Wealhtheow, Grendel’s mother, and Hygd: The women in Beowulf

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

Aethelflaed, the anglo-saxon woman who wasn't queen but fought off vikings.

An image of Aethelflaed, fighter of vikings and the daughter of King Alfred the Great and Queen Ealhswith. Image from https://younghistorian7.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/a-look-at-some-anglo-saxon-queens/


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Synopsis

The poet takes a break from Beowulf here to share a few details of Hygelac’s kingdom with us.


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The Original Old English

“Het þa up beran æþelinga gestreon,
frætwe ond fætgold; næs him feor þanon
to gesecanne sinces bryttan,
Higelac Hreþling, þær æt ham wunað
selfa mid gesiðum sæwealle neah.
Bold wæs betlic, bregorof cyning,
heah in healle, Hygd swiðe geong,
wis, welþungen, þeah ðe wintra lyt
under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe,
Hæreþes dohtor; næs hio hnah swa þeah,
ne to gneað gifa Geata leodum,
maþmgestreona.”
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)


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My Translation

“Then it was commanded that the prince’s treasure be carried up,
ornaments and plated gold. It was not far from there
for him to go to the treasure bestower,
Hygelac, son of Hrethel, he who dwelled within
his own home, living near the sea-cliff with his companions.
The building there was magnificent, the king was of princely fame,
one exalted in the hall, along with Hygd, his young queen,
a woman wisely accomplished, though she had lived
within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters,
daughter of Haereth. Yet she was not bent down by vanity,
she was not sparing in gifts to the Geatish people,
she gave a great many treasures.”
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)


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A Quick Interpretation

So far there have been two major women in this poem. And they are definitely at opposite ends of the spectrum of good/bad.

First, we met Wealtheow, the queen of the Danes. She was a woman who came from a group that Hrothgar or his family must have enslaved, based on her name. Despite these origins, the poet suggests that she’s a good queen who embodies all the best qualities of courtly women: quietly powerful, dominant in the hall, and a master of social niceties.

Next, we met Grendel’s mother. She is pretty much the opposite of Wealhtheow. After all, she’s supposed to be a monster. So instead of Wealhtheow’s happily fitting into a courtly setting and really shining, Grendel’s mother runs her own hall, answering to no one, and brutally striking out at those who attack her and her kin.

Now the poet introduces us to Hygd, the wife of Hygelac. The first thing we learn about her is that, much like Wealhtheow, she’s likely from a foreign people. After all, the poet notes that Hygd fits right in with the Geats, “though she had lived/within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters” (“þeah ðe wintra lyt/under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe” (ll.1927-1928)). So Hygd is certainly a woman who wields her courtly power well and justly. Though there is a bit of a creepy note in mentioning how young she is.

Marrying women off when they would still be considered “girls” today was common practice in earlier societies, but that fed into the very purpose of marriage back then: cementing business and political deals. Love could be a factor, but more often than not I think it was hoped that it would come about after the vows were exchanged. Hence the steady popularity of love stories like those of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, or Lancelot and Guinevere. People were hungry for the idea of relationships built on love, even if they ran against whatever political or mercantile interests were at stake.

There’s also the issue of how Hygd fits into Hygelac’s court. She’s introduced along with the building and the talk of treasures. She’s introduced as Hygelac’s wife, sure, but there does seem to be a note of her being something Hygelac owns. Though in both Wealhtheow and Hygd’s cases there’s a sense that these women are able to create a great deal of power. And yet, there’s a hint of danger that lingers around women. In fact, the poet seems to be trying to strike a balance between good women and evil women, since the following passage describes the vanity and vice of Modthryth.

But, what do you think of the women in Beowulf? Is the poet trying to balance them out (and definitely not doing so with the men)? How does Hildeburh from the Finnsburgh section of the poem (ll.1068-1158) figure into this balance? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the poet tells us the story of the wicked queen Modthryth.

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