Beowulf, the Old English epic tells the story of one brave hero and his battles against evil monsters. The poem deals with mostly masculine elements like fight descriptions, depictions of armor and long inspiring speeches. However, the women characters in the epic also have important roles and they are far from being superficial, as it may seem at first. There are several female figures in Beowulf; this paper will focus on three of them- queen Wealhtheow of the Danes, queen Hygd of the Geats and Grendel’s mother. These characters have many parallels between them but in a way some are the “alter-ego” of the others.
Wealhtheow is the perfect hostess and devoted queen and wife. Her first appearance in the poem demonstrates her official duties as the queen: “Wealhtheow came in, Hrotgar’s queen, observing the courtesies. Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted the men in the hall, then handed the cup first to HrotgarSo the Helming woman went on her rounds, queenly and dignified, decked out in rings, offering the goblet to all ranks, treating the household and the assembled troop” (lines 612-623). As a queen, Wealhtheow has a role to fulfill and she does it with grace.
She welcomes the guests; offers mead and creates a peaceful atmosphere in the mead-hall. The figure of Grendel’s mother is quite the opposite in this aspect- she is the “anti- hostess” and far from being graceful. This creature does not greet the man who arrives to her dwelling; she fights Beowulf desperately and only a divine interference saves his life: “It was hard-fought, a desperate affair that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal” (lines1657-1658). One can claim that these manners of Grendel’s mother are quite masculine.
We find that she fights well and has the qualities of a great warrior if she was almost able to overcome Beowulf and she takes upon herself the manly duty of avenging her dead son. Beowulf himself says to Hrotgar that: “It always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (lines 1384-1385). Taking vengeance for warrior’s death is noble but Grendel’s mother’s attentions are condemned by the poet – she cannot be noble and she cannot act upon warrior’s code of honor; this notion comes from the fact that she is not really human and more important- she is a female.
The queen Wealhtheow cannot separate her own identity from her formal duties that are part of being Hrotgar’s wife; her identity cannot exist without the male figure of her life- her king. One can claim that Hrotgar’s generosity and prosperity are defined through Wealhtheow’s actions: when Beowulf first arrives at Heorot he receives his cup of mead from the queen only after many other men in the hall, however, when he defeats Grendel Beowulf receives his mead right after the king. This act emphasizes the fact that Beowulf has become an important and highly respected person in king Hrotgar’s eyes.
Then again, when Beowulf arrives home, to king Hygelac’s hall his queen Hygd:” Moved about with the mead-jag in her hand, filling the cups that the warriors held out” (lines 1981-1983). There are no details of the order of mead pouring and that is because Beowulf is home; the king does not need to present his power or his respect towards him, these are common knowledge. We find that Hygd’s actions are not specified here because the king’s intentions are not specified- they are clear to the present company. This motive of a woman who cannot separate her identity from the male figure in her life can be seen also in Grendel’s mother.
This character does not even have a name; she is only the mother of the monstrous being that attacked the Danes. Her only motivation is to avenge her son’s death: “But now his mother had sallied forth on a savage journey, grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (lines 1276-1278). Grendel’s mother described as a terrifying monster but she has human feelings- she attacks only because of a grief for her son, she snatches Grendel’s arm from Heorot and finally, Beowulf finds his dead body in her dwelling in the lake.
All these deeds are human and motivated by love and strong bond to her son. However, Grendel’s mother is condemned because of this- she is depicted in a horrible way and the price she has to pay for acting according to those feelings is death by Beowulf. There is a certain ambiguity in this because Wealhtheow has the same feelings- she also feels the need to protect her sons and obviously has a keen bond with them. After Hrotgar declares that he will adopt Beowulf as his son the queen has an urge to clarify some important issues: “Be open-handed, happy and fond.
Relish their company, but recollect as well all of the boons that have bestowed on you”- she says to her king and asks him to be generous to the strangers but not forget his sons (lines 1171-1173). Wealhtheow wants to protect her sons’ future and acts in a very delicate way to achieve that. She knows that Hrothulf is a threat in case of her husband’s unexpected death; he may have ambitions to rule instead of Hretric and Hrothmund and the queen wants to prevent it.
She addresses the king but her words are meant to be heard by Hrothulf and the rest of the people present in the hall: “I am certain of HrothulfHe will honor, I am sure, our sons, repay them in kind, when he recollects all the good things we gave him once, the favor and respect he found in his childhood” (lines 1179-1186). The queen here makes a public statement in order to protect her children’s future- with so many people in the hall, who witnessed the royal family’s declare of their trust in Hrothulf he will have many obstacles on his way if he chooses to steal the throne from Hrotgar’s heirs.
In this aspect Hygd differs from Wealhtheow and Grendel’s mother. This Geat queen does not trust her son to be a successful sovereign and she does not try to secure his future on the throne. Unlike Wealtheow and Grendel’s mother Hygd’s primary concern is to her people, not her son: “There Hygd offered him throne and authority as lord of the ring-hoard: with Hygelac dead, she had no belief in her son’s ability to defend their homeland against foreign invaders” (lines 2369-2372).
After a closer look in Beowulf one will find that the women roles in the poem are quite central and significant. They enrich the narrative by developing the plot and enlighten their men’s intentions. Nevertheless the women in the poem have their own will and power- political or physical. Thought some share similar qualities women characters are not patterned or superficial; these women are defined by dominant male figures but nonetheless they have their own significant features and depth.