The Status Of Women In Beowulf And Anglo-Saxon Society
“A man so venerated, he has a story named after him.” In Beowulf, a tale is recited of a warrior who assists anyone in need, no matter how lethal the risk. But Beowulf is also story about strong and willing women, and the roles they play in their society. There are five leading female characters: Queen Welthow, Queen Higd, Hnaf’s sister, and Grendel’s mother. Each of these females is significant to revealing that the status of women in the Anglo-Saxon poem can be the same or less than men’s status.
A Queen’s duty is to take care of her people, serve her husband, the king, and reward heroes. Queen Welthow of the Danes and Queen Higd of the Geats demonstrate these qualities. Both queens act as rulers just as much as the kings do, they do not hesitate to speak up and deliver speeches or hand out gifts. For example, when celebrating Grendel’s demise, Welthow gives a speech to the warriors and King Hrothgar. In this speech, she thanks God for sending Beowulf to them and advises her husband to appreciate the Geats, but to not be so thankful that he makes Beowulf the heir of the Danes instead of their son. By doing this Queen Welthow shows she, just like her husband, can voice what she believes is best for the kingdom. After her speech, to thank Beowulf, Welthow presents a gold necklace to him along with the horses, and weapons Hrothgar awarded him.
Another time we see a queen exercising her power is when King Higlac of the Geats dies and Higd offers the Geatish throne to Beowulf even though her son, Herdred, was still alive. She did this because she thought Beowulf would make a better king for the Geats since he was more experienced and wiser than Herdred. By doing this she shows she is keeping the best intentions for her tribe and she is taking on the responsibility of a ruler to declare the next in line for the throne. This displays that women in Beowulf are able to make decisions of their own and not be doubted because of their gender.
A woman can bring tranquility to warring tribes. In Beowulf, Hnaf’s sister was meant to bring peace to her tribe, the Danes. In the saga of Finn, the daughter of the Danish King, wedded Finn, the King of the Frisians. This marriage was expected to secure peace between the warring tribes. Initially, the union was successful, the tribes were content and the new couple had a son, but this did not last. When the son groes to be a man, war strikes again.
The Danes and the Frisians spend the whole winter fighting until Finn is killed and defeated. When the war ends, Hnaf’s sister is left without a son, husband, and brother as she returns to the Danes. Hnaf’s sister’s story informs the readers that women were used as peace offerings, that they often did not have a choice in who they were marrying. Hnaf’s sister shows that women can have a relatively inferior status in Beowulf, even though they are valued enough to be mediators. But her specific story tells us something else, she is not significant enough to have her name be explicitly stated, she is meant to do one thing only, bring peace.
Vicious women show females can be antagonists as well as men. Grendel’s mother is a monster who slaughters and devours men because she is a descendant of Cain. She lashes out in this manner since God is punishing her for Cain’s sin of killing his brother Abel. After her son Grendel is killed, she decides to attack Heorot to avenge his murder. Clearly, Grendel’s mother, just like Beowulf, does not mind using violence to solve her issues. This shows a woman can act just like a male can but her actions might not be perceived the same way. In Beowulf’s case, when he goes to slay Grendel’s mother after she killed Esher (King Hrothgar’s close friend), he is regarded as a hero for seeking revenge. On the other hand, when Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son, her actions are not recognized as noble but as villainous. This she-wolf also demonstrates a woman can be independent. Grendel’s mother has no husband. She is a single mother who proves she would do anything for her son.
Altogether, Beowulf proves the status of women can be anything. The poem displays the various roles a female can fill which is contrary to the Anglo-Saxons beliefs. In the olden days, women fit one mold – they were supposed to be controlled by their husbands, and they had very little authority or freedom. In Beowulf, females can be as powerful as a king, willing and brave to marry someone they do not know for the sake of their people, or they can be as sinister as the devil.
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