By Petra Procházková
Bachelor of Arts Thesis, Masaryk University, 2007
Introduction: 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.