Beowulf: A Cautionary Love Story

At an initial glance, Beowulf may strike a reader as entirely devoid of romance and sensuality. The heterosexual conventions seen in other ancient epics: marriage, heterosexual sex, and pregnancy are largely invisible, though we know that they exist; the marginal presence of wives and the survival of the warrior tribe’s lineage provide evidence of heterosexual relationships. These relationships are largely understated and marginal. (Lees, 140) At a second glance, it becomes clear that Beowulf is not devoid of sensuousness at all; the most sensuous sections of Beowulf are simply not classic scenes of heterosexual romance, but scenes of violence and power dynamics. The homoerotic undertones of Beowulf can be read as evidence of the epic’s warrior culture’s valuation of men, particularly of physicality of the male body. The most emotive and sexual scenes are depiction of battles and the scenes between king and warrior. The language in these scenes reveal what is most valued in the warrior culture of Beowulf. While the epic celebrates male-male relationships, warrior culture, valorous deeds, and masculine power, the ending of the epic raises questions about those very same cultural practices. Beowulf’s failure to produce a biological heir, and his misguided determination to do battle even after he has aged results in the destruction of his kingdom. (Lees, 141) His adherence to the value system of his culture lead to the demise of his people. The narrative of Beowulf reads as both a celebration and criticism of a patriarchal warrior culture.

The most overtly sexualized scenes occur when Beowulf is engaging in battle. While these scenes are particularly action packed, these scenes are also narrated with sensuous language that is largely absent in the rest of the narrative. In his fight with Grendel, Beowulf is unable to penetrate him with his sword, “[The] best iron in the world, the sharpest blade, /could not harm him, the evil demon, /not touch him at all.” (Beowulf, 95) While the sword acts as a surrogate for the penis, penetration would signal conquest. Because Beowulf’s proxy phallus is unable to pierce Grendel, Beowulf fights Grendel with his bare hands. “That Hygelac’s kinsman, the bold-hearted man, / had him in hand. It was hateful to each/ that the other lived. / The terrible creature took a body wound there; a gaping tear/ opened in his shoulder; tendons popped, / muscle slipped the bone. Glory in battle / was given to Beowulf.” (Beowulf, 95) This “gaping tear” seems to represent the forceful creation of a vagina. Because Beowulf could not penetrate Grendel with his phallic sword, he entirely feminizes Grendel. This battle reads much like a rape scene. The same is true of the following battle scene with Grendel’s mother.

This scene is particularly striking because it is the most intense female-male interaction in which Beowulf participates. Initially Grendel’s mother is portrayed as a lesser opponent to her son, yet her battle with Beowulf is much more drawn out and dramatic. (Puhvel, 81) This fight also has distinctly sexual undertones. (Acker, 708) The importance and value of the scene is highlighted with incredibly sensual and active language: “Now that he was battle-furious, / [he] threw up his opponent so she fell to the ground. / Up again quickly, she gave him hand-payment / with a terrible crush, again grabbed him tight.” (Beowulf, 139) This blow-by blow fighting is incredibly different from the fight scene with Grendel. The Grendel-Beowulf scene only lasts a few lines before he is defeated. (Puhvel, 82) In that scene Beowulf is very much the aggressor and conqueror, while Grendel seems to be a more passive party. In contrast, Grendel’s mother tries several times to penetrate Beowulf. “She sat on her hall-guest and drew her broad knife /a sharp weapon, to buy back her son, / her only kinsman. Across his chest / lay the iron net; it saved his life / as she hacked and stabbed, would give her no entry.” (Beowulf, 139) In this case, Beowulf proves impenetrable and thus maintains his masculinity and power. His opponent does not prove as lucky,

“Then he saw among the armor a victory bright blade / made by the giants, an uncracking edge, /…longer and heavier than any other man / could ever have carried in the play of war-strokes, /…The bold Scylding drew it from its magic scabbard, /savage in battle-lust, despairing of life, / angrily raised the shearer of life-threads, / swung hard on her throat, broke through he spine, / halved the doomed body.” (Beowulf, 139)

