The Women of Beowulf: Their Fundamental Roles

Categories: Beowulf

The role of women has been critically analyzed by several literacy experts throughout history with respect to their portrayal in Beowulf. These analyses provide us with better and precise understanding of the perception and significance of women. Critics seem to think that the women are described as either hostesses or peace weavers ubiquitously in the narrative. This is significant as it establishes a critical role in impacting the framework of the story. The women introduced throughout the narration fall into one of these categories.

A hostess essentially represents a woman who takes care of the king’s men while peace weavers are basically to uniting rival tribes. Further analytical interpretations correlate the relationship of the two categories to provide insight into the culture surrounding the time Beowulf was written.

The portrayal of women in Beowulf has endured a critical analysis from Dorothy Porter article, “The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context.” Porter, in the introduction of her essay addresses the claim that women in Beowulf are central both to the story itself and within society.

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Porter starts by analyzing the vital feminine characters Wealtheow, Hygd, Freawaru, Hildebruh, Grendel’s mother, and Thryth. She starts to discuss Wealhtheow and Hygd as a pair because they are both queens and considered to be the hostesses. She claims that they both have a role in the influence in the mead hall. However, their husbands do not always agree with their influence on the hall. Porter continues to discuss the two characters.

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Wealhtheow as “mindful of customs”, “of excellent heart” and “sure of speech.” Hygd a “wise and well-taught.” Apparently, the function of these two women in society is that they are considered to be hostesses. They both carry mead around the halls and offer it to the kings’ men. Porter comes to the conclusion that these women were manipulated as instruments in the halls. Hildeburh and Freawaru are considered a pair in the category of peace weavers. The following characters to be discuss is Grendel’s mother and Thryth. These women were portrayed as monstrous figures. Porter first discusses, Thryth as a corrupt woman who is guilty of terrible crimes. Thryth is the daughter of a king, therefore she acquires a social status throughout society. She is condemned as evil and is not worthy of praise in society. She becomes praiseworthy after her marriage because her attitude seems to change. She starts to be known for doing good things throughout society. She starts to discuss how Grendel’s mother welcomes visitors into her home and uses violence to resolve her own disputes. Ultimately, she becomes tamed only after Beowulf slays her. She is apparently associated with the descendant of Cain who is why it can be noted that Grendel himself is a reflection of Cain in the bible. Porter continues discussing Grendel’s mother and how she is scolded by god and this is what begs the question of why she could not avenge her son’s death. She continues on to compare and contrast Grendel and Grendel’s mother in that she was more revengeful than Grendel himself. Porter ultimately concludes that the women of Beowulf are presented purposefully symmetrical and invites the idea of comparing and contrasting. The peace weavers and hostess are central and help with the comprehension of the poem, whereas the monster is presented as counter examples and help to contrast the feminine characters.

Shifting to more of a focus on women’s role in Beowulf. Petra Prochazkova’s essay on “Female Characters in Beowulf,” She argues that the role of female figures in Beowulf is just categorized as peace weavers. She discusses how Hildeburh and Freawaru are the intermediaries between two tribes that try to force the two tribes together. However, there are a few feminine characters that are terrible when it comes to peace weaving. Thryth and Grendel’s mother both use violence to defend themselves, but their behavior due to violence in deemed unacceptable. She states as well that the queens gain importance from their sons, so they are either morning their death in Grendel’s mother case or praising their sons. The author subsequently continues to discuss the queen’s social role. She claims as well that Wealhtheow is portrayed as hostess in Beowulf. However, she argues that the idea of Wealhtheow being employed as an instrument in the mead hall is not merely the way the text should be examined. She explains that the order in which the queen approaches the king’s men is based upon their prominence. Therefore, she debates that rather the ideas of the queen being and instrument that in fact Wealhtheow has the power to the structure of the hall. She further discusses in depth Wealhtheow’s other functions throughout the narration. She argues that Wealhtheow in addition has a crucial role in conversating with the king’s men and praising them and making sure they appreciate their loyalty to others. Wealhtheow essentially carries out an intermediate role between the kings and his men. The author argues that Wealhtheow is neither passive nor helpless, however, she struggles to fulfill her duties as a peace weaver and fulfill her own goals. The author concludes as well that the feminine characters represent symmetrically and offer differences based on comparisons and contrasts.

In Bovey and Murphy’s article, “Beowulf and its Female Characters”, Murphy touches base on how Beowulf centers around masculinity. She states that Beowulf is written from a male perspective, and its main characters are males. The theme of Beowulf is influenced primarily by male dominance. The themes included are valor, prowess, and violence. The author claims that there I little room for the influence of women in Beowulf. Here the author continues to discuss that the three categories in which the women fall into are the role of a peace weaver, a hostess, or a mother. Murphy argues that Wealhtheow is an example of a peace weaver rather than a hostess. Also, continue to argue that she plays an active role in society through her words of encouragement to the king’s men. The author then analyzes the impact on the narrative that the women have. Murphy argues that Wealhtheow support the relationship between the Scyldings and Beowulf together by implementing the idea of glue. She analyzes how Hildebruh represent the contrast to Wealhtheow in that Hildebruh failed at her role of being a peace weaver. Murphy also agrees with other scholars that Wealhtheow is considered to be an excellent hostess whereas Grendel’s Mother and Thryth are hostess as well, but not good ones. She found that it was intriguing that these women failed in their roles, but however, Grendel’s mother was the only one sent to live in exile. Murphy argues that grief represents a more important role among the female characters. This grief is what ultimately drives Grendel’s mother to avenge Grendel’s death. Murphy comes to a conclusion and claims that women expressed masculine roles. Grendel’s mother challenges the idea of masculinity and passive women when she decides to fight Beowulf and the king’s men. Beowulf seems to be centered around the men in the poem. The feminine roles are established to describe a part of a mainstream functioning society.

