Beowulf is the longest and most the most outstanding epic poem in the Old English literature. In accordance with the principles of heroic poetry, the Beowulf-poet primarily focuses on the deeds of the male hero. The society depicted in the poem reflects heroic values – especially courage, loyalty and generosity. The primary relationship, which concerns the poet most, exists between men – between a lord and his loyal retainers. The poet does not describe those aspects of the Anglo-Saxon society which are beyond the scope of the epic poetry such as peasants or slaves. He is absorbed in the world of warriors. While the epic poem features a significant amount of female characters such as Grendel’s Mother and Wealtheow, it is obvious that the men and their affairs are the focus of the story. A critic once pointed out that “the poem’s powerfully sexist disposition is apparent in its largely male cast of characters and in relatively minimal attention given to women who do appear”. As part of the heroic culture present in the poem, it is commonplace for women to be married off to men of rival tribes in order to insure observance of peace treaties.
Some critics have argued that women had no place in the masculine, death-centered world of Beowulf. Probably because of the importance of male heroism in this poem, the significance of women is minimized. Even though it is true that their appearance is limited and brief, they do play fundamental roles in it. The women that appear in Beowulf are, Wealhtheow, Hygd, Hildeburh, Freawaru, Thyrth and Grendel’s mother. There are two queens among them Wealhtheow and Hygd. They are both queens in that they are married to the king, and they are hostesses in that they receive people in the hall and make sure that everyone is drinking and having a good time. Noble women played an important role in heroic Anglo-Saxon society and had an essential influence in the hall, especially in hall ceremonies, though they also played an active role in diplomacy. The hall is presented as the central social element in the poem, where people gathered together to talk about the major events of the court.
The poet always makes use of positive words to describe them. Wealhtheow is “mindful of etiquette, a noble-hearted queen, and perfect in speech (624).
Their role as hostesses has to do with the duty of carrying the mead cup and pass it to the king and warriors. This apparently unimportant task is more revealing than we may think; it establishes a hierarchy in the hall. This appears to be a relatively unimportant function until one reads carefully and examines how this duty is carried out .The first time Wealhtheow makes her appearance in the poem, she offers the cup to Hrothgar. After Hrothgar drinks she takes the cup to all his retainers until finally she reaches Beowulf. She greets him, he reasserts his promise, made in a previous scene, to rid the Danes of Grendel, and Wealhtheow, satisfied, returns to her seat.
However, things change the second time she appears , when Wealhtheow offers the cup to the king first, as usual, and right after that to Beowulf.
Since he kept his promise and killed Grendel, he has risen in status now. He has the honour to receive the mead cup right after the king, in representation of his newly earned status.
The other hostess-queen is the young and beautiful Hygd, king Hygelac’s wife. Because of her gentleness and kindness, she is contrasted in the poem with the legendary queen Modthryth and her innate cruelty and wickedness.
The importance of order in the distribution of the cup is present again in Hygd’s first appearance “Haereth’s daughter moved through the spacious building with mead-cups, cared for the people, carried flagons of drinks to the hands of the Haethnas”.
These two women also have some influence on politics. During the celebration of Grendel’s death, Wealhtheow addresses her speech to Hrothgar and then to Beowulf . In the first speech, she urges him to “be gracious towards the Geats” (1173) but not to make Beowulf heir of the kingdom, as she has heard they told me that you wish to take the warrior to be a son to you . Instead, she encourages him to make Hrothulf his heir, to protect her sons: “I know my gracious Hrothulf that he will treat these youths honorably if you … should leave the world before him”. (1180-83). With this, she is clearly protecting her own interests, since she wants to make sure that someone from the family inherits the kingdom, and not an outsider. Because there are no signs that the king ignored her petition, we can say that she has some influence on Hrothgar’s decisions.
In her speech addressed to Beowulf, Wealhtheow urges him to accept the presents she has given to him: “Beloved Beowulf, enjoy this collar with good fortune … , and make good use of this garment” (1216-17). With these words she proves she is such a great hostess, showing her generosity and kindness through her presents. In Old English poetry, noble women in their role of hostesses, also gave gifts. This act of gift giving established reciprocity, an important mutual exchange between the giver and the receiver, and played an essential part in dynastic succession. At the end of the speech, her final words reflect self-assurance and confidence, and illustrate her power over people and her right to command them: “the noble men, having drunk, will do as I ask” (1230-31).
