Petra Procházková Female Characters in Beowulf B. A. Major Thesis

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts

Department of English and American Studies

Petra Procházková

Female Characters in Beowulf

B.A. Major Thesis

Supervisor: doc. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.

Brno 2007

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently, using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

Brno, April 2007

I would like to thank my supervisor doc. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A. for her kindness, patience and valuable advice.











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. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the poem also contains several female characters. My thesis argues that even though they are not of primary concern, they are integral and substantial part of the poem.

In the first chapter, I analyse the values of the heroic world in order to demonstrate the primary emphasis on male characters. I also summarize the critical reception of female figures – on the one hand, they have often been viewed as too passive and suffering. The poet has been criticised for condemning them to the roles of helpless victims of the society they live in. On the other hand, however, the influence of feminist and gender theories have prompted a new approach, which presents female charactres as equal counterparts to the male heroes. In this respect, scholars have focused especially on the analysis of the term "peace weaver".

Therefore, the next chapter is devoted to the roles of female characters in general. I analyse various aspects of peace weaving as well as the roles associated with the mead-hall such as the "passer-of-the-cup" and the "gift-giver".

Then, I proceed to the analysis of the individual female figures, their functions within the story and their place in the poetic structure. I focus on their individual traits as well as on parallels existing between them. Some obscure points arising from the Beowulf manuscript are mentioned, as well.

First of all, Queen Wealhtheow, who is the most fully depicted woman in Beowulf, is analysed especially in connection with her role in the mead-hall. She is also compared with Hildeburh, who figures in the Finnsburg Episode. Subsequently, Hildeburh and Freawaru are treated mainly as examples of tragic peace weaving figures. In the "Geatish part" of the poem, the most important female characters are Hygd and Modthryth. It is especially Modthryth, who has raised a critical discussion due to her behaviour which is improper for a queen. Finally, I focus on the significance of the unnamed female mourner at Beowulf's funeral.

The next chapter deals with one of the most obscure characters of the whole poem –

Grendel's mother. Even though she is Beowulf's opponent rather than a female character as such, I focus on those traits which link her to the human queens, drawing comparisons and contrasts. I also summarize a discussion which treats Grendel's mother as an embodiment of a mytical female archetype.

The analysis demonstrates that the female characters are important for the poetic structure as well as the story itself. They are neither passive nor powerless – they are actively struggling to define their place in the heroic world and their efforts are in many respects successful.


Epic narratives such as Beowulf are based on the principles of heroic society. The world of Beowulf is full of "heroic campaigns" (3), which are accomplished with daring courage and bravery. Beowulf has to go through many dangerous situations in order to win his glory. To live and die bravely is a matter of honour for him. Personal fame and courage are among the main values of the society depicted in the poem. Beowulf is lof-geornost ("keenest to win fame", 3182) because the only thing he seems to be afraid of is oblivion. There is a way for him to become "immortal" – as a part of a scop's song. He strives for the glory because he does not want to be forgotten and that is why he tells Hrothgar: "For every one of us, living in this world / means waiting for our end. Let whoever can / win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, / that will be his best and only bulwark" (1386-1389).

In fact, the whole poem can be described as a story about Beowulf's winning of the immortal glory. The actions of a male epic hero constitute the centre of the epic poetry. Subsequently, the society depicted in these poems is "quintessentially male" (Rochester), focusing on a relationship between men. A primary relationship – which is described even as "a bond of love" – exists between a king and his retainers, whose main duty is to be loyal to their lord (Irving 22). This relationship was described already by the Roman historian Tacitus in his account of German society called Germania (written in 98 AD): "(…) it is a lifelong infamy and reproach to survive the chief and withdraw from the battle. To defend him, to protect him, even to ascribe to his glory their own exploits, is the essence of their sworn of allegiance: the chiefs fight for victory, the followers for their chief" (qtd. in Köberl 2).

