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Beowulf

Updated on October 10, 2012

Beowulf: Pride is the Curse

It's a classic that all other literature finds its basis upon. Beowulf is a classic piece of literature known to be the first ever written word. Its significance is more than one could imagine and analysis of the work highlights the main frame of storytelling that has been passed down for centuries.

Beowulf Analysis

Roles of Women, Part 1

Throughout the history of literature female characters are often side characters that do not get much recognition from readers. Further analysis of male-centric works, reveals that women play central roles in literature regardless of the proximity to the protagonist who is struggling with internal and external conflicts. Many of these conflicts in literature lead to significant analysis of the moral fabric that defines such a character. For example, the epic of Beowulf is revered for its accounts of heroism and male comradeship. Beowulf is a courageous hero who defeats three monsters for the sake of a nearby country. The women in Beowulf are overlooked, however, a close examination of the poetry demonstrates that the women play roles that are central to the story and to that of society. The epic of Beowulf illustrates three major roles for the women in the society: the hostess, the peacemaker, and the monster. Three major women play integral roles throughout the epic: Wealhtheow, Grendel's Mother, and Hildeburh. The roles illustrate the differing levels of power that women hold within the society as perceived by the men within the plot. Moreover, the roles of the hostess and the peacemaker are inherent to the conditioned female nature, while the monster is the unmodified female in her natural state of being. The women of Beowulf play three roles: the peacemaker, the hostess, and the monster; these roles range in levels of power based on how closely the role follows the social expectations of females within society.

The peacemaker is a pivotal role played by the women throughout the epic of Beowulf. As a peacemaker, the woman is responsible for uniting tribes (warring or not) and maintaining solid relations between these groups. The strongest model of the peacemaker in "Beowulf," is Hildeburh, the Danish princess who was married off to the the King of Jutes. Hildeburh is a gift from the Danes to the Jutes in hopes to bring peace between the countries and establish an alliance. She acts as a faithful queen and an obedient daughter aiming to indirectly bring peace to her homeland and her husband's land. Author Nicole Smith of the Journal of Medieval History claims that Hildeburh's main job as a "happily confined" queen is to act as a "mediator and a departure from male dominated activities and relationships," which means that she eases tensions that may arise between men. Furthermore, when Hildeburh's brother of Danes and son of Jutes perish in a battle in which they are enemies, she stresses that they be burned together(Beowulf lines 1070-1185). Her desire to burn enemies together demonstrates an act of joining the opposed forces regardless of the alliances. Although the marriage did not bring peace to these groups of people, Hildeburh fulfilled her duty as a peaceweaver by maintaining loyalties with her homeland and the land of her husband's. Her behavior follows the social expectations of women to be nurturing and mediating, which puts her in the position to integrate herself into the male dominated society without rupturing its design.

While the peacemaker aims to alleviate tension between men, her power is an indirect effect of her expected behavior. The role itself is created by the men of society and the women are expected to behave accordingly for the sake of the intentions of the men placing her in that role (even if she does not agree). As previously mentioned, Hildeburh is married off to a foreign king in hopes for a new treaty between the countries. She functions within a strict set a parameters as the daughter of one country and the wife of another country without the ability to choose her alliances. According to Brian Hall of Studia Neophilologica, Hildeburh does not choose the role of the peacemaker, rather she is chosen to do so( Hall 87). Social customs dictate that she must behave as a civilized woman and straying from that put her reputation in jeopardy; this is exactly why Hildeburh lacks direct power. Moreover, her role does not bear any significant impact on the countries seeking alliance because she is not allowed to voice her opinions on political affairs ( Hall 82-86). In other words, she does not have the power to create peace, she is given the opportunity to improve its odds through her attitudes toward the countries hoping to form an alliance. To further prove that Hildeburh's little power is due to her strict adherence to social custom it is important to note that she is unable to choose an alliance in the event of her brother and her son die in battle. She screams to have them burned together( like a distressed individual, not a person of importance), but the two countries never come together and she returns to her homeland after the her attempts to bring peace are completed.