Beowulf succeeds in entirely penetrating her body, to the point that he exposes her womb. In order to do so he uses a sword of giant proportions. While Grendel’s mother is supposedly a woman, her monster status brings into question the physicality of her sex. She is described as “in the likeness of a woman,” (Beowulf, 127) which suggests that her sex is not definite. Thus, this cannot be read as a firmly heterosexual encounter.
It is clear by the sensual nature of both scenes that success in physical battle was valued and celebrated in this warrior culture. Deeds won a warrior respect and power. (Drout, 202) In both of these battles, the warrior body is treated as conqueror or conquered, penetrator or penetrated. Valor and strength, both traditionally masculine traits, are the characteristics valued by this warrior society. While men are more highly valued in this culture, their lives are constantly at risk, their strength and valor constantly tested. These men have to continently reaffirm their value to society or die. Beowulf earns his position and right to rule through these deeds. (Drout, 202)

Arguably, the most important male-male bond in Beowulf is between Beowulf and Hrothgar. (Fox, 205) This relationship highlights the two most highly valued men in a warrior society: the king and his champion. The scenes depicting Hrothgar and Beowulf are emotionally rich in comparison with the majority of the narrative. When Hrothgar bids farewell to Beowulf, we observe a man acting without emotional reserve.
“Then that good king, of a noble race, / great Scylding prince, held that best thane / round the neck and kissed him; his tears ran down, / streaked his gray beard. Wise in his age, / he expected two things, but one more strongly / that never again would they look on each other / as in this brave meeting. That man was so dear / that he could not withhold those deep tears; / fixed in his heart by the bonds of thought. / a deep felt longing for the beloved man / burned in his blood.” (Beowulf 157-159)

There are certainly homoerotic undertones in this passage. It seems that Hrothgar desires the body of Beowulf. However this may not be a sexual desire, rather a desire for him to have that body as his own. The warrior cultures values of strength and fierceness cannot be maintained in Hrothgar’s old age. Indeed, he is said to be a good king, until he fails to physically protect his people from Grendel’s attacks. (Drout, 201) “He was one king / blameless in everything, till age took from him / the joy of strength—a thing that harms many.” (Beowulf, 159) If Hrothgar had Beowulf’s strength in addition to his continued line through his sons, he would be considered the perfect king. Once Hrothgar’s physical strength has drained, he is no longer seen as a “blameless” king. This perception can help explain Beowulf’s own continuation of battle after he becomes king.
While Beowulf is a king, he fails to produce his own heir. While he may have married, there is no mention of a wife. It is possibly that Beowulf only nurtured homosocial relationships with men. Robin Fox explains the valuation of male-male bonds over male-female bonds in his chapter “In the Company of Men: Tribal Bonds in Warrior Epics”: “Males hunting or fighting together had to develop a special kind of trust that wend beyond simple friendship…the heterosexual bond was ritually downgraded…and exclusive male groups were formed…” (197) Certainly in Beowulf the constant threat of trespassing enemies required men to create strong bonds of trust and loyalty.

We can also see that the marriage bond is downgraded in favor for the king-warrior relationship. This is visible in Hrothgar’s “adoption” of Beowulf to which his wife, Wealtheow nervously objects. (Drout, 201) “Now, my Beowulf, / best of men, I will love you like a son, / cherish you for life. Keep this new kinship / deep in your heart. Nothing I own, / of my worldly goods, would I keep from you.” (Beowulf, 103) Hrothgar’s adoption gives Beowulf a chance of inheriting Hrothgar’s throne even though he is not of the bloodline. The fact that this is a possibly is made clear when Wealtheow protests, reminding Hrothgar he has blood relatives who are strong enough to rule. (Drout, 201) “Full well I know / of my gracious Hrothulf that he would rule / the young men in honor, would keep all well, / if you should give up this world before him. / I expect he will want to repay our sons / only with good once he recalls / all we have done.” (Beowulf, 117) Hrothgar fails to consult his wife and consider the implications this adoption could have on their sons. Hrothgar clearly values his alliance with a warrior more than his own marriage with his wife, or even his blood bond with his own biological sons. Their youth makes them deemed temporarily useless in a warrior culture, thus his relationship with Beowulf is more highly valued.