In Anglo-Saxon literature, the same ideas are expressed for example in The Battle of Maldon from the 10th century. According to Kevin Crossley-Holland, the speech of one of the characters called Byrhtwold should be "regarded as the supreme statement of the Germanic heroic code" (5):

Mind must be the firmer, heart the more fierce,

courage the greater, as our strength diminishes.

Here lies our leader, hewn down,

an heroic man in the dust.

He who now longs to escape will lament for ever.

I am old. I will not go from here,

but I mean to lie by the side of my lord,

lie in the dust with the man I loved so dearly. (309-316)

A brief mention of these values can be found even in the opening lines of Beowulf: "So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness" (1-2).

However, Edvard Irving comments that modern readers may find a society based on these principles "strange and even unattractive" because it seems to be barbaric and obsessed with violence (20). It is true that even Beowulf himself claims that "[i]t is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning" (1384b-1385). According to Irving, murder and anarchy were common in a society devoted to personal achievement through the use of violence. "Since law in our sense scarcely existed, private vengeance usually had the task of dealing with such crises. As we see often in Beowulf, such private vengeance had a way of leading to a long-lasting and bloody feud or vendetta" (Irving 23).

Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the poem reflects reality only partially. It is a "product of a single aristocratic class of warriors and it is directed exclusively to the interests of such an audience" (Irving 20). That is why many aspect of the real Anglo-Saxon society were deliberately excluded. As Irving continues, "[t]he characters feast constantly but we never see peasants engaged in growing their food or brewing their ale. (…) If [the warriors] are not fighting they are drinking, boasting or listening to a scop's replay of some of the fights of old" (20-21).

Female characters, as well, seem to be inconspicuous at first sight. However, at closer look we realize that the Beowulf-poet did not neglect them entirely. In the main story line, we encounter Wealhtheow, Hygd, Grendel's mother and the mourner at Beowulf's funeral. The narrative digressions are even more associated with women – there are Hildeburh, Freawaru and Modthryth. Nevertheless, the primary focus on the male hero and his actions has led many scholars to underestimate their roles or wrongly classify them as too passive and suffering.

For example, Gillian R. Overing writes that "[t]he women in Beowulf, whether illegitimate monsters or pedigreed peaceweaving queens, are all marginal, excluded figures (. . .)" (qtd. in Carr Porter). According to her, "women have no place in the death-centered, masculine economy of Beowulf; they have no space to occupy, to speak from (…) they must be continually translated by and into the male economy" (qtd. in Andrade 3). Scholars such as Gillian Overing, Edvard Irving, Michael Enrigh and Johann Köberl classify women in Beowulf as helpless victims of the society they live in. They point out that they are dependent on men, being mere "instruments of the kings" and "extensions of their husbands" (Carr Porter). Subsequently, all their roles are said to be doomed to failure or futile.

However, the influence of gender studies and feminist theories have incited scholars like Dorothy Carr Porter, Marijane Osborn or Brian McFadden to assign women a more significant position. It was especially the role of a peace weaver, which became a crucial term in their analysis since basically all the queens in Beowulf are shown to function in this role. The discussion of peace weaving has brought a new insight into the question of feminine power in Beowulf.

The character of Grendel's mother, as well, has acquired a new significance. In the overall scheme of the poem, she is primarily another monster for the hero to fight. Under the influence of the feminist theories, however, she has been analysed as an example of a strong and autonomous woman or as a feminine archetype on the mythical level.

Dorothy Carr Porter focused on not only on the role of female characters in Beowulf but also on their place in the poetic structure. As she concludes:

(…) the presentation of these women is purposefully symmetrical, inviting comparisons and contrasts. Those women who act as hostesses and peaceweavers, even while looking out for their own interests, are central to the poem, and an understanding of the functions of the women in Beowulf assists the comprehension of a complex poem. Those women presented as monsters, the hostile hostesses and strife-weavers, are interesting in themselves, and also serve as counter-examples to the other female characters. (…) Though they are all defined by the men that they are close to, either sons, fathers, or brothers, none of the women in Beowulf are marginal or excluded.

