“A Swamp-Thing From Hell”: The Representation of Femininity in Beowulf
EN 245: The Literary Tradition I
Instructor: Dr. Edwin Jewinski
Tutorial Group: Elizabeth
Student: Shauna Leeson
Date: November 29th, 2010
Within in the elegiac narrative of Beowulf, Beowulf purges the Danes not only of Grendel‘s serial terror, but the heroic Geat further triumphs in destroying Grendel’s vengeful and violent hungry mother. Upon closer analysis of the character of Grendel’s mother, a tension suggestively arising from the text as to how the reader should interpret this figure; a empowered matriarch, or an illogical and primitive female? The argument of this analysis shall side with the latter ...view middle of the document...
Therefore, a sense of mystery, monstrosity, or otherness is transfixed to her identity, as we are unable to correlate such characteristics with a identifiable subject. In feminist, Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex, she exposes how an element of “mystery“ is often associated with the feminine, leading to a mythologizing of woman which is ambiguous, inferior and hybrid in nature;
But if woman is depicted as the Praying Mantis, the Mandrake, the Demon, then it is most confusing to find a women also the Muse, the Goddess Mother…Few myths have been more advantageous to the ruling caste than the myth of woman…To say that woman is mystery is to say, not that she is silent, but that her language is not understood; she is there, but hidden behind veils, she exists beyond these uncertain appearances. What is she? Angel, demon, on inspired, an actress. It may be supposed either that there are answers to these questions which are impossible to discover, or, rather, that no answer is adequate because a fundamental ambiguity marks the feminine being; and perhaps in her heart she is even for herself quite indefinable: a sphinx. (de Beauvoir 1409&1410)
Simone de Beauvoir’s arguments can easily be correlated with the descriptors and atmosphere associated with Grendel’s mother, because like de Beauvoir, the ogress’s identity is utterly uncertain. The mythologizing of Grendel’s mother, or her sphinx-like qualities is personified further through her battalion of monsters aiding in her onsluaght of Beowulf;
…and a bewildering horde
came at him from the depths, droves of sea-beasts
who attacked with tusks and torn at his chain-mail
in a ghastly onslaught. (Il 1509-1512)
Here, Grendel’s mother is intermingled with hellish characters, connoting her femininity to bare more “otherness” and mystery. Furthermore, the mystery surrounding her femininity is highlighted most plainly in the poet labeling her simply “aglaec-wif” or “aeglaeca,” when translations to modern English has been debated by modern medievalists. For example, in Anglo-Saxon philologist Frederick Klaeber’s edition, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, he translates the above terms to that of “wretch, or monster of a woman.” On the other hand, Klaeber also glosses the term “aeglaeca” as “warrior” or “hero” when referring to Beowulf. (Klaeber 1950) If one considers Klaeber’s appropriation as valid, then the intention of the poet is ambiguous, but also strange in it’s distinction. When identified with Grendel’s mother, the Anglo Saxon is negative in connotation and gendered, while simultaneously providing a vague and demonizing view femininity.
The intermingling of otherness and a mythologizing of woman, is represented further through the juxtaposition of Beowulf’s armor and sword, versus Grendel’s mother’s body and weapons. Despite Beowulf throwing a heavy blow down on Grendel’s mother’s head, she remains unharmed and protected by some supernatural force;