Similar to Beowulf, Judith conveys a moral tale of heroic triumph over monstrous beings. Both moral and political, the poem tells of a brave woman’s efforts to save and protect her people. Judith is depicted as an exemplar woman, grounded by ideal morale, probity, courage, and religious conviction. Judith’s character is rendered blameless and virtuous, and her beauty is praised. In line 109, Judith is referred to as an ides ellenrof, which translates as brave woman. The author also gives her the entitlement of a ‘halige meowle’ (line 56), which translates as holy woman, a ‘snoteran idese’ (line 55), which translates as wise woman, whilst her appearance is described as ‘aelfscinu’ (line 13), which translates as ‘elf-shining’. The comparison between Judith and elves is interesting, as in Anglo-Saxon England, elves were associated with mental illness, sexual promiscuity and homosexuality, making this an odd choice of description for a servant of God. Although Judith kills a man, she appears to be doing God’s will; Holofernes, while described to some extent as a standard military leader in the Beowulfian vein, is also cast as a salacious drunk and becomes monstrous in his excess.
Portraying the epitome of Germanic heroism, Judith was likely composed during a time of war as a model for the Anglo-Saxon people. The Abbot Ælfric similarly created his own homiletic interpretation of the Book of Judith. At the time of his creation, Vikings were ransacking England. Ælfric professed that Judith was to serve as an example to the people. In a letter, Ælfric wrote: “þeo is eac on English on ure wisan iset eow mannum to bisne, þet ge eower eard mid wæpnum beweriæn wið onwinnende here.” Translated into modern English, the phrase reads: “It is also set as an example for you in English according to our style, so that you will defend your land with weapons against an attacking force” (Nelson, pg. 47).
Ælfric’s Judith is quite similar to that of the poem; and furthermore, the characters seem to have served the same purpose—to stand as an example to the people in a time of war. Judith’s city of Bethulia was being plundered by Assyrians. Holofernes was an Assyrian general and king, often drunk and constantly monstrous.
Judith hatched a plan to save the Israelites and Bethulia. As Holofernes was often drunk, Judith anticipated that he would attempt to seduce her. She pretended to be charmed by Holofernes, allowing herself to be taken to his bedroom. When the unsuspecting Holofernes fell into a drunken slumber, Judith severed his head with a sword. Thereafter, she proudly displayed his head to her Hebrew army and led them into a victorious battle against the Assyrians. In the Book of Judith, though, the Assyrians simply fled Bethulia after discovering the deceased body of Holofernes (Marsden, pg. 148).