Feminist Literary Criticism On the Poem Beowulf

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In the classic adventure poem Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is a strong female villain who threatens the hero’s prowess, as well as his life. She is a strange and rather unflattering portrayal of feminine power in that she represents pure evil. Half woman, half monster, she is descended from the first murderer, Cain, and like her ancestor, is doomed to wander the earth a social outcast. Although she proves a difficult and dangerous challenge for the warrior Beowulf, she is still held back by her feminine characteristics.

Grendel’s mother is, we learn, not entirely human in appeareance, but “bears the semblance of a woman” (1191). References to her animal-like nature can be found sprinkled throughout the poem. She is, “the wolf of the waters,” a horrying sea creature of extraordinary strength (1331). She is also cannibalistic, feeding off the flesh of the king’s courtiers.

Despite these brute qualities, Grendel’s mother still exhibits some common female traits in both her maternal feelings and her physical inferiority. She is, apparently, weaker in battle than her son. Compared with that of Grendel’s, her attack on the mead hall is described as being “less by as much as a maiden’s mettle in war is less than a man’s wielding his weapon” (1129-1131).

The poem does not show Grendel’s mother as being easy to defeat simply because she is a female, however. In fact, “the hellish hag, the mighty mere-wife” is so powerful that not even the infamous blade of Hrunting can wound her flesh (1340). She is such a formidable foe for Beowulf that divine intervention is required to secure the warrior’s victory.

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