In addition to the peacemaker, the queen in "Beowulf" acts as the hostess to the men of the land. The hostess does not solely serve the men, rather she is the instrument that reaffirms social customs and publicly establishes the status of the men who are in the presence of the king. Wealhtheow, the queen of Daneland and wife of Hrothgar completes these duties in the mead hall when the warriors are dining with the king. For example, Wealhtheow establishes a warrior's status by using the cup of mead. She carries the cup of mead starting with the king and then to the warriors. Upon Beowulf's arrival to Daneland, Wealhtheow served the mead cup to Beowulf last to establish his seniority in the king's hall(Beowulf lines 612-641). However, in lines 1162-1231, she serves Beowulf directly after serving her husband. The act of the cup demonstrates that Beowulf has earned his right to sit beside the king, as though he were a Dane himself (Porter 1). The scenes further illustrate that the queen acting as the hostess holds power similar to that of the king. Wealhtheow is an extension of and a support for his kingly power (Morey 2010). Morey goes on to state that the hostess, "helps achieve cohesion and unity of purpose between lord and follower in the royal hall" ( Morey 2010). She chooses who has ranking in the hall and the king does not question her authority.

Furthermore, the hostess holds political power in the hall, which is much greater power in comparison to that of the peacemaker. Wealhtheow demonstrates this power by publicly requesting to the King that he not allow Beowulf to be the heir to the throne, but to remember that her son's are the rightful heirs to such a position (Beowulf, lines 1180-1191). She is confident that the King will abide by these social customs and there is no reprimand or indication in the poem that her wishes will not be granted(Porter 1). Beowulf does become the king, however, he only holds the place until the son's are old enough to fulfill their duty as king. The hostess lightly walks the lines between a civilized woman obeying the social order and the uncivilized woman fighting for just action giving her more power than the typical female. Wealtheow, unlike Hildeburh can use her voice to produce results that effect the kingdom. The hostess becomes the voice of reason, she is responsible for upholding the socials customs of her country when all of the warriors have forgotten the importance of these codes.

Beowulf Analysis

Roles of Women, Part 2

Unlike the peacemaker and the hostess, the female monster embodies masculine energy and counteracts the social expectations of a woman in society. The female monster exhibits the most power of all of the female roles because she is feared mentally and physically by the men and women of society. The most important female monster in Beowulf is Grendel's mother who depicts the aforementioned behaviors. First, the female monster uses physical force and violence to solve conflict. For example, Grendel's mother is viewed as evil and monstrous; she attacks anyone that enters her cave without reason(Beowulf lines 1259-1260). Grendel's mother is a "hostile hostess" who uses "the sword to rid her hall...of unwanted hall guests" (Porter 2). The behavior is masculine and demonstrates that the female monster does not solve conflict with words and marriage which is typical of a woman confined to the social expectations. The female monster solves conflicts with physical action or inherent behavior of a woman who does not live with civilization . The poet states that, "...even a queen/ outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that," which highlights the poet's attitude toward the aggressive actions of Grendel's mother (lines 1940-41). These lines indicate that women who attempt to resolve conflict or make a significant societal change with behavior that is considered masculine should never be tolerated. Therefore, women are expected to be rational, while men are permitted to act irrationally. Moreover, the female monster exhibits unexpected masculine energy by engaging in the customs assigned to a warrior.

In this society, only men seek vengeance, therefore a woman that does so is considered villainous for disobeying the expected behavior of a female in civilized society. After the death of her son, Grendel's mother goes on a "sorrowful journey to avenge her slain son" (Beowulf 1276-78). Smith claims that "her role as an avenger" makes her a disturbing and "grotesque" for her ability "to carry out the male dominated act of revenge." Seeking vengeance is not acceptable as a female. Her swift decision to act without rational thought threatens the power that men carry over the women of society, thus she is the most powerful role in the story. In the article, "Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf," by Paul Acker he reasons that women are given roles such as the hostess and the peacemaker in order to prevent the monsters from emerging into a society that protects the mens control over the kingdoms and crucial decisions. Her actions make her an outcast, a monster to the village because she does not fulfill her female duties. These qualities in a woman during this time period classify her as a monster.