This tension between husband and wife reflects Fox’s views of the opposing desires of men and women in warrior culture: “The heterosexual bond was necessary for reproduction but…also as inimical to the male bond… There was…a constant tension between the demands of the reproductive bond and those of the male bond. Men would be ambivalent about the heterosexual bond insofar as it threatened the male association.” (197) While reproduction is necessary in this society to create a male heir, it also seems to weaken the male himself. Hrothgar must consider the affects his actions have on his family as well as attempt to do what is best for his kingdom. Beowulf avoids this tension by not having children, however this leads to the uncertain future of his own kingdom.

As Beowulf dies after his defeat of the dragon, he mourns the fact that he does not have a male heir: “Now I would want to give to my son / these war-garments, had it been granted / that I have a guardian born from my body / for this inheritance.” (Beowulf, 213) Because Beowulf only engaged, as far as we know, with the male warrior world, he had no means of producing an heir. He was by the standards of his warrior culture, a good king: “I ruled this people / for fifty winters, and there was no ruler / of surrounding nations, not any, who dared / meet me with armies, see out a battle, / make any onslaught, terror, oppression, / upon Geatish men.” (Beowulf, 213) While Hrothgar failed in his age, Beowulf, in the eyes of this culture, has succeeded by continuing to physically protect his people until death. Hrothgar has left sons and nephews who can take his place, while Beowulf must ask his fellow warrior, Wiglaf to succeed him. Whether Wiglaf will be acknowledged remains to be seen. All the treasure he earns in his defeat of the dragon that causes his death is burned with his body, further emphasizing the pointlessness and fruitlessness of Beowulf’s death. The treasure that could give life to his people is destroyed with the leader who failed to give life to a successor.

While this warrior culture encourages the marginalization of all things female, and the celebration of warriors, the two sides need each other in order to survive. Hrothgar seems to acknowledge and accept this. He has both a champion to protect his people and a wife to ensure the future of his kingdom. Beowulf does not seek a champion or a wife but continues to fight until he is at least in his sixties. He plays both the role of warrior and king without foresight. In Beowulf’s strict adherence to the highest values of his culture, he actually endangers the people whom he rules. The narrative of Beowulf reveals its two most important players, warrior and king through either sensual or emotive language. These two most valued roles are complicated by the values of warrior culture. Men must be able to protect their people physically and provide a lineage for in the future. Beowulf and Hrothgar provide us with two opposing examples of kingship, a wise yet weak king with sons, and a warrior king without foresight or heirs. Both kings, in an attempt to achieve value within the warrior culture, are unable to entirely succeed. Beowulf, who is celebrated in his own epic poem for his his valor and strength, leaves his people in a worse state that Hrothgar does, even though Hrothgar is viewed as a deficient aged king. Beowulf, in its celebration of a great warrior, illustrates the paradoxical and problematic value system within patriarchal warrior culture.


The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer


The Wife of Bath is one of the most surprising and thought provoking pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. Although Chaucer is the writer of her prologue and tale, it is appropriate to talk about the Wife of Bath as her own person and to view Chaucer as a medium. It is unclear whether Chaucer agreed with her views on women, yet he allowed this type of character a tale, giving rarely heard characters a voice.  In a deeply patriarchal society, she advocates for women’s sovereignty in marriage. The most admirable aspect of her case is the cool method of reason she employs. The subordination of women in this period was largely due to certain parts of scripture. The Wife of Bath cleverly turns these writings on their heads, reinterpreting the words with precision and cleverness. She also plays upon the medieval stereotypes of women: their inability to reason, their incapability to keep a secret, in order to strengthen her argument. Instead of introducing new ideas, which would likely have immediately put her readers and listeners on the defensive, she utilizes the very societal views that have subordinated women to her advantage. The Wife of Bath chooses unlikely but nevertheless exceedingly effective sources in order to defend her own choices and advocate for the sovereignty of women in marriage.  Despite her evident intelligence, The Wife of Bath seems to have committed a great folly by only seeking physical sources of pleasure and maintaining her outer beauty. She has failed to upkeep her soul by following simply the letter rather than the spirit of religious law. In several ways, The Wife of Bath asserts herself in medieval literature as an unprecedented advocate for women’s rights.  However, she is also a deeply sinful character whose noble views are developed through selfish motives.

