Beowulf is the oldest and most important poem of the English literature. As an epic poem, its principal concern is the exaltation of the heroic male virtues as courage, loyalty and strength. The main type of relationship described in the poem is the bond of loyalty that exists between a knight and his lord. The role of women in epic poems, and in antiquity in general, is usually seen as frail; according to Gillian R. Overing women in Beowulf “are all marginal and excluded figures” (Overing), referring especially to the role of wives in the poem. Michael John Enright, in his book, affirms that they are simply “extensions of the kingly power of their husbands” (Enright), depicting them as victims of their society. However, the presence of female characters in Beowulf is far from submissive and we should revaluate it from an Anglo-Saxon point of view; each of them, in fact, plays a fundamental role besides the little space that the poet gives to their characters. First of all, it is important to consider the context in which the poem is collocated.
It is often asserted that the Anglo-Saxon society depicted in Beowulf is founded on a patriarchal culture that gives no value to women; in the poem, though, female characters as the Queens are significant for the narrative and they constitute an essential part of the mechanisms behind the story. The majority of the Queens in the poem covers the role of “peace-wavers”, women that are given in marriage to the enemy in order to establish peace between two populations. This is the case of Hidelburh, daughter of the king of Danes and wife to the king of Jutes. Even though this Germanic custom exploits the figure of the wife as an instrument, not all the Queens inside the poem are passive characters: Hidelburh too is given some space when her story is told by the scop, mentioning her feelings and sorrow. Other Queens in the story impose themselves and defend their interests.
After Hygelac’s death on the battlefield, for example, his wife Hygd shows her political power when she expresses her will about her reign’s future; the kingdom of the Geats in fact should be inherited by her own son, Headred, but Hygd wants to commit it to Beowulf : “There Hygd offered him throne and authority As lord of the ring-hoard: with Hygelac dead, She had no belief in her son’s ability To defend their homeland against foreign invaders” (Heaney). In this case it could not be argued that Hygd is acting as an instrument of her husband’s power, as the poet does not say it, and because she is the one that reputes her son not able to run the kingdom.
Wealhtheow is one of the main female characters in the poem, she is married to Hrothgar and she is therefore the queen of Danes. Like queen Hildelburh, Wealhteow too plays the role of a peace-waver, since she was offered as a wife to Hrothgar to establish peace between the two enemy peoples of Helmings and Schyldings. Anyway, the importance of her figure is stressed in verses 1161-1231, when she rewards Beowulf for his victory against Grendel. the function of Wealhtheow’s character is that of the hostess: according to Carr Porter “This appears to be a relatively unimportant function until one reads carefully and examines how this duty is carried out” (Porter). The first scene in which she appears takes place in her castle’s hall, when she carries a cup of mead to all the warriors; King Rhothgar is the first who receives the cup, and after he has drunk all the others can drink.
The second scene in which Wealhtheow appears is very similar, but this time, after the king, she offers the cup to Beowulf: this clearly tells the reader that Beowulf has gained the courts faith and improved his position, because he maintained the promise to kill Grendel. Michael J. Enright argues that, because she always offers the cup to her King first, Wealhtheow is only an “extension“ (Enright), an instrument of his power. Although this action seems to be coordinated by the king’s will, it actually reveals the fundamental importance of the Queen’s figure. By offering the cup to Beowulf in fact, the Queen shows the position that he has achieved in the court, and she wants to reward him. Another example that stresses the importance of her character is the speech that she takes in the court during the celebration of Grendel’s death:
“Thy Heorot purged,
jewel-hall brightest, enjoy while thou canst,
with many a largess; and leave to thy kin
folk and realm when forth thou goestto greet thy doom. For gracious I deem
my Hrothulf, willing to hold and rule
nobly our youths, if thou yield up first,
prince of Scyldings, thy part in the world.
I ween with good he will well requite
offspring of ours, when all he minds
that for him we did in his helpless days
of gift and grace to gain him honor!” (Beowulf, 1176-1187)
With these words, referred to her husband, the queen wants to defend her interests. She reminds Hrothgar to be grateful and kind to Beowulf, but not to make him his heir; Wealhtheow wants to defend her son’s right to be the future King. This speech is a great example of the power that a woman could have in the Anglo-Saxon society, and of her political influence. Although the choice of the heir is up to the King, the Queen’s opinion has a central relevance, which makes her figure far from simply “marginal”.
With this short analysis of the figure of wives in Beowulf, it has been shown the importance of women in order to contrast the idea of them as passive and marginal figures of the epic. According to S. Singh “after a close reading of Beowulf it becomes clear that women bore a great deal of power and sway, often more than men and sometimes more than entire tribes or clans” (Singh). Female characters and heroism do not mutually exclude each other, instead wives have several functions and a special impact on the heroic male world.
- Baker, P. S. (Ed.). (2000). The Beowulf Reader (Vol. 1). Psychology Press.
- Enright, Michael J. (1996) Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age. Dublin, Ireland and Portland, OR: Four Courts Press.
- Heaney, S. (2009). Beowulf. Faber & Faber.
- Overing, G. R. (1990). Language, sign, and gender in Beowulf (p. 81). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Porter, D. C. (2001). The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context. The Heroic Age, 5, 1-6.
- Singh, S. (2015). The Importance of Women in Anglo-Saxon Society as Portrayed through Literature. In The Compass (Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 5).