001): 1-6. Web. 19 Feb. 2016

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