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Role of Women in the Epic of Beowulf

Role of Women in Beowulf

As an epic tale of heroes and monsters, Beowulf gives its readers much excitement and adventure, but Beowulf’s importance is more than just literary. It offers many insights into the beliefs and customs of seventh-century Anglo-Saxon culture. Among these insights is the Anglo-Saxon view of women and their role in society. Good Anglo-Saxon women are peaceful and unassertive, greeting guests and serving drinks to the warriors and other men in the meadhall. Wealhtheow, the queen of the Danes, represents a typical subservient Anglo-Saxon woman. As a foil to Wealhtheow, Grendel’s mother is a strong and combative monster whom Beowulf must kill. By analyzing these two characters in Beowulf, we can understand the treatment and mistreatment of women in Anglo-Saxon society. The author of Beowulf generally supports the traditional Anglo-Saxon views of women by praising Wealhtheow, condemning Grendel’s mother, and showing the need to suppress feminine forces like Wyrd; however, he does offer some criticism of these views by creating sympathy for Grendel’s mother, allowing Wealhtheow to assert herself in the interest of her husband and children, and revealing masculine fear of feminine power.

The author creates Wealhtheow to embody the role of a traditional Anglo-Saxon woman, and he presents this role as the only appropriate one for Wealhtheow to fulfill. She serves as a peacekeeper in the ever-tumultuous Heorot meadhall. When the author first introduces Wealhtheow to his audience, she immediately falls into her role as peaceful greeter and cocktail waitress. The author writes, “Then Wealhtheow came forth / folk-queen of the Danes daughter of Helmingas / and Hrothgar’s bedmate. She hailed all of them / spo…

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…st darkness” (l. 73) to restore peace and order. Wyrd works to bring disorder and doom to Beowulf and the warriors of Heorot, just as Grendel’s mother wages her war of destruction and death on Hrothgar and his kingdom. Beowulf subdues Grendel’s mother permanently by killing her, but Wyrd can only be avoided temporarily, not destroyed once and for all. This suggests that the struggle against female authority and uprising is timeless, and the only way to deal with this problem is on an individual basis.

The author’s views on women may never be fully revealed, but it is clear that he believes in male superiority and that insurgent females ought to be suppressed. Like Wealhtheow, females should only exert minimal power and influence, but they should always keep the drinks coming.

Work Cited

Beowulf. Trans. Frederick Rebsamen. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

The Mead-hall in the Old English Poem Beowulf

The Mead-hall in the Old English Poem Beowulf

What was the function and nature of a mead-hall in the Heroic Age of Beowulf? Was it more than a tavern for the dispensing and consumption of alcoholic beverages, and occasionally precious gifts? Yes, much more.

Remaining true to the Anglo-Saxon culture’s affinity for mead (ale/beer/wine), the characters of Beowulf partake frequently of the strong beverage. And the mead hall was their home away from home, with more entertainments than just fermented beverages: “gold and treasure at huge feasts … the words of the poet, the sounds of the harp.” Needless to say, with “the world’s greatest mead-hall … Hrothgar’s people lived in joy.” “after a mead party the Danes … knew no sorrows.” When Grendel “moved into the [mead] hall,” that was an indescribably torturesome pain for everyone: “Hrothgar was broken … the Danes forgot God … [they were] in great distress … they wept and seethed.” When the hero and his men arrived they immediately “came toward the hall … then sat down on benches … pouring sweet drink.” They came “to cleanse Heorot [the mead hall],” to stop the “humiliations in Heorot” where men are “over their ale-cups.” Beowulf predicts: “When I get done with him, anyone who wishes may happily go into the mead hall.” Unferth, in his battle rune at Hrothgar’s feet, was insulting to the hero because Unferth was “drunk on mead.” When Queen Wealhtheow entertained the Geats, she first bid the king “joy in his mead drinking,” then “went around to each … sharing the precious cup.” When the hero began fighting the monster, “many a mead bench … went flying.” The next day the queen “walked among the mead seats,” and everyone “drank many a mead cup.” References to this subject …

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…tory for lodging and a meeting place for paying debts and forging alliances. It was, in a word, a joyful and useful place.


Arnold, Ralph. “Royal Halls – The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial.” In Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975

Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

Cramp, Rosemary. “Beowulf and Archaeology.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Hill, John M.. “Social Milieu.” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Shippey, T.A.. “The World of the Poem.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

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