The Wife of Bath has had five legal husbands. She has waited for each to die and has promptly remarried.  Though this certainly is not advisable behavior, the church allows it.  She refers to the story of Jesus reprimanding the Samaritan woman for having five husbands, “Thou hast had…five husbands, and he whom now thou hast is not thy husband.” (219) The Wife of Bath denounces this text on the ground that it is confusing, “But what He meant by it I cannot say. All I ask is, why wasn’t the fifth man the lawful spouse of the Samaritan?”  She raises another question in order to distract from the criticism of which she is also guilty. She then notes that there is no place in scripture that gives a number limit on spouses, “All my born days, I’ve never heard as yet of any given number or limit.” (219) She feels that it is unjust for others to frown on her numerous marriages because she has technically broken no law.  “He named no figure, neither two nor eight—why should fold talk of it as a disgrace?” (220) She uses this uncertainty to her advantage by addressing a concrete and more easily interpreted piece of scripture, God’s demand in genesis, to “be fruitful, and multiply.” (Genesis 1:22) She claims Genesis is “A noble text, and one I understand!” (219)

The Wife of Bath cleverly points out the hypocrisy of people judging her marriages by referring to King Solomon who had countless wives. She also mentions Abraham and Jacob, two men who are very revered in the church who both had more than two wives. The Wife of Bath feels she is completely entitled to her five marriage, “Blessed be to God that I have married five~ Here’s to the sixth, whenever he turns up.” (220) She feels no shame because, as she points out, she is in good company. Because God did not expressly forbid multiple marriages, The Wife of Bath sees no problem in them. “Now can you tell me where, in any age, Almighty God explicitly forbade all marrying and giving in marriage? Answer me that!” (220) By omission The Wife of Bath claims there is implicit permission to marry as many husbands as she can, to follow his clear advice in Genesis, and to ignore the vague passage about the Samaritan woman.

Though certainly a woman is allowed to remarry after the death of her husband, the motives for remarriage seem less than holy.  She does not view marriage as a sacramental binding of souls through God, but as an exchange of wealth, most commonly land or property for sex. Her first three husbands, who she claims were “good,” were old and wealthy. “The three good ones were very rich and old; but barely able, all the same, to hold to the terms of our covenant and contract.” (224) The Wife of Bath was not in love with any of these men, but used them as a means to accumulate wealth. “And I can tell you it meant nothing to me. They’d given me their land and property.” (224) It is therefore not the number of marriages, but the insincere nature of these unions that make her a sinner.

The cruel treatment of her first three husbands was appalling.  She refers to her marriages as “covenant and contract” (224) implying that her marriage is both a covenant and a business deal.  This dualistic nature insults the institution of marriage.  Her older husbands married her because she was young and beautiful.  She married them because they had money.  The exchange of money and property for sex defines the “contract” of her marriages.  Once married to her husbands, she was immediately owner of their property.  Her side of the “contract” was not always upheld.  She would manipulate her husbands, denying sex and only giving it for personal gain. “And they’d made over to me al their land, what point was there in taking pains to please, except for my advantage, or my ease?” (224) This manipulation of her husbands undermines the validity of her marriages.  They become business transactions rather than a covenant between a loving couple and God.

