A quick read-through of the Old English epic poem Beowulf reveals that the text centers heavily around male characters and typically masculine themes. The main character, Beowulf, a powerful and renowned hero, sets on an epic journey to save the kingdom of Danes from the relentless cruelty of Grendel, a vicious monster, and during his initial journey and throughout the rest of the poem, there are several instances of violence, male dominance, and mischief, which might lead the reader to wonder if the female characters present in the text matter at all. As a matter of fact, just because these characters are not front and center in the plot line, does not mean that they are insignificant to the narrative of the poem. Far from invisible, the women in Beowulf use their roles within the kingdom to actively promote peace and prosperity by acting as hostesses, creating familial bonds between kingdoms and seeking influence as political actors. They assert a silent but firm power within a patriarchal society, and their traits and behaviors illustrate their complexity and ask the reader to examine them as distinct characters rather than mere shadows of the men in their society.
In order to better understand the role of women within Beowulf, we might examine each female character individually. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife and queen of the Danes, is one of the most prominent female characters within the poem. While it may be easy to disregard her position within the kingdom, as she holds no explicit political power, a closer look will show how she uses her role to exert her influence. The reader is first introduced to Wealhtheow at the elaborate feast hosted by King Hrothgar in Heorot Hall to welcome Beowulf, the great warrior come to avenge his kingdom, to Danes and to celebrate comradery between the Danes and the Geats. Wealhtheow enters the room adorned in her gold crown to perform the ceremonial act of passing a cup of mead for every warrior to drink from before beginning the feast. She first presents the cup to King Hrothgar then carries it from warrior to warrior until she reaches Beowulf. She thanks him for coming to help her kingdom to which he responds by reaffirming his vow to bestow peace upon the kingdom. The words used to describe Wealhtheow during this ceremonial act, such as “regal and arrayed with gold” and “queenly and dignified, decked out in rings”, convey her presence to be both distinguished and commanding (621,641).
The passing of the mead-cup, which occurs once at the feast to welcome Beowulf to the kingdom and again at the feast to celebrate his triumph over Grendel, is important to note because not only does Wealhtheow use the act to encourage kinsmanship amongst the warriors and their respective kingdoms, she also uses it to silently denote the current rankings to the nobility present in the Hall. Before passing the mead-cup around at the second feast, she makes a short speech, which she begins:
Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord;
Raise up your goblet, entertain the Geats
Duly and gently, discourse with them,
Be open-handed, happy and fond.
Relish their company, but recollect as well
All of the boons that have been bestowed on you. (1168-1173)
She first makes a plea to King Hrothgar to be grateful for the help of Beowulf and his men, reminding all gathered at the feast to be gracious to one another. She then passes the cup to King Hrothgar, as she did during the first feast, but this time, she passes the cup to Beowulf afterwards. During the first feast, after the cup leaves King Hrothgar, it is passed to several other warriors before reaching Beowulf. By changing the order during the second feast, handing the cup to Beowulf before the rest of the warriors, Wealhtheow is signifying that Beowulf, by fatally wounding Grendel, has moved up in the noble hierarchy. If the order in which the cup was passed held no significance, one could argue that it would seem a bit redundant to mention it during both feasts. Although she does not have the power to personally rank the warriors in the kingdom, by passing the mead-cup in a specific order, Wealhtheow is making that ranking evident to all that preside, which in itself holds a sense of authority. It is also important to note that when she passes the cup around and even when she makes her speech encouraging peace, she is amongst the most powerful men in the kingdom. Her speech, both the literal and symbolic one, can be considered a form of agency, which in itself is also a type of power. It is possible to argue that by passing around a cup of mead, Wealhtheow is simply fulfilling her womanly duties of catering to the men but it is important to consider that during both feasts the poet passively states that there are already servants standing by with “decorate pitchers, pouring bright helpings of mead”(495-496). The elaborate descriptions of Wealhtheow’s actions show that her role as hostess at both feasts has a more profound purpose as a peacemaker and a small but significant political actor.
Wealhtheow further expands her small role as a political actor within the nobility by making an effort at influencing the transition of power in the kingdom. During her speech at the feast for Beowulf’s triumph, she says to King Hrothgar,
And now the word is that you want to adopt
This warrior as a son. So, while you many,
Bask in your fortune, and then bequeath
Kingdom and nation to your kith and kin,
Before your decease. I am certain of Hrothulf.
He is noble and will use the young ones well.
He will not let you down. (1175-1181)
With this speech, she tires to convince the King to leave his throne to one of her sons when he passes in order to guard Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s nephew, from conspiring to steal it. Not only does she want to safeguard the future of her sons, she also wants to prevent a bloody coup by Hrothulf which might cause war within her kingdom. The way she tries to talk Hrothulf into promising, by default, to be kind to her sons, since it’s unlikely he will speak in opposition to her request at that specific moment, is quite clever. Although the poem doesn’t state whether or not her suggestions made a significant impact on King Hrothulf, she does make an admirable, and even tactful, attempt, which is an assertion of power, successful or otherwise.