My thesis argues for these ideas and presents female figures in Beowulf as indispensable components of the poetic structure. However, before the analysis of the individual characters, it is necessary to focus on their roles in general.


As noted above, the most important role of female figures in Beowulf is that of a "peace weaver" (freothuwebbe in Old English). This term refers to a woman married from one tribe into another in order to secure peace between the two groups. Interestingly, the term is also used for angels in Old English poems such as Judith, because "they serve the same function as intermediaries – for women between one tribe and another, for angels between God and Mankind" (Maxwell). However, the term freothuwebbe is used only once in Beowulf – about Modthryth in 1942. In 2017, Queen Wealhtheow is referred to by a similar term, frithu-sibb folca, which means "peace-pledge between nations". John Hill argues that these terms differ in meaning – accoding to him, the term freothuwebbe implies that a peace weaving person holds importance within the group into which she was married (for example, as a "passer-of-the-cup"), whereas the latter term explicitely suggests a link between the two rival groups. To the contrary, Larry M. Sklute does not see any distinction between both words, claiming that they are used as synonyms (both in Carr Porter).

However, the scarce occurrence of both terms has led Sklute to suggest that they are used only as metaphors restricted to poetry. Nevertheless, he points out that arranged marriages – no matter how the woman functioning as "peace weaver" was actually referred to – were a widespread practice in German societies (in Carr Porter).

Acording to Edward Irving, this practice evolved from the effort to find a satisfactory solution to long-lasting feuds between clans, tribes, nations and other groups (24). Laura Maxwell specifies that the peace weaver was offered – "though there's not a clear distinction between being offered or being taken hostage – as a pledge of good faith between tribes (…)". Similarly, precious items such as jewellery and battle gear were often exchanged as "seals of good faith – physical objects in place of (non-existant) written contracts. They are markers of agreements which, without writing, have no other physical representation" (Maxwell). In this respect, Johann Köberl remarks that it seems as if women were treated as commodity. However, whether a woman could influence her relatives' decision about her marriage remains doubtful (12).

In Beowulf, Hildeburh and Freawaru most clearly act as intermediaries between two tribes. The poet considers this role appropriate for a woman – in 1942a, he explicitly states: "[a] queen should weave peace". On the other hand, Beowulf contains two outstanding examples of female characters who function as foils to peace weavers – Modthryth and Grendel's mother. Both of them use violence and their behaviour is viewed as unacceptable.

The most important duty of every peace weaving woman was to bear children because "child-bearing mingles the bloodlines between the two or more tribes involved in the peace pledge and hence becomes a physical means of achieving peace" (Andrade 4). The queens in Beowulf as well as Grendel's mother draw their importance from their sons – they are either proud of them or mourn their death.

What is more, the queens in Beowulf function in a number of social roles, the most important of them being the "passer-of-the-cup". Both Wealhtheow and Hygd act as "hostesses" – they carry the cup round the mead-hall and offer it to warriors. As Dorothy Carr Porter points out, "[t]his appears to be a relatively unimportant function until one reads carefully and examines how this duty is carried out". The importance of it lies especially in the order according to which a queen approaches the warriors. In Anglo-Saxon Maxims, we are told that a woman should "(…) always, everywhere, greet first at the mead-drinking the protector of the nobles before the band of retainers, give the first cup promptly into her lord's hand (…)" (qtd. in Köberl 13). Thus, the woman shows that the utmost power lies in the hands of the leader. Then, her task is to approach the retainers according to their prominence – it is an active role, which enables her to indicate the power structure of the hall, as will be shown in the discussion on Wealhtheow.