Shifting to an alternative view on the feminine characters in Beowulf is author… in the article “Our Monsters, Ourselves.” The author agrees that Beowulf is a male dominate narrative that has themes that include war, honor, and violence. The critic argues that all the female characters fall in the category of being peace weavers. However, they are either a peace weaver that avoids conflict with other tribes or they are used as the idea of a trophy for show. She criticizes the fact that some of these characters fell short in their roles. Wealhtheow was given as a trophy to escape war with other tribes. Hildebruh and Freawaru failed at their role of peace weaving. These women conformed to their gender expectations as females instead of rising above it. The sole character to apparently embody masculine characteristics was Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s Mother throughout the story had been challenging her own fate as well as not becoming a victim in society roles of women. The author establishes an excellent point about how Grendel’s Mother is portrayed as a monster but did not have to be. She was portrayed as a monster because she was posed a threat to masculine authority and broke out of typically women roles in the narration. She is portrayed as a warrior in the narration. Grendel's mother continues to challenge the women’s roles by breaking into the hall of Heorot and as well as battling Beowulf eventually. She continues to challenge the gender roles when she decided to avenge her son’s death. Typically, it is a masculine role to avenge their son’s death, but in the story Grendel’s mother avenges her son’s death. She concludes that Grendel’s mother was evil due to her masculinity role in Beowulf. She broke out of the norms of women roles therefore they related her to the idea of a monster.

The next critic is Kelly Bray in her essay on “Medieval Women.' She focuses on characters in Beowulf. Bray seems to argue that Wealhtheow was not a good peace weaver. She agrees that she is perceived as an instrument. Bray discusses how Hildeburh and Freawaru are married off as peace weavers. Ultimately, she comes to the conclusion that marriage based off peace weavers leads to the creation of conflict and possibly war. She claims that the sole character out of the women in Beowulf to have power is Grendel’s Mother. Grendel’s mother tries to defend herself against Beowulf when she is avenging her son’s death but is ultimately defeated. However, Grendel’s mother was unique in that she rose above the norm for roles of women, and she took matters into her own head and faced them head on when she seeks revenge for the murder of her son.

Through researching on Beowulf, the literacy critics have brought an interesting way to depict the females in the narrative. Each critic emphasized on the three or four categories in which they described the women fell into. From Porters claim that women in Beowulf are central both to the story itself and within society. She describes the categories of hostess, peace weavers, and monsters. From other scholarly critics they discuss this idea as well, but some which order the women into various categories. From each critic we get this centralized idea that women fall into the two main categories which are a hostess and peace weaver. The significant argument between the critics was exactly what Grendel’s mother role was. Was she in the category of being a hostess or a monster? Critics Bray and the author of “Beowulf and its Female Characters,” claimed that Grendel’s Mother was the only one to overcome the typical roles of woman. They both discussed that because Grendel’s mother is capable and powerful this is why the narration depicts her as a monstrous figure. Other critics such as Murphy argue for saying that Grendel’s Mother was in the category of a hostess, but a horrible host in that she kills anyone that comes into her home. From each the critics the reader can discover that the categories of which the women fall into play a significant role in the environment and society that Beowulf was written around. Following the critical analysis discussed in this paper, the reader can conclude that the author structured the poem based of the roles of the women in Beowulf. The critics were able to address which categories in which they felt the woman fell into. With valid argument and evidence from the text, the reader can concur that the critics sorted the woman into categories differently. Grendel’s mother was the most discussed and showed to have the most evidence to support the claims that the critics made when categorizing her. The primary argument being if she was considered a monster or a hostess. This ideology speech volume about the objectification of women for the gratification of satisfying the male libido. When she no longer serves for that purpose, she is viewed as a grotesque monster that is capable of bringing about destruction and is seen as responsible for the downfall of a man.


  1. Bovey, A., & Bovey, A., & Murphy, L. (2012, October 12). Beowulf and its female characters. Retrieved November 28, 2019, from
  2. Bray, K. (n.d.). Medieval Women. Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
  3. (2013, April 10). A Feminist Critique of Beowulf: Women as Peace-Weavers and Goaders in Beowulf's Courts. Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
  4. Porter, D. C. (2001). The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context. Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
  5. PROCHÁZKOVÁ, Petra. Female Characters in Beowulf [online]. Brno, 2007 [cit. 2019-12-06]. Available from: . Bachelor's thesis. Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts. Thesis supervisor prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc..
  6. Unknown. (1970, January 1). Beowulf and its Female Characters. Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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The Women of Beowulf: Their Fundamental Roles. (2021, Mar 24). Retrieved from

The Women of Beowulf: Their Fundamental Roles essay
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