The Wife of Bath’s fifth marriage differs from the first three due to her motives and the ensuing power struggle between her and her husband. Unlike her previous marriages, she is older than her husband.  Her motives are for the first time love instead of money,” My fifth husband—may god bless his soul!  Whom I took on for love, not for gold.” (232) In her old age, she plays a similar role as her first three husbands.  Her husband, young and handsome, presumably married The Wife of Bath for her money.  After he had gained her land and property he did not hesitate to restrict her behavior, “To him I gave all land and property, everything that I had inherited.  But, later, I was very sorry for it—He wouldn’t let me do a thing I wanted!” (235) He even beat her horribly, “Though he’d beaten me on every bone, how quickly he could win my love again.” (232)

The reader may think that The Wife of Bath has gotten what she deserved, as she became like her previous husbands that she mistreated; however she does reverse her circumstances with this seeming impossible husband. Her husband frequently read an antifeminist text.  When The Wife of Bath tears three pages out of this book her husband goes berserk, “And up he jumped just like a raging lion, and punched me with his fist upon the head till I fell on the floor and lay for dead.” (239) Instead of allowing her husband to gain sovereignty with his physical strength, she cleverly manipulates the situation to her advantage.  By acting as though this beating will kill her, she fills her husband with fear and regret.  After this episode, her husband grants her the power in her marriage, “He gave the reins to me, and to my hand not only management of house and land, but of his tongue, and also of his fist.” (239) Once she was granted power, she argues that peace ensued in her marriage. “From that day on we had no more debate.”  By showing the results of this marriage, she shows that having women in power produces a natural equality.

In the medieval era it was considered proper and holy for widows to remain virgins.  This is clearly not the course The Wife of Bath chose. While she acknowledges that virginity is indeed the holier vocation, “I’ve no hard feeling if Maidenhood be set above remarriage. Purity in body and in heart may please some.” (221) She does not apologize for not practicing this lifestyle, but argues that there is a place for remarriage in society, even if it is the less revered. She uses Christ as a model for men, showing that if women should all be virgins, like Mary, so should all men sell all of their belongings and give that money to the poor.  Christ did not bid all men to do this, nor did he demand all women to remain virgins.  “But Christ, of perfection the spring and well, did not bid everyone to go and sell all that he had, and give it to the poor, And thus to follow in his tracks.” (221) She knows that her way of life is not the holiest, however she argues that it is not a condemned life either.  “I’ve no objection to virginity. Let them be loaves of purest sifted wheat, and let us wives called mere barley-bread, and yet as St. Mark tells us, when our Savior fed the multitude it was with barley bread.” (222) Wives, though they are not as holy as virgins, still play an essential role in God’s kingdom, the producers of new life.  Somewhat ironically, there is no mention in The Wife of Bath’s tale of any children.  It is impossible to tell certainly whether any of her five unions produced children, however the fact that she does not reveal that she was a mother in this argument suggests that she had no children.

The Wife of Bath also uses physiological evidence of human sexual organs as an argument that God intended for these organs to be used.  “And tell me also, what was the intention in creating organs of generation, when man was made in so perfect a fashion? They were not made for nothing you can bet!” (222) She refuses to accept the assertion that these organs were created solely for urination and gender distinctions.  “They were fashioned for both purposes, that’s to say, for a necessary function as much as for enjoyment in procreation wherein we do not displease God in heaven.” (222) She does quickly amend this statement by saying that just because one has sexual organs, they are not obliged to use them for procreation. “But I’m not saying everyone who’s got the kind of tackle I am talking of is bound to go and use it sexually. For then who’d bother about chastity? Christ was a virgin, though formed like a man, like many another saint since time began.” (222) Her acknowledgement that virginity is a holier calling than being a wife allows her to argue for the necessity of wives without appearing pompous and self-important.

The Wife of Bath cleverly uses existing stereotypes about women in medieval culture to argue for female sovereignty in marriage. In the medieval era, women were seen as incapable of reason.  Ironically, with her very astute reasoning skills, The Wife of Bath allows this usually restricting view to provide wives with power. “One of us has got to knuckle under, And since man is a more rational a creature than woman is, it’s you who must forbear.” (230) She flatters men, claiming that they have superior reasoning skills, and uses sycophancy to sway her audience.  By claiming men are more reasonable, she makes them think they should be willing to exercise patience with their unreasonable wives. If they deny this claim, they deny that they are reasonable. She cleverly traps men into granting their wives power with their own ego.

