Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 9087
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Peach , Bridget.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: The Suppression of the Powerful, Avenging Woman in "Beowulf": Beowulf's Encounter with Grendel's Mother
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 33, 3 (Spring 2000): Paper presented at the Thirty-Fifth International Congress on Medieval Studies, The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, May 4-7, 2000, Session 347: "Beowulf I."
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Female Gaze Grendel's Mother (Literary Figure) Literature- Verse Revenge in Literature Women in Literature
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
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  • Abstract: Grendel's mother, who is traditionally accused of being a cruel, heartless monster, is in fact a self-justified avenger in “Beowulf” who is threatening because she performs a traditionally masculine role, and for this reason she is ultimately destroyed by the male hero of the poem. The threatening quality of Grendel's mother can be analyzed in terms of the literature of modern psychoanalytic theory, which often casts women as the holders of the male look, the signifiers of desire. From this perspective, Beowulf must kill Grendel's mother because he feels intimidated by the object of his gaze ("Ongeat pa se goda grundwyrgenne," 1518). Immersed in an extremely masculine and explicitly patriarchal society, he fears Grendel's mother's "lack" (she lacks a penis and he fears castration). Grendel's mother possesses a power over Beowulf that must be eliminated. The narration of the struggle/battle between Beowulf and Grendel's mother is erotic in manner within a mere which itself can represent a chaotic state of female sexuality. Grendel's mother is monstrous and intimidating because of her uncanny powers as female and her ability to perform masculine feats in an androgynous manner. This paper examines and reevaluates conventional criticism which either ignores Grendel's mother, casts her as a monster, or simply treats her as a component of Grendel's character. By applying the theories of Lacan and Freud, I argue that Grendel's mother is a threat to Beowulf’s society (i.e., she creates castration anxiety in Beowulf, she is nameless, and she is estranged from the Name-of-the-Father). I contrast Grendel's mother with two other female characters, Hildeburh and Wealhtheow, both of whom are passive and embody traditional roles. By applying theories on the look and gaze (i.e., those of Laura Mulvey), I also show that Grendel's mother problematizes the traditional active/male and passive/female roles in vision. [Reproduced by permission of the editor Robert L. Schichler and the editors of the Old English Newsletter.]
  • Author's Affiliation: University of South Alabama
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2000.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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