While distributing the cup, Wealhtheow is also shown to perform other functions – she converses with warriors, praises them and politely reminds them of their loyalty to each other and to their king. She functions as an intermediary between the king and warriors, which strengthens the ties of the war band. Besides it, she also incites Beowulf to action. In fact, a queen was supposed to act in a diplomatic way – to speak wisely and to council "through her lightheartedness, gentleness and constructive eloquence" (Chance qtd. in Andrade 1).

Another important function of a queen is gift-giving. Women in Anglo-Saxon times owned property and could distribute it at will (in Coone-McRary). Subsequently, one of the most important duties of a queen was to be generous. In Beowulf, it is especially Hygd who is praised for this quality.

However, when discussing the female characters in Beowulf, some scholars focus only on the tragic aspects of their roles. For example, Gillian Overing asserts that the most outstanding aspect of any peace weaving figure in Beowulf is "(…) her inevitable failure to be a peace-weaver; the task is never accomplished the role is never fully assumed, the woman is never identified (…)" (qtd. in Andrade 3). Both Edward Irving and Johann Köberl characterize women in Beowulf as "victims" (24 and 20, respectively). Similarly, Victoria Wodzak states that the peace weaver has no chance of being successful because the peace ultimately depends on the heroic world of men (in Andrade 8). Overing, as well, agrees that a peace weaver is "an unacceptable solution to the chaos in Anglo-Saxon warfare" (qtd. in Andrade 3).

It is true that the stories of some (though not all) female characters end in tragedy. For example, Hildeburh loses her beloved ones and Freawaru is not able to avert war. However, we should bear in mind that tragic overtones are deeply embedded in Old English literature –

according to Christine Fell,

Much of Old English poetry is concerned with the vulnerability of the individual, whether this is a man who has lost his lord, an exile, a poet out of favor, a woman separated from her husband, or some other unfortunate. Heroic poetry in particular is much concerned with the vulnerability of the woman cast in the role of freothuwebbe, 'peace-weaver', where it is hoped that a peace-settlement between two hostile tribes or families may be made firmer by a marriage-bond. The emphasis is on the isolation of such an individual in a society where the protection of her own family has been replaced by the dislike and distrust of those in her new environment. (in Pfile)

Beowulf, as well, contains tragic themes. As Anthea Andrade points out, "[a]ll kingdoms mentioned within the poem are ultimately destroyed regardless of how tactful the queen is" (3). On the other hand, however, not all the women in Beowulf are entirely tragic – Wealhtheow copes with her duties in the hall and Modthryth becomes the wife of the famous King Offa and the mother of the hero Eomer. According to Andrade, "(…) peace-weaving is productive – if only temporarily. Both childbirth and diplomacy (even if short-lived) are creative acts: the peace-weaver produces a 'text' that rewrites history, either her own or that of the two tribes" (9). Above all, none of the women in Beowulf is passive – every one seeks to achieve her own goals and tries to cope with the society she lives in.


Wealhtheow, Queen of the Danes and wife of Hrothgar, is the most fully depicted female character in Beowulf. She appears in two scenes (612b-641 and 1162-1232a) and considerable space is devoted to her direct speech. It will be shown that her presence in the story is indispensable because she directly affects the events of Beowulf's adventure in Denmark. Thus, she is of substantial importance to the whole poem. Her character is a fully integrated part of the poetic structure. What is more, she is by no means passive or helpless. To the contrary, she actively struggles to fulfill her duties of a peace weaver and achieve her own goals. Neither her words nor her actions are futile because she is evidently repubtable and her efforts are at least partially successful.

We know very little of her origin, which sets her in contrast with the other queens in the poem, whose royal genealogies – with the exception of Modthryth – are clear enough. We might trace a clue in 620, where the poet denotes her as "the Helming woman". However, Jan Čermák notes that the Helmings cannot be historically identified for certain (91). A possible elucidation is suggested by Sam Newton, who argues that the Helmings was an alternative name for the Wulfings (in Hill). The Wulfings are a clan that figures not only in Beowulf but also in Widsith and in the Norse sagas, which identify them a ruling clan of the Eastern Geats (in "Wulfing"). In Beowulf, they are mentioned as a clan of Heatholaf, a man who was slain by Beowulf's father Ecgtheow. This might account why Hrothgar paid wergild for Ecgtheow – the settlement of this feud would concern him if his wife's kindred was involved in it. Further, Newton states that the East Anglian Wuffing dynasty was derived from the Wulfing clan, which would link Beowulf with England (in Hill).