The actual Tale that The Wife of Bath tells is also an argument for the sovereignty of women in marriage. She tells the story of a knight who rapes a woman and is subsequently sentenced to death. In order to avoid this sentence he must discover “the thing that women most desire.” (241) He searches in vain for this piece of information until he comes upon an old hag who gives him the correct answer on the condition that he will do anything that she asks him after his life has been spared. He tells the court the thing women desire, “Women desire to have dominion over their husbands and their lovers too; they want to have mastery over them.” (245) His life is spared.  The knight is quite pleased until the old hag demands that he marry her immediately.  Because he gave his word to do whatever she wished, he marries her secretly. When she sees his displeasure with her age and appearance, she gives him a choice, “To have me old and ugly till I die, and to be to you a true and faithful wife, and never to displease you all my life; or else to have me beautiful and young. And take your chances with a crowd of men all flocking to the house because of me.” (249-250) The knight sees the wisdom of this woman and gives her the right to make the choice, “Choose either of the two; what pleases you is good enough for me.” (250) When the knight gives the old woman sovereignty in their marriage, she becomes both beautiful and faithful.

Possibly subconsciously, this hag could stand for the person The Wife of Bath wishes she could be and dreads to become.  The hag is ugly and old, characteristics The Wife of Bath realizes she is developing.  And yet, the hag is unselfish and wise, understanding virtue, while The Wife of Bath certainly does not.  The fact that the Wife of Bath is on a pilgrimage, combined with the inclusion of a character like the hag in her tale suggests that she does want to repent for her sinful life.  Indeed, she says in one of the few sincere lines of her prologue, “Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!” (234) Even though she feels some regret for her previous actions, she has no intent upon changing her method of living.  She is now searching for a sixth husband to support her, even though she realizes her way of life is not holy. Though the Wife of Bath is an unprecedented advocate for medieval women’s rights, her moral flaws cannot be ignored.  Her motives for speaking for women are not for the greater good of society, but to improve the ease and acceptability of her own life. The Wife of Bath is a literary character to be admired and revered in terms of her views and rhetorical skill.  However, her lack of virtue undermines the reader’s respect for both her as a character, and the intelligent things that she has to say.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The cowardly, yet somewhat sensible Gawain who appears in Chretien’s “The Knight with the Cart,” has certainly changed a great deal in this romance. Written by an unknown poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is characterized by its alliterative and rhyming elements. (It is my theory that the poet is a women, however in my mind so is Shakespeare.) Written a bit later than the original Arthurian romances, this tale is significantly more aware of its own romantic mode. The courtly rituals are much more emphasized than in those of its predecessor. The poetry itself is possibly superior to that of Chretien’s, however in terms of narrative arc and entertaining plot line, this tale is a bit lacking. It moves a bit slowly and puts great emphasis on things that are not exciting (hunts, feasts, etc.)  Give me a battle, not some repetitive, mundane scenes that drag on for an eternity.

Piers Plowman by William Langland

William Langland Dreaming up Piers Plowman

Though I can appreciate the brilliance of Langland’s poem, I did not especially enjoy it. Langland’s extensive use of allegory, though intentional, became so confusing and muddled that the poem’s meaning was difficult to decipher.  The names given to the characters rarely actually describe them.  Holy Church is unreliable and flighty rather than a constant support, faith isn’t all that faithful, nor was conscience a very good guide. Piers Plowman takes place as a series of dreams and dreams within dreams. Reading Piers Plowman is actually very much like dreaming. People disappear, scenes change, and you look back to recount what happened the next morning with no idea how it all fit together. That may be fine for dreams, but it does not necessarily the way one would like to experience a book.  Frankly, It is easier to decipher meaning out of dreams than out of Piers Plowman.