The epic of "Beowulf" is lined with heroic men seeking vengeance, ruling halls, and fighting battles. The women in the story are expected to fulfill duties that best serve the men of the land. The importance of the roles that women adapt in the story are underestimated. Many of the women have more power than one would expect during this time. The roles are central to the story and in maintaining a civilized society. The hostess serves as a political instrument that brings hospitality and order to the land, while the peacemaker weaves herself between lands to form alliances. At last, the monster is a complex female that opposes the social expectations of a female and utilizes the law of man to solve problems. Each role bears a certain amount of power that has minimal to a great deal of power in society. The peacemaker has indirect power that will only influence the society if the men are willing to forge alliances. She is not permitted to voice opinions on the warring conditions or political nature of the kingdom, rather she must use her womanly behavior to push results in the favored direction. Secondly, the hostess controls more of the kingdom from her own will because she owns the voice of reason in the hall of her husband. She is able to openly speak out about undesired outcomes (in a civilized manner) and will not be punished for doing so. Her behavior is respectable because it is seen as an extension of her kings/husband's desires. Lastly, the monster exudes the most power of the female roles because she threatens the societal customs and rules that keep the men in power. This power is strong because she does not follow social customs/expectations, rather she follows her internal desires to seek action in the same manner that a man may in a similar situation. The poet does not exalt the women in the story for their influence over men, however, it should be considered to full grasp the purpose of the actions taken throughout the epic.

Works Cited

Acker, Paul. "Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 121.3 (2006): 702-712

Hall, Brian. "Hygelac's only daughter: a present, a potentate and a peaceweaver in Beowulf." Studia Neophilologica 78.1 (2006): 81-88.

McNamara, John, and George Stade. Beowulf. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.

Morey, Robert. "Beowulf's androgynous heroism." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95.4 (1996): 486+. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 May 2010.

Porter, Dorothy. "The Heroic Age: The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf." Western Michigan University. 2002. Web. 01 Apr. 2010.

Smith, Nicole. "Representations of Women in Medieval Literature : Margery Kempe, Gawain, and Beowulf." Article Myriad. 2008. Web. 01 Apr. 2010.

Beowulf Quotes

And a young prince must be prudent like that,

giving freely while his father lives

so that afterwards in age when fighting starts

steadfast companions will stand by him

and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired

is the path to power among people everywhere.

(20–25)

Beowulf got ready,

donned his war-gear, indifferent to death;

his mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail

would soon meet with the menace underwater.

It would keep the bone-cage of his body safe:

. . .

[His helmet] was of beaten gold,

princely headgear hooped and hasped

by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders. . . .

(1442–1452)

O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.

Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,

eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.

For a brief while your strength is in bloom

but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow

illness or the sword to lay you low,

or a sudden fire or surge of water

or jabbing blade or javelin from the air

or repellent age. Your piercing eye

will dim and darken; and death will arrive,

dear warrior, to sweep you away.

(1758–1768)

Villains of Beowulf

There are few villains of Beowulf and only two worth mentioning. Grendel and his mother. Think before responding.

Which villain do you feel more remorse for: Grendel or his Mother?

See results

Beowulf Themes

Fortitude and Wisdom

Bookrags.com provides some amazing words on hundreds of books, but there can be a lot to rummage through before you find the right ones. I have taken the time to provide you with the best descriptions of the major Beowulf Themes ...Fortitude and Wisdom.

"For narrator and characters, wisdom and fortitude represent an ideal to which every man aspires and every society needs. Physical bravery was most' appreciated when accompanied by understanding and discernment. This discernment was not merely practical, it was supported by a larger spiritual understanding of God and the human condition. This is the point of Hrothgar's "sermon" in lines 1700-82."

Link to Page: http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-beowulf/themes....

Copy and paste that link to learn more about Beowulf from the author's of Bookrags.com

Style

Beowulf is in a narrative style that possess a very omniscient tone. It is as though a GOD is looking down and relaying the story to others.

Not much to say about this.

But it does make the story very ANCIENT feeling.

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