However, the question of Wealhtheow's origin is further complicated by her name, which was analysed as a compound of "wealh meaning Celt, foreign, slave, or servant and theow meaning in bondage, servile, or not free, though her name can also be translated as 'servant of the chosen'" (Damico and Hill qtd. in Gardner 9). Indeed, it is a strange name for a queen. Does it suggest that her background is not noble? In contrast to this speculation, she is described as frithu-sibb folca, "peace-pledge between nations", by Beowulf himself (2017) – a role typically destined for women of noble origin. Nevertheless, it is not clear what kind of hostility she was supposed to pacify. Despite being a "peace-pledge between nations", she is always shown acting only among the Danes.

Unlike Hildeburh, who holds importance both among the Danes and the Frisians, Wealhtheow remains identified only in relation to her husband's kindred. When discussing this issue, William A. Chaney notes that in a "kin-centered society such as that of the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples (…) common descent bound the social group together and provided the basis of unity" (qtd. in Pfile). It means that every person had to identify themselves by their lineage, which also implies that by not having the support of blood relatives, one's own identity was threatened. Subsequently, such a person was viewed with distrust.

Nevertheless, even if this might potentially apply to Wealhtheow, the poet always describes her in the best way. He uses such epithets as "queenly" and "dignified" (621). She is shown as "a representation of Hrothgar's hall" (Gardner 11) with her jewells and her costly attire standing for power. In fact, her character fulfills the role of a model queen who sets an example of queenly behavior in the mead-hall in two feasting scenes.

The poet introduces her to the story after a violent verbal exchange between Beowulf and Unferth – Beowulf has just accused him of killing his brothers and hinted at Danish inability to cope with Grendel. Even though these words are actually expected of him as a part of formal boasting, "it may be that the harmony of the community has been put to severe restrain in this exchange (…)" (Irving 45). Therefore, the poet shifts attention to the queen, whom he associates with peace and tranquility.

She is shown in her foremost role of a peace weaver in the hall – as a passer-of-the-cup. The poet tells us that she hands the cup to the king first, underlining his utmost power as noted above. After Hrothgar's ceremonial toast, she goes on her rounds, offering the cup to retainers according to their prominence. "One might say, crudely, that she keeps the score and awards the points in the competition for public prestige, while at the same time ensuring, by constant 'circulation', that no deserving person is entirely left out" (Shippey). In this scene, Wealhtheow reaches Beowulf in the end. Even if it might seem a bit impolite of her, we must bear in mind that Beowulf is a stranger in the hall and that he is also probably too young to have a more prominent position (he is sitting between Wealhtheow's young sons). On the other hand – as Jennifer Gardner notes – the Danes are served first in order to drink a toast to the newly arrived guests (6). However, in the second feasting scene, Beowulf is offered the cup immediately because he has meanwile acquired higher status by keeping his promise to kill Grendel.

At the same time, by handing the cup from warrior to warrior, the queen reminds them of their loyalty to each other and to their king. Thus, the cup symbolizes "an invisible web of peace, reflecting the dependent relationship each warrior had on another" (Andrade 14). In this respect, Wealhtheow's cup contrasts with the cup from the dragon's hoard, which can be perceived as an ominous symbol of disintergation and violence. It had been lying there uselessly for ages and the theft of it incited the dragon's fury.

