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Pierre de Marbeuf

Is it significant that only one of the critical characters in Beowulf is female, and that she is unnamed?

Grendel’s mother is the only important female character in Beowulf.  While there are queens featured in the story, removing their presence would change neither the nature nor the tone of the story.  However, Grendel’s mother remains unnamed.  This could simply have been due to the fact that the story was transmitted orally over several generations, and her name may have been lost in this history of telling and retelling, with the poet unwilling to make up a name for her.  However, even if that is the case, it seems as if omission of her name is intentional.  After all, unlike Grendel, who has an unreasonable hatred of the occupants of Heorot, or the Dragon, who seeks to punish all of the Geats for the actions of a single thief, Grendel’s mother’s motivation is understandable.  She wishes to avenge the murder of her child, a motivation that can be understood on some level by any parent.  Moreover, it is because of her role as mother that she has any interaction with Beowulf at all.  Until her son is murdered, she is only a legend to the men in Denmark.  Hrothgar has heard rumors about her, but has had no reason to believe that she actually exists or that she poses any danger to his kingdom.  However, when her son dies, they learn that she not only exists, but that she is an incredibly dangerous foe.  Therefore, her maternal relationship to Grendel is of critical importance.  In fact, it is more important than her own identity as an individual.  Thus, she can play a significant role in the poem without being described as anything other than Grendel’s mother.

Why is reputation, including the reputation of one’s ancestors, so important to the heroic figures in the poem, and particularly to Beowulf?

To a modern audience, and especially to readers who were raised on the notion of individual accomplishments, the emphasis on family reputation in Beowulf can seem disconcerting.  However, to the audience at the time in which the poem was written, this emphasis on family would have been very culturally relevant.  It is important to understand that the aristocracy was rapidly developing in Germanic Europe during this time period.  Property, wealth, and acclaim were starting to be attached to particular families, so that the circumstances of birth could have a great impact on a person’s outcome in life.  However, there needed to be some understanding of why particular families would have an elevated status.  As a result, the idea of family reputation became an important one.  The notion that a good leader would raise his son to be an equally good leader was counterbalanced by the idea that someone like Cain, who committed an unspeakably horrible act, would only be able to sire monsters.  However, given the tremendous amount of inter-family conflict presented in the poem, this focus on patriarchal reputation also demonstrates that those who failed to embrace those things that helped develop the family’s reputation and set them apart as leaders would make themselves, and their families, vulnerable.

What is the relationship between Beowulf and Christianity?

It is impossible to ignore the role of religion in Beowulf.  The poet refers to God on a number of occasions, and the references to the Bible make it clear that the God being used is the traditional Judeo-Christian God.  However, historically speaking, it is clear that the poem was derived from an oral history that predated the introduction of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon culture.  The moral code that defined what it meant to be a good Germanic warrior was not always in line with what it meant to be a good Christian during the Middle Ages, and there are a number of times in the poem when the poet struggles to reconcile Christian ethical and moral values with the pre-existing heroic tale of Beowulf.   Beowulf is considered a hero, but he does not conform to many of the Christian ideals that were exposed during his time; for example, he is not a forgiving man, seeking vengeance rather than offering peace to his enemies.  Despite these apparent conflicts, Beowulf is considered a hero.  For this reason, the poem, though clearly fictional rather than historical, offers insight into the cultural melding that occurred when the Anglo-Saxons began to embrace Christianity.

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