There was another chapter. An avenger lay in wait, counting sworded seconds until the latest hour, her heart full of hatred. Grendel’s mother, warrior woman, outlaw, meditated on misery. She lived, ill-fated, sinking beneath cold-currents to her kingdom under-country, her line linked to extinction since Cain crossed swords with Abel and fled, murder-marked, to make his home in wastelands, solitary and silent.(Headley, 56)
The first third of Beowulf is full of the traditional roles of men and women in ancient epics. Beowulf is the hero here, and everyone else envies him. He fights the monster, Grendel and saves the townspeople and they all love him and give him treasure as a way to show their thanks. The only woman at this point in the epic that we’ve met is Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife. She embodies the traditional roles of women. She is only involved in the story when her husband is also involved, and never says or does anything without his permission. Moving on to the second third of the epic, we are met with Grendel’s mother. She is introduced through the quote above, and she is anything but a traditional woman. She is described as an “avenger” and “warrior woman,” words usually used to describe warriors (usually men). She also is described as having a kingdom, something women never had, unless it came from their marriage. In a story full of men’s power over, well, everything, including women, seeing female power emerge is a welcome change in a poem like this.
Another poem that shows gender roles in a non traditional way is Lanval by Marie de France. In this poem, we are introduced to Lanval, who at first seems like the typical male protagonist.
Because of his valour, generosity, beauty, and prowess, many were envious of him.(de France, 73)
As the author describes him more, it’s revealed that although Lanval possesses these usually hero-like qualities, he is easily forgettable to the King. This causes Lanval to be deeply lonely and hated by the other knights. Lanval is clearly a good knight, but he is not powerful and is not known as the hero in the text. This power instead belongs to a female character, an unnamed maiden who shows immense interest in Lanval, instead of the other way around. We meet her through this quotation:
Inside this tent was the maiden who surpassed in beauty the lily and the new rose when it appears in summer. She lay on a very beautiful bed — the coverlets cost as much as a castle — clad only in her shift. Her body was well formed and handsome, and in order to protect herself from the heat of the sun, she had cast about her a costly mantle of white ermine covered with Alexandrian purple.(de France, 74)
Her introduction is very similar to how we would be introduced to a hero of a story, talking both about her beauty and her wealth. She is also described using words like “well formed,” almost like she’s a sculpture of some kind and “handsome,” a word not usually used to describe women. Alexandrian purple shows her wealth and Lanval is shocked when he comes across her tent, saying,
They led him to the tent, which was so beautiful and well-appointed that neither Queen Semiramis at the height of her wealth, power and knowledge, nor the Emperor Octavian, could have afforded even the right-hand side of it.(de France, 74)
Most women in texts around this time period were unnamed side characters or just there next to their husbands, like Queen Wealhtheow in Beowulf, who is never mentioned without her husband, Hrothgar. This is drastically different from Queen Guinevere in Lanval, who has her own opinions and storyline separate from her husband. There are even instances where she tells her husband, KIng Arthur, what to do after Lanval insults her.
In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is depicted as this warrior, outlaw woman, and is able to hold her own for pretty long in a fight with Beowulf. In this text, we get to see both the stereotypical roles of a woman (Queen Wealhtheow) and the opposite (Grendel’s mother). Queen Wealhtheow, who we meet far before Grendel’s mother, is seen as a peace-giver and does not do much to move the story along other than ask Beowulf to counsel her sons, and be a possession to her husband, King Hrothgar. On the other end, with Grendel’s mother, she is a warrior woman, who takes on a powerful man in order to avenge her son, Grendel. Although, in Beowulf we see the traditional hero and the traditional role of a woman, just being someone’s property, there are also roles of women that were not often given at the time this text was written. Most often, warriors were armies full of powerful men, not one woman fighting for revenge.
In Lanval, women lead the story. They are shown as powerful beings with their own opinions, one working in Lanval’s favor and one against. The maiden brings Lanval to her tent, and starts a relationship with him. Usually the men are the ones starting something in texts like this. This shows that she isn’t afraid of going after what she wants.
I have come far in search of you and if you are worthy and courtly, no emperor, count or king will have felt as much joy or happiness as you, for I love you above all else.(de France, 74)
Despite her not wanting anyone to know about her, she ends up saving Lanval at the end of the text due to love and loyalty. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother displays bravery when she takes her revenge after her son’s death. Although she was not human, just like her son, Grendel, she only killed when she was forced to or in this instance, while taking revenge. Just like in Lanval, where the maiden doesn’t want anyone to know about her, but she ultimately does in order to save Lanval because she loves him, Grendel’s mother takes revenge because of love, as well.
It is also interesting to compare these two texts because both of these women are not human. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is described as a monster, just like her son, Grendel, who lives at the bottom of a lake.
The warrior squinted into the shadows and made out the domed walls of the hall, damming back the damned waters, the mere made sere by engineering. He saw the glow of a fire, a brilliant light flaming up and flaring, and then, at last, he saw her: the reclusive night-queen.(Headley, 66)
Both Grendel and Grendel’s mother are not human, and are continuously described in Beowulf as monsters. In Lanval, the maiden is a fairy, a supernatural creature who is never described in such a way as Grendel and Grendel’s mother are seemingly because of her beauty. She is described as a beautiful fairy, whose beauty not only garners Lanval’s attention, but also everyone in town at the trial.
There was no one in the town, humble or powerful, old or young who did not watch her arrival, and no one jested about her beauty. She approached slowly and the judges who saw her thought it was a great wonder. No one who looked at her could have failed to be inspired by real joy.(de France, 80)
Speaking of these two women as supernatural beings, Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses) gives very interesting insights on monsters in literature. The first one, ” Thesis I: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body” gives the following quotation relating to Grendel’s mother in Beowulf.
The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically “that which reveals,” “that which warns,” a glyph that seeks a hierophant. Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself: it is always a displacement, always inhabits the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received, to be born again.(Cohen, 44)
Reading this section of Monster Culture made me think of the symbolism of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf. I believe that Grendel and Grendel’s mother both exist as a way of rejection of traditional Anglo-Saxon ways of living. Their land has been taken over by people who only view them as monsters, so they are forced to live in secluded swamps. Also, Grendel is without a father, and Grendel’s mother is a single mother. These were not traditional in poems of this era. In Lanval, the maiden seems to represent faith, trust, and love. Lanval learned that he needed to have faith that she would come to his aid when he was on trial, which she did.
It was very interesting to look at and compare the women in these two texts. Both of them having characters with traditional roles, and non traditional roles, as well. They both were different for the time they were written and have impacted the way we look at female characters in literature today.
Headley, Maria Dahvana. Beowulf: A New Translation. MCD x FSG Originals/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
De France, Marie. “Lanval.” The Lais of Marie De France, translated by Glynn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, Penguin Books Ltd, London, England, 1999, pp. 73–81.
Asa Simon Mittman, and Marcus Hensel. Classic Readings on Monster Theory. Arc Humanities Press, 2018.