The second scene where Wealhtheow acts takes place after the fight with Grendel. Edvard Irving notes that "(…) at this point, many traditional images of order and harmony flood into poem, the most significant of them being the great victory feast held in Heorot" (52). Again, the queen appears after a disturbing passage. This time, she not only passes the cup but also gives treasure. As a model queen, Wealhtheow is – according to Helen Damico – an embodiment of generosity (in Andrade 15). She gives Beowulf a precious necklace known as Brisingamen (1198). It not only demonstrates her power but it also gives Beowulf social prestige. Generally, gift-giving stands for social interaction. Here again arises a contrast with the dragon's untouched hoard – "(…) human societies engaged in free dispensing and receiving of treasure are consistently presented as spiritually healthy, as living in a way God intends. A hoarded treasure is spiritual death or damnation" (Lee 216).

In both scenes, the poet praises Wealhtheow for behaving and speaking in a polite and diplomatic way. She is evidently aware of her public role consisting in giving advice to warriors and reminding them of their loyalty and duties to the king. She is in all circumstances supportive of her husband – in fact, she functions as an extension of his power (in Carr Porter). She proves to be "(…) sophisticated enough to produce speeches appropriate to the joyous occasion while also nuancing them politically" (Osborn).

On the other hand, she is not a mere king's instrument because she speaks freely and expresses her own opinion. She evidently acts of her own free will when she criticises Hrothgar's intention to "adopt" Beowulf. According to Johann Köberl, she does it "(…) in a very face-saving manner, avoiding conflict with the Geats (…)" (19). Beowulf himself does not express his opinion on this issue becuase he probably understands that the queen's task is to promote her own offspring. Since the question of adoption is never raised again, Wealhtheow's reproaches must have been accepted by Hrothgar, as well. Her final words indicate her own self-confidence: "The thanes have one purpose, the people are ready: / having drunk and pledged, the ranks do as I bid" (1230-1231).

Somewhat surprisingly, Wealhtheow is no longer mentioned after the fight with Grendel's mother. The feast is described only briefly. It apparently contradicts the structural pattern we have seen – so far, the poet twice described a dangerous situation and then introduced a scene focusing on the queen as a symbol of peace and tranquility. However, after the fight with Grendel's mother the poem gradually acquires tragic overtones as it draws towards the end and Beowulf's death (in Bonjour 41-42). Therefore the soothing element is no longer appropriate.

All in all, Wealhtheow proves to be very competent. She actively fulfills her role of a peace-weaver and she is in many respects successful. However, I have not yet discussed the poet's dark allusions concerning the fate of her sons and the future of Heorot. It is hinted at mainly by means of a parallel between Wealhtheow and the Frisian queen Hildeburh. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the Finnsburg Episode at first.

The Finnsburg Episode belongs among digressions from the main story line. Hans Jürgen Diller defines a digression as "(…) a piece of text which interrupts the chronological progress of the surrounding story or argument by telling or summarizing sequences of events outside the main story. Their topic is not identical with that of the surrounding text" (73).

The Finnsburg Episode is presented as a scop's song performed at the feast after Beowulf's victory over Grendel (1065-1158). "Unfortunately for us, this story is told so elliptically and allusively, evidently to an audience capable of responding to slight hints by reconstructing the familiar story, that it offers serious problems in interpretation" (Irving 52).

The sequence of events could be reconstructed only by means of comparison with a badly damaged and incomplete manuscript known as the Finnsburg Fragment. We gather that it is a tragic story about the outbreak of violence between the Frisian king Finn and his brother-in-law Hnaef, who is from Denmark. The actual cause of their dispute is not clear but it is probable that the Danes and the Frisians are involved in a long-lasting feud. That is why Hnaef's sister Hildeburh was married to Finn. Hnaef and Finn's son are killed during the night attack. Hildeburh learns it in the morning and burns their dead bodies on a funeral pyre. Command of the Danes is subsequently taken over by Hengest, who swears loyalty to Finn. After the winter spent at Finnsburg, Hengest is worried by thoughts of vengeance. The fight breaks out again, Finn is killed and Hengest takes the queen back to Denmark.

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