“The Women of Beowulf”
St. Paul Academy and Summit School
St. Paul, Minnesota
If you’ve ever taught an early British Literature text, you know that strong, multidimensional female characters are hard to come by. Take Beowulf, for example: women are only named after they become wives, with the exception of one monster mother, who is depicted as a vengeful threat who must be vanquished after her son Grendel’s slaughter.
This writing and discussion activity will help students think multi-dimensionally and build understanding through creative fiction. It also facilitates close reading and annotation, because it is essential that the students’ adaptations of the character are true to her original (albeit limited) reference in the text. The closing activity furthers empathetic reflection and may help build vocabulary.
Creative Writing: The Women of Beowulf
15-20 minutes – Choose a queen in Beowulf. Write down the descriptors used by the author. Then, write a creative adaptation of her story. Choose from:
- Onela’s Queen
- Hrothgar’s Queen, Weltheow
- Hygelac’s Queen, Hygd
- Offa’s Queen, Modthryth
- Ingeld’s Betrothed, Princess Freawaru
30 minutes – Discussion: The Women of Beowulf
- How are these women similar to, different from Grendel’s Mother?
- What do these depictions say about what is valued in a woman, what expectations exist, what assumptions are made, in this narrative?
- What value is placed within these depictions?
5 minutes – closing activity: Adjective circle
Share one word that describes women in this narrative. Note: as a teacher, I compiled these descriptors and made a Wordle, which we posted in the room, along with Wordles that we produced when discussing the qualities of heroes and villains during our study.
[Eds. Note: The Wordle would not load correctly in this blog post.]
Assignment: Choose a queen in Beowulf. Write down the descriptors used by the author. Then, write a Grendel-like adaptation of her story.
Emily Ross (Grade 12)
Ms. Campbell (St. Paul Academy and Summit School)
British Literature I
The Women of Beowulf writing
Adjectives used to describe Queen Hygd, wife of Hygelac: young, a few short years at court, mind thoughtful, manners sure, behaves generously and stinted nothing when she distributed bounty to the Geats. Father is Haereth
I was nine when my father, Haereth, sold me off to Hygelac. Hygelac was King of the Geats, and my marriage to him would bring my father much renown through the land of Geats and his own kingdom, small and mostly forgotten by those larger kingdoms around us.
At least, that’s what my father told me. I was nine at the time, remember, and I only realized that I would be taken away from my home and sent to live in a strange, unfamiliar hall with strangers who were known for battle and roughhousing and I was far from excited about that. I was in tears while my father explained to me. “Hygelac is a good man, Hygd!” he insisted. “You will be his queen, and that is a fate many women want!”
“But I don’t want it!” I cried. “I want to stay here! I want to stay here with my friends and with my brother and my sister and you and mother! I do not want to be queen!”
But the sobbing wails of a nine year old queen-to-be were ignored. I was told I needed to be kind and thoughtful and polite and generous and all other qualities no nine year old girl wants to posses.
I remembered being told about wives who disobeyed when my mother sat me down whilst my father feasted my engagement with his men. She spoke quietly and surely. She told me the story of a Queen who ruled in her own right, but I have forgotten her name now. My mother explained to me that she waged her own wars, gave her own rings to her own thanes as father did his, and drank with the men however much she wanted.
Then a neighboring king thought that women should never do such a thing, burned down her lovely mead hall and married her off to some king far away so he could snatch up her lands. My mother explained to me very quietly so only I and the maidens that stayed with her could hear, “If you act as she did, my Hygd, then you will be punished by your husband.”
“Punished?” I asked, completely unaware of what she meant. I thought she meant something like being sent to bed without supper, as had happened to me in the past.
“Beaten. Or raped. Whatever he decides. Be a good queen, Hygd.”
Hygelac came to collect me that week. He was young himself, but young in the way of men. He was twenty five according to my father, and I nearly started crying again, but for what my mother told me. He greeted me by calling me his “little bride” and “lovely Hygd.”
He forgot about me soon, though, feasting and drinking with my father. My mother and I served the mead, and though I was young and frightened, I kept a smile on my face. I would be a good queen.
All too soon Hygelac went home, taking his men, his dowry, and me, and leaving behind his bride price. He settled me in a cart to be drawn along, and I sat there, staring ahead, eyes wide to keep tears from coming. The cold wind made up for my constant blinking, and no one asked me what I thought about anything the whole way home.
I am now thirteen. Hygelac is now twenty-nine. We have had a stillborn child and two children who have lived no longer than two years. I am with child again, and this time Hygelac’s ancient nurse is insisting that it will be a strong young man and I am frightened that he will be born and go off to war as his father and cousin do, that he will be slain by some monster.
But I have been a good queen. I have been thoughtful in what I say, I have been very polite, I have been generous, and I have tried my best to weave peace as a queen should. But sometimes I remember that Queen my mother told me of, and I wish I could be her. I wish I could go to war as she did, and make people fear me in my own right.
But I am only thirteen. My husband is twenty nine and is the strong frightening one. Our nephew Beowulf is the same. I will be a good queen, and I hope that in my goodness I will be easily forgotten by the world’s history. A woman remembered in history is only remembered for being a bad wife, after all.
I am a good queen.
The Women of Beowulf
Onela’s Queen (p . 7)
I am the second of four children, although when we are announced I am last, preceded by brothers with names. They are men of a royal line. My destiny was also determined by my gender. I am an olive branch extended to an enemy. Where I will live and who I will share my life with is negotiated by men: first, a father who chooses which warring faction will receive me, then, a husband who takes me as a vessel for his heirs.
Leaving home was terrifying. I was surrounded by family, but a culture absorbed into my being, and then sent away from that culture – with great pomp and circumstance – to the land of the Swedes. I was exchanged for gold, for land, for connection.
Now I am Danish and Swedish, a melting pot of regions, a “balm in bed” to a king. You may think it a purely sexual statement, but I know is a statement of intimacy… and within intimacy is a tremendous power. I have seen a king in his most vulnerable moments. I have massaged sore muscles and embraced that which most fear to touch. I have seen humanity where many only see power. I am an ambassador from the Danes set with the impossible task of creating peace that the men were unable to achieve without my presence.
I do not have choice over where I am, but I have choice over how I am and whether or not – in my actions – I create a spirit of generosity… spur a sense of love where there has previously been only anger and distrust. I have the power to birth and shape a generation of rulers who will see the world in its evolving complexity.
Not many women can say that they have the heart of a king, shape the minds of his heirs. Contain the spirit of a country. I can.