Breaking the Dichotomy between Male and Female: The Role of Women in Beowulf
In her 1995 book article "The Women of Beowulf: A Context for Interpretation," Gillian R. Overing writes that "[t]he women in Beowulf, whether illegitimate monsters or pedigreed peaceweaving queens, are all marginal, excluded figures . . ." (Overing 1995). However, Dorothy Carr Porter writes that "Read within the context of the society presented in the text, it is clear that the women are central and important to the poem as a whole." She argues that when read carefully, Beowulf presents the female characters as women central both to the story itself and within the society presented in the poem, and far from "marginal, excluded figures," as Overing puts it (Carr Porter 2001).
Only eleven women are referred to in Beowulf, but their roles are crucial in depicting the social structure upon which this Anglo-Saxon epic depends. Seven of these women have little or no role in the central action of the poem. They are described to show the history and social relationships of the people. Four women have more extended dramatic functions. In a comparison of social roles, the men have several primary responsibilities. However, a close examination of the eleven women shows that they share in all predominately male roles (including ring-giving). Furthermore, they have special roles and qualities not shared by the men-e.g., peace-weaving, aversion to gore (Smith 1981).
It is clear that the role of women in Beowulf has led to many discussions on gender in Old English literature. The alleged centrality or putative marginality of the female figures in the text is consequently under dispute. In this essay, my central arguments are that the figure of woman in Beowulf constitutes a fluid entity, not only marked by both male and female qualities, achieving a kind of androgyny, but that the female roles break divisions between masculine and feminine in the story.
Carr Porter nicely situates the female characters:
Let us first examine the major female characters. There are six women in Beowulf who have major roles: Wealhtheow, Hygd, Freawaru, Hildeburh, Grendel's mother, and Thryth, all of whom can be combined in corresponding pairs[2… Wealhtheow and Hygd are both queens and, as hostesses, they both exert influence in the hall (usually thought of as a masculine enclave), influence that does not always coincide with the wishes of their husbands. The first section will present Wealhtheow and Hygd as hostesses, discussing their place in the structure of the court society shown in the poem, a society that focuses on the hall and the words that are spoken within the hall. Hildeburh and Freawaru are both failed peaceweavers, Hildeburh in the past time of the poem and Freawaru in the future. "Peaceweaver" is a term in modern scholarship reserved for a woman married into one group from another, in an attempt to weave peace among them. As peaceweavers, these women have the potential to hold influence in both groups - potential which does not come to fruition for reasons that will be discussed in the second section, which will present Hildeburh and Freawaru as peaceweavers, discuss the effect of tribal loyalties on their marriages, and examine the general practice of peaceweaving. Grendel's mother and Thryth are both women of a monstrous type who are eventually "tamed," through death and marriage, respectively. These monstrous women serve as counter-examples of both the hostesses and the peaceweavers. The third and final section will present Grendel's Mother and Thryth as counter-examples of hostesses and peaceweavers; perhaps they can be considered hostile hostesses and strife-weavers (Carr Porter 2001).
Wealhtheow and Hygd, in their role as hostesses, typically a female enclave, exert political power, particularly over Beowulf. In her speech to Hrothgar, Wealhtheow urges him to be gracious (glaed) to Beowulf and the Geats, but not to make him heir to the Danish kingdom (as she has heard he wishes to do) (1175-1180). Instead, she asks him to take Hrothulf (Hrothgar's nephew) as his heir, to hold the kingdom for her sons (1180-1187). In this act, Wealhtheow is actively protecting her own interests, and the poet gives no indication that her words were ignored or not accepted into consideration by Hrothgar. Her words to Beowulf reflect the same concerns. First, she urges him to accept the gift she has just given him, a ring (beag), illustrating her own graciousness and generosity. She then praises his deeds and urges him to be kind to her sons, reminding him of the truth and loyalty that exist in Heorot. Her final words illustrate her self-confidence: "the troop, having drunk at my table, will do as I bid" (1231). Again, the poet gives no reason for us to believe that her demands will go unheeded (Carr Porter 2001).
Hygd also held at least some political power, and this is shown most clearly when she attempts to deliver the kingdom of the Geats to Beowulf following Hygelac's death on the battlefield, in effect passing over her own son, Heardred. The poet says, "Hygd offered him [Beowulf] the hoard and kingdom, rings and royal throne; she did not trust that her son could hold the ancestral seat against foreign hosts, now that Hygelac was dead" (2369-2372). Perhaps she is acting as an extension of her husband's power (as she does during the cup distribution in the hall), doing what he would have wished her to do. However the poet does not say that she is acting on anyone's authority but her own - apparently it is Hygd and Hygd alone who does not believe her son is strong enough to hold the kingdom.
The full gamut of this fluid dichotomy in Beowulf can be found in the role of the peace pledge. Her crucial role in this best known of all Anglo Saxon texts has been described by Jane Chance as "[dependent] upon peace making, either biologically through her marital ties with foreign kinds as a peace pledge or mother of sons, or socially and psychologic ally as a cup-passing and peace-weaving queen within a hall." The first female introduced is Wealtheow, a successful peace pledge whose marriage has, apparently, brought peace between her husband's tribe and her own. She has, it seems, balanced or shifted her loyalties and assumes an important role in her husband's hall, distributing mead and gold rings to her husband's thanes and actively participating in forging political alliances. Her actions in the mead hall enable her to empower her husband's men, for those she serves first seem placed in a position of privilege. Wealtheow's "presence and actions help the lord at his task" of preserving peace, explains L. John Sklute. "If [her role] reflects anything of the social system of the Anglo-Saxons," he writes, "it is that of the diplomat" (Sklute 1970). It is difficult to perceive Wealtheow as an object: she has established a new identity in her husband's hall, occupying a position that enables her to participate in king-making decisions. Hygd, Hygelac's young wife, also moves beyond the role of object after her marriage to Hygelac and seems successful at establishing herself as diplomat. The narrator describes her thus:
Hygd, very young, wise, accomplished, though [she] has lived few years under castle enclosure, Haereth's daughter; she was not niggardly, however, nor too stingy with gifts to Geatish people (1925-31).
Not unlike the exiled male in The Husband's Message, who assumes an important place in his lord's home, both Wealtheow and Hygd find new lands and prestige in their new homes. Both Hygd and Wealtheow participate in negotiations in the mead hall, not hesitating to intervene in matters concerning the futures of their sons as kings. Wealtheow demonstrates diplomacy in her words to Hrothgar as she urges him not to neglect his sons by favoring Beowulf above them. Hygd, too, is concerned with her son, offering the throne to Beowulf when her son is in his minority. Not merely protective, loving mothers, Hygd, Weal theow, and the narrator of Wulf and Eadwacer all seem to recognize the important role of their sons to the bonds of the comitatus, and all use the mother/son relationship to exert some influence (Jamison 2004). The final pair of women, Grendel's Mother and Thryth, are two very different types of monsters who act as counter-examples to the hostesses and peaceweavers. First, they act in a more masculine manner than do the other women. Rather than using words or marriage to exert influence, they use physical strength and weapons. They do not welcome visitors into their homes. They are hostile hostesses, "using the sword to rid their halls of intruders or unwanted "hall-guests" (Chance 1986). They are strife-weavers who are content to use violence to settle their disputes. Thryth was a princess who used to kill the men who came into her hall. The poet comments that this sort of behavior, even by a beautiful queen, should not be tolerated (1940-1943). Grendel's mother also attacks anyone who would come into her hall, as she…