When men take on monsters in fictional accounts that are determined to leave their audience with a lesson—heroes fighting mythical beasts, hunters searching for large game, plucky everymen warding off aliens—there tends to be a dramatic turn to direct sympathy toward the quarry and demonize the once so identifiable human. This leads to the inevitable and oft-repeated "Who was the real monster?" question (cue fade to black and the Twilight Zone music). Beowulf is not one of those stories. From beginning to end this story has nothing but praise for its main character and the many heroic deeds he performs, culminating in a lavish and mournful funeral that celebrates him as a cherished and now lost king. Beowulf represents, for this text, the ideal of what a man should be. The reader can see through his actions what traits the author believes a man should have, and, through the traits of those he clashes with, the traits a man should not have.
The first trait a man should have that we can see both present in Beowulf and absent in his enemies is bravery. Beowulf has made a habit of ordering his men to sit on their hands while he takes on inhuman beasts all on his own. Before the battle against the dragon which will be the death of him, he says to his men, “this fight is not yours,/ nor is it up to any man except me/ to measure his strength against the monster/ or prove his worth. I shall win the gold/ by my courage, or else mortal combat,/ doom of battle, will bear your lord away.” He is prepared to enter into a fight alone and accept the deadly consequences if he fails. Grendel, however, provokes a fight and then runs off to his hidey-hole when his arm and shoulder get torn off instead of staying until the bitter end of the fight. Unferth too betrays cowardice and therefore loses manliness as far as this text is concerned. Unferth “was not man enough,” the text confides, “to face the turmoil of a fight under water/ and the risk of his life.”
Much can be seen about the ideal characteristics of a man by looking at the role of women in this story. Characters like Wealhtheow and Hygd perform a role that’s limited to support. They serve mead and at most give speeches of congratulation, whereas Beowulf’s action in the plot is more direct and more independent. The same also applies to the women used largely as tokens to quell feuds. Beowulf ends blood-feuds by war, not marriage.
Looking at the most major female character in this story, however, presents somewhat different results. The sharp contrasts that existed between the supportive queens and the truce-brides and Beowulf are not quite so prevalent between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. Sure, they are fighting against one another, but they are certainly a match for each other in fierceness and strength (only a miracle sword was able to turn the tide in Beowulf’s favor during their battle). As well as that, they are both attempting to, in Beowulf’s own words, “avenge dear ones” instead of “indulg[ing] in mourning.” Beowulf is fighting for revenge after Grendel’s mother has killed some of his men and a dear friend of Hrothgar; Grendel’s mother is fighting for revenge after the death of her son.
So where does that leave Grendel’s mother in this equation? Has she strayed into the masculine? In the author and translators’ eyes she’s betrayed her femininity and is not afforded very much respect as a result. Her name isn’t even given and she exists in a terminal translational uncertainty between damned woman and inhumane beast. Unlike Beowulf, who she matches in courage, independence and strength, she is demonized and killed without mourning.
In the end, Beowulf is very clear about what it considers the formula for a man to be. He should be brave, self-sufficient and powerful (he should also be able to hold his breath for insane amounts of time/breathe underwater and have a nasty habit of breaking swords with his unrestrainable machismo). Unferth proves in this text that biology is not the only prerequisite for masculinity, and Grendel’s mother proves that ovaries are an automatic disqualification.
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