Another example of political power lays on Hygd. After her husband’s death, she tries to pass the kingdom on Beowulf (“there Hygd offered him hoard and kingdom, rings and a princely throne” 2369-70), since she thinks her son isn’t ready to rule the Geats ,she did not trust that her son knew how to hold the throne of his homeland against foreign nations. She’s taking her husband’s role, doing what he would have done, in making this important decision. This shows that women in Beowulf are not marginal at all, but they have central public roles as hostesses, gift givers and also have some influence in politics, taking their own decisions and giving orders as they please.
Then we have the two peaceweavers, Hildeburh and Freawaru. They are called peaceweavers because they were given in marriage to someone from a group considered the rival in order to make peace with them. Once the groups were united, these
Women had an influence on both of them. As Pauline Stafford points out: “She is a link between hostile peoples united by marriage. … this makes her a living reminder of past defeats …” 4.
Hildeburgh, daughter of the Danish king, married the king of the Jutes, Finn, in order to establish peace between the two groups. We know about her through a story told by a scope , after Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel. Eventually, her task as
peaceweaver is successful, she marries someone from another tribe and has a son with him, blending together the blood of the Danish and the Jutes. However, this union did not last long, since the two peoples kept fighting, resulting in the death of Hildeburh’s husband, son and brother.
Another failed attempt to unite two peoples is the case of Freawaru, king Hrothgar’s daughter. She has an even smaller appearance in the poem than Hildeburh, but again, her role as peaceweaver makes her important. Her marriage to Ingeld, the king of the Heathobards, is seen as an insult, because these two tribes had been enemies for many years. This is another example of a story within the story, just like it happens with Hildeburh. In this case, Freawaru’s story is told by Beowulf to his king, Hygelac, after he returns to his land. He doubts that this story will be successful, given the tension existing between the two tribes. This marriage was so desired by the Danes because they had killed Ingeld’s father in one of the battles, and were trying to avoid their revenge. Finally, it is Ingeld himself who decides to avenge his father’s death killing those who destroyed him.
Finally, we find the two monster-like women in the poem, namely Grendel’s mother and Thryth. These women are monstrous in that they are all the opposite to peaceweavers and hostesses, they are comfortable and satisfied using violence to solve their disputes and they do not welcome anyone that comes into their houses. They can be considered violent and cruel because they rather make use of weapons and their physical strength rather than using words or marriage to influence other people, just like Wealhtheow or Hildeburh.
Grendel’s mother is another example of powerful woman. She’s independent, as she lives in her house alone and protects it herself. She confronts Beowulf on her own to take revenge for Grendel’s death.
Thyrth was an evil princess, guilty of many wicked crimes, who used to kill anyone that came into her hall. The main difference between these two monster-like women is that while Grendel’s mother is a monster herself, Thyrth is human. Because she is a princess, she functions within society and has a social status, which Grendel’s mother will never have. That society within which she functions will finally have an influence on her and will help her change her attitude”famous for virtue, while living made good use of the life destined for her, maintained a profound love for the chief of heroes” (1951-54). Finally, both of them are tamed, Thyrth finds love in Offa and marries him ,she brought about fewer acts of malice, injuries to the people, as soon as she was given to the young champion, the dear prince , and Grendel’s mother is affected by her son’s death.
Women in Beowulf are not insignificant excluded figures, nor is their role limited in the poems. Sometimes they are peace weavers, hostesses, cup bearers, etc. They also have some influence on politics and take their own decisions which concern the fate of a kingdom. They can be independent like Grendel’s mother, evil like Thyrth, gracious like Wealhtheow or s, but they are all powerful queens, mothers or wives.The analysis of their roles has showed that they posess a number of functions which have an impact on the heroic world of men. The queens, who function as peace weavers or passers of the cup, are not mere victims of the male-defined society – they are able to influence the decisions of their male relatives and they are actively struggling to achieve their own goals.
Even though the Beowulf-poet primarily focuses on the deeds of male heroes, female figures contribute to the complexity of the poem. They have an indispensable place in the poetic structure as well as in the story itself.