“ . . . Another character entitled at least temporarily to the label of the female monster” (Irving 73). This comment reflects the grievances several literary critics now express in the wake of the feminist movement. In contemporary translations of the epic poem Beowulf, the reader witnesses several portrayals of patriarchal history that contributes to the subjugation and dehumanization of female characters.
However, this is a juxtaposition of Beowulf’s original text that has quite literally been lost in translation. Because Beowulf was written in Old English, translators face the dilemma of whether to provide a literal translation of the text or adapt it to fit the artistic tone of the poem. Due to contemporary biases, translations have distorted the true characterization of female figures in the poem. Contemporary criticism has prompted the argument that women in Beowulf are sidelined due to the dominant patriarchal tone laced throughout the poem. However, in its truest form, Beowulf can be perceived as a story of powerful women exhibiting influence in an era that was dominated by a traditionally patriarchal society.
Beowulf follows a pattern on placing emphasis on male relations, such as father-and-son or king-and-warrior. This manifests into one of the central themes in Anglo-Saxon culture: comitatus. Men find their identity in their heroic code and in serving their superiors. This glory-seeking attitude contributes to the chaotic tone of the poem and will further prove the cruciality of women. Consequently, it will also fuel the fire for contemporary bias.
During the Medieval era, one of the most common roles for noble women was to take upon the duty of a peace-weaver. Peace-weaver “is a poetic metaphor referring to the person whose function it seems to be to perform openly the action of making peace by weaving to the best of her art a tapestry of friendship and amnesty” (Porter 534-540). Queen Wealhtheow is the embodiment of the traditional roles expected by a noble lady in Anglo-Saxon society. Throughout the course of the epic poem, Wealhtheow exhibits unrivaled regality and a silent hand in court politics. For instance, at the feast in Heorot dedicated to Beowulf’s arrival, Queen Wealhtheow presented the mead cup to King Hrothgar first and to Beowulf last.
This is an indicator of the men’s respective status. However, after Beowulf slew Grendel, Queen Wealhtheow presented Beowulf with the mead cup right after the King, making evident that he was promoted in status. According to the Queen’s will, she holds power in the ability to determine the status of those in her court. Queen Wealhtheow continues to establish her hand in court politics as the poem progresses. Overjoyed with Beowulf’s victory, King Hrothgar impulsively “adopts” Beowulf as heir of the Danish kingdom. However, it is Queen Wealhtheow who maintains a level head and reminds Hrothgar to “ . . . bequeath / kingdom and nation to [his] kith and kin” (Heaney 1178). According to Stephanie Singh of York University:
It is as though Hrothgar is acting rashly, emotionally—behavior usually associated with women—and that it is the queen who intervenes. . . the man has been emasculated, yet without the masculinization of their female counterparts . . . Male figures are shown to act rashly and violently, out of strong emotion, with lack of thought for the future of themselves or their clan. Seeking glory alone, the men are unable to bring about or maintain peace. It was the queen who was invested in the security and continuance of the kingdom (4-7)
Despite the contemporary belief that women were often sidelined and marginalized in Beowulf, this is far from the truth. Through avenues that were available to her, Queen Wealhtheow was influential in political affairs and an antithesis of the chaotic male figures around her.
Contemporary criticism and bias have especially proven detrimental for Grendel’s mother- a character who has constantly been slandered with the women-as-monster trope. Because Beowulf was written in Old English, translators must decide whether to literally translate the epic poem or to provide an artistic interpretation. Consequently, translations over the centuries have contributed to character distortions, straying away from the true essence of Beowulf. According to author Christine Alfano in her issue of Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Grendel’s Mother “is an ides, ‘lady,’ and an algœcwif, ‘warrior-woman,’ not a ‘monstrous ogre,’ ‘witch of the sea,’ or ‘monster woman.’ . . .
This initial appearance most likely influences subsequent impressions of this character . . . the translator prejudices the reader against a more human reading of her character” (2). Several attacks on her motherhood and humanity are also made by referring to her as a “dam.” Furthermore, in the untranslated version of Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is compared to a “fela-sinnigne secg.” Translators have interpreted this as “demon” when really, it is a term associated with male warriors. Because of her deviation from traditional gender roles, Grendel’s mother is unfairly equivocated to a monster.
Biased translations additionally give light to even more double standards against women. For instance, when Grendel’s mother is fighting Beowulf, she is depicted as having “grisly claws.” This is an interpretation of the Old English word “guðrinc gefeng,” which in a literal sense means the strong grip of a male warrior (“Bilingual Beowulf”). The original text is modified to demonize Grendel’s mother and further fuel the woman-as-monster trope. Contemporary biases have skewed the true essence of Grendel’s mother’s character, or as Alfano explains, “while such scholars believe that they are finding the epitome of ‘feminine monstrosity’ in Grendel’s mother, they are possibly simply reading this image into Beowulf” (11).
In the wake of the feminist movement, readers and critics are becoming increasingly aware of the marginalization female characters have been subjected to in Medieval literature. However, this is far from the truth regarding the women of Beowulf. In its original text, Beowulf tells a story about women displaying amazing strength through the avenues they are provided. In the words of Charles Phipps, “The men are meant to be bringers of violence and protectors of the hearth, whereas women are meant to be extinguishers of male fire and brutality” (32).
Ironically, it can be said that unconscious contemporary biases have contributed to the dehumanization of female characters who choose to defy the traditional patriarchy in Anglo-Saxon culture. Labeling Grendel’s mother as a sidelined monster is a blatant disregard of her true character. If anything, in Beowulf’s Old English text, she is an algœcwif, “warrior-woman.” Despite the strong patrilineal history that dominates Beowulf, it is an injustice to claim that its female characters have been subjugated by them, as contemporary critics suggest. In reality, it was a woman who preserved peace and proved as the worthier-opponent.