Wealhtheow shares a similar role with another female character in Beowulf, Hygd, wife of King Hygelac and gracious queen of Geatland. There is a scene in the poem when she, too, acts as a hostess, presenting the cup of mead to each nobleman within the King’s court, but Hygd’s more active role is as a small political actor. When Beowulf gloriously defeats Grendel and returns home, Hygd offers him King Hygelac’s throne after he dies in battle. Although her son is the rightful heir, “she has no belief in her son’s ability to defend their homeland against foreign invaders” and sees that Beowulf would be a better ruler (2371-2372). Hygd knows that this decision will jeopardize her son’s position in the nobility but she considers the safety and security of Geatland to be more grave and resolves accordingly. The poem does not state whether or not she was instructed by King Hygelac, before his death, to give the throne to Beowulf upon his return but by stating that she herself does not believe her son to be fit to rule, it suggests that it is possible that she played some part in the decision-making. At the very least, she affirms Beowulf’s claim to the throne . In either case, Hygd is exerting a mild but acknowledgeable sense of power.
In the case of both Wealhtheow and Hygd, their roles a peacemakers and minimal political actors can be criticized since both women didn’t actually ensure peace within either kingdom. Hrothulf does indeed prevent Wealhtheow’s son from peacefully taking his father’s throne despite her efforts to stop him and after Beowulf eventually accepts Hygd’s offer for the throne, he dies in battle, which leaves Geatland vulnerable to attack. So if they both essentially failed in the end, can they really be labeled peacemakers? I’d argue that their efforts as peacemakers shouldn’t be disregarded even if they weren’t completely successful. After all, Beowulf was unsuccessful trying to defeat the dragon that terrorized Geatland but yet he died with honor and his legacy as a hero was never disparaged or questioned within the kingdom. It’s important to remember that, untimely, these women lived in patriarchal society that viewed them as subordinates. Whether or not they were successful, their efforts to prevent bloodshed and ensure the prosperity of their respective kingdoms, in a time where they had very little agency, is admirable. Relative to their circumstances, they were as successful and as powerful as could be realistically expected.
We are introduced to yet another female character in Heorot Hall before Beowulf’s feast. Hildeburh, daughter of the King of Danes, marries the King of the Jutes in order to create peace amongst the two kingdoms and bears a child that mixes the two bloodlines and dissolves any animosity amongst them. Nevertheless, peace only lasts so long and the two kingdoms erupt in a feud that causes Hildeburh to lose both her son and brother on the battlefield (1073-1075). She is left “a woman in shock, waylaid by grief” by her efforts to be a peacemaker (1075-1076). She is not to blame for the kingdoms’ feud yet she is the one that has to live with the grief of losing her loved-ones (1078). It’s possible to claim that perhaps Hildeburh was just used a token by the men of Danes and married the King of Jutes simply because she was instructed to do so. The poem doesn’t signify whether or not she personally choose to marry him but nonetheless she did, possibly sacrificing her own wants, a noble move that helped create peace amongst the two kingdoms for at least a significant period of time. It might be easy to pity her, but it’s hard to deny her personal impact and presence in the poem because ultimately, she did perform her role as a peacemaker to the best of her ability, having the strength to marry the Kind of Jutes, especially if it was against her will, and the strength to carry on after her loss.
All three of the female character that were just examined share very similar characteristics, so is it possible that they are just performing the predetermined role of the female archetype within the poem and none of their actions are deliberate or noteworthy? This could be a potential argument had the poem not included two female characters, Grendel’s mother and the evil Queen Modthyrtho, that do not play the same roles as the other three women to display the complexity of the female characters and the role of women. Grendel’s mother is just as frightening and treacherous as her monstrous son and even engages in battle with Beowulf himself to avenge her fallen son (1537-1540). She is far from a hostess, a peacemaker or a political actor but she does exert her own brand of power through brute physical violence, a typically masculine attribute. The legend of the evil Queen Modthyrtho, recalled in the poem, describes her to be wicked, punishing any subject she suspected of conspiring against her with a cruel, unjustifiable death (1934-1943). This legend is placed in the poem to show the contrast between her wicked personality and the gracious one of Queen Hygd, but, along with Grendel’s mother’s actions, it also works to demonstrate the variety and complexity of all of the poem’s female characters and how they cannot be generalized into one archetype. Wealhtheow, Hygd, and Hildeburh did not share similar characteristics simply because they were women. Their similarities stem from sharing similar roles within the kingdom and using these role in similar ways to influence their kingdoms and exert their power in one way or another.