Women in Beowulf
In nearly every society throughout history, women have never held an extremely important place. The role of a woman seems miniscule compared to that of a man. However, there are some women who abide to the unwritten rules of how to behave, and others who challenge those rules. The contradicting roles of the women in the poem Beowulf aim to show the differences between them and how they exist in society.
The characters who are mainly introduced into these various roles in the poem consist of Queen Modthryth, Grendel’s Mother, Hrothgar’s wife Wealhtheow, and Queen Hygd; all of whom play roles in the poem that either contradict or relate to each other. In Beowulf, Queen Wealhtheow serves as the ideal example of an appropriate woman. After Beowulf defeated Grendel, the Queen spoke to all of the occupants of Heorot Hall as the hostess of the banquet.
Just one small example of Wealhtheow’s cadence and poise comes from her praise to Beowulf for his defeat of Grendel as she says, “And so, my prince, / I wish you a lifetime’s luck and blessings/ to enjoy this treasure. Treat my sons/ with tender care, be strong and kind. / Here each comrade is true to the other, / loyal to lord, loving in spirit” (lines 1224-1227). This shows the genuine kindness that Hrothgar’s wife exudes.
The men react with extreme pleasure to her speaking, giving applause for their Queen, which demonstrates that men in that time period did hold respect for a woman who was tasteful, kind, and most importantly gave praise towards other men. Queen Wealhtheow serves as the picture of grace, poise, kindness, and most importantly as a vast contrast between other women throughout the poem. The next woman to make an appearance in the poem comes in the form of a monster. Grendel’s mother’s stark contrast to the traditional role of the queen shows that a woman who refuses to follow that traditional role becomes an outcast of society.
Grendel’s mother first appears at Heorot Hall as everyone sleeps from the overwhelmingly joyful day of Grendel’s defeat. While they’re sleeping, she stages a surprise attack, slaughtering men for revenge. “Her onslaught was less/ only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s/ strength is less than an armed man’s/ when the hefted sword, its hammered edge/ and gleaming blade slathered in blood,/ razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet” (lines 1282- 1287). The way in which she blindly murders so many men highlights her barbaric nature.
She lacks all the grace and poise held by Wealhtheow. Her actions cause others in society to view her as a horrid monster. Grendel’s mother highly contradicts the traditional role of a kind or generous woman as compared to the Queen. Instead she plays the role of a horrendous murderer and burden upon society, challenging the well known role of women. One of the most obvious comparisons between women in Beowulf is that of Queen Hygd and Queen Modthryth. The contrast of the two shows the difference between an acceptable and unacceptable woman.
The poem first introduces Queen Hygd as the ideal Queen, stating, “her mind was thoughtful and manners sure. / Haereth’s daughter behaved generously/ and stinted nothing when she distributed/ bounty to the Geats” (lines 1928- 1931). Throughout Beowulf, women who are thoughtful of men are seen as better members in society. Along with Queen Wealhtheow, Queen Hygd fulfills the role of the proper, submissive woman. The introduction of Hygd acts as a perfect lead into the story of Queen Modthryth.
After the poem introduces Queen Hygd, it offers a stark contrast by introducing Queen Modthryth. Her unacceptable behavior was inevitably only able to change because of her marriage to a man. The story of the Queen began by telling how she committed awful murders, and the negativity that came from these crimes. Most people showed this as they thought,” Even a queen/outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that. /A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent/with loss of life for imagined insults” (lines 1941-1944).
The tone at this point in Beowulf holds obvious negativity towards Queen Modthryth. Murder in that society of innocent people was highly looked down upon, especially coming from a woman. However, the tone of the story changes when another tale of Queen Modthryth marrying Offa begins. Because of her marriage, she becomes graceful, devoted to her king, and overall a better woman in society. This stark contrast created between both opposites, Queen Hygd and Queen Modthryth, contributes to the many differences of women throughout the poem.
The main four women compared throughout Beowulf are Queen Wealhtheow, Grendel’s Mother, Queen Modthryth, and Queen Hygd. Both Grendel’s mother and Queen Modthryth are examples of horrifying monsters who commit the worst of wrongs. They starkly contrast the peace-bringing and gracious roles of Queen Hygd and Queen Wealhtheow. Both queens represent their kings, King Hygelic and King Hrothgar, with great poise and kindness, the ideal role for a queen. Overall the contrast between the women in Beowulf show how each differs and exists in society.