In the article, “Beowulf’s androgynous heroism,” Robert Morey focuses on revealing Beowulf’s androgynous side in the poem as a hero, which seem to be very peculiar. Despite this unconventional, even idiosyncratic argument, Morey provides a reasonable justification about Beowulf’s femininity through the context of the period at that time and also through the analysis of excerpts from the poem. I strongly disagree with the fact that the poet was trying to convey women’s roles, which symbolize the androgynous religious figure in the poem, Beowulf, at all. Rather Beowulf, an epic hero, represents the conventional definition of a man. Furthermore, I do not think the poet was necessarily trying to portray Beowulf as a religious figure in general, because he has too many humanistic mortal flaws to be a holy character.
First, Morey notifies the audience that, “The role of woman in Beowulf, as in Anglo-Saxon society, primarily depends on peace making, either biologically through her marital ties with foreign kings as a peace pledge or mother of sons, or socially and psychologically as a cup-passing and peace-weaving queen within a hall." Applying these social roles of women at that time to Beowulf’s act of trying to be an arbitrator makes him a peaceful and humanistic character rather than a macho and daunting warrior.
Although Morey’s argument is reasonable, I think being just a symbol of a peace and an action of working towards a peace are two different issues. When the Geats and the Danes are joined together in a banquet, Wealtheow, who is a queen of Hrothgar, “graciously saluted the men in hall then handed the cup first to Hrothgar, their homeland’s guardian” (614-615). The queen’s action of handing the cup to Hrothgar, and her speech in lines later, do not necessarily represent her own authority to declare the peace. Rather, Wealtheow is being the peace itself, only as a symbol of an allegiance between the Geats and the Danes (Overing 277). She did not have a right to declare that peace on her own, nor she did not choose to be the symbol of peace in the first place by marrying Hrothgar. Instead, she was forced to marry Hrothgar as a symbol of allegiance between Herot and her kingdom. Therefore, it is, in a way, reasonable to say that Wealtheow was one of the “victims” (279) as a woman for a harmonious relationship among nations.
In contrast to Wealtheow, Beowulf first arrives at Herot and uses words rather than his sword when the poet describes, “The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard” (258). It is evident that Beowulf had options to either use a violence or to use an explanation for his visit to Herot. However, Wealtheow did not have the option to decide whether to ally with the Geats or not. Therefore, I do not think Beowulf can be an androgynous hero because Wealtheow was just a symbol of the peace, whereas Beowulf had an authority to proclaim that peace at first place, thus cannot compare those two actions.
Also Morey argues that in the poem, Beowulf is described with adjectives, such as milde, mondawaere, and lide that are usually associated with religious figures, which in a way tries to broaden the hero’s capacity to fulfill certain gender roles or qualities that are associated with women. Because there was less of a gender distinction on religious figures during that time period when this epic poem was written, Beowulf, in a way, is portrayed as a religious figure.
However, based on examining Beowulf’s behaviors throughout the poem, I think he has too many flaws to be a religious figure. His first flaw is exposed when he boasts in front of Hrothgar. Before fighting Grendel, Beowulf talks endlessly about his past accomplishments and says:
“ They had seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea slaughtered sea-brutes… Now I mean to be a match for Grendel, settle the outcome in single combat.” (419-426)
Because he is an experienced warrior who won against all the monsters that he faced, and because everyone knows about that fact, Beowulf argues that he is the most suitable person to fight against this painful and brutal monster, Grendel. Personally, I do not remember any religious figure in the history that is snobbish and condescending as Beowulf is in this scene. I remember them being more respectful, modest, and humble.
Beowulf’s another flaw is exposed when Beowulf orders Wiglaf to inspect the Dragon’s treasure and return with a portion of that treasure and he says,
“ Hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard. Away you go: I want to examine that ancient gold, gaze my fill on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go of the life and lordship I have long maintained” (2746-2751)
First of all, his desire to see the fortune that he had never seen shows his greed and wickedness of humans and how much we are obsessed with power, fortune, and wealth in general since the old times. Also, in “Goldgyfan or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology for Beowulf and Treasure”, Joseph E. Marshall argues that Beowulf has a “Christian attitude towards wealth” (Marshall 2) when Beowulf tries to “dispense his wealth to his retainers” (Marshall 2). However, I think Beowulf was discarding his wealth rather than dispensing it. In fact, Beowulf seems to be rather a devious king, because he would not need the wealth once he dies since the wealth is something that is needed only in this world. Therefore, he basically disposes it by inheriting it to Wiglaf or other servants. Therefore, I do not think discarding the wealth, in other words, giving up the fortune that one does not need is necessarily an act of sharing the wealth, therefore his greedy and selfish mind is not suitable to described as a religious figure.
Also, when Unferth, the warrior of Herot, criticizes Beowulf’s battle against Grendel, the conventional epic hero overreacts to his comment, and even denounces him with even harsher words and says, “You killed your own kith and kin, so for all your cleverness and quick tongue, you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell”(587-590). Despite of Unferth’s criticism, Beowulf definitely had different options to resolve this tension instead of rebuking with another criticism. Moreover, if he truly was a character that is supposed to be a religious model, he probably did find more peaceful way to react to this situation. It is odd in the first place that he was acting irrationally, and even more bizarre that he was undermining Unferth by mentioning his biggest fault, which is killing his own family member. In a society where loyalty is extremely valuable, murdering one’s own family would be an enormous flaw for a person. Beowulf’s action of belittling Unferth’s crucial weakness shows that he probably was embarrassed about Unferth’s criticism, thus he was protecting himself by counteracting to Unferth’s comment. Therefore, Beowulf’s cruel behavior of confronting Unferth clearly indicates that he cannot be considered as a religious figure, thus cannot be a religious figure that incorporates androgynous characteristics.
In conclusion, Beowulf is just a human after all. His greedy, embarrassed, arrogant, and disapproving characteristics are represented throughout the poem, which are personalities that we all have as humans. Also, his action of accomplishing harmony between nations is not parallel to roles of women of symbolizing the harmony. Therefore, Beowulf is not an androgynous hero nor a religious figure, but just a manly, macho male that entails values of Anglo-saxons.
Baker, Peter S. “Beowulf Reader”. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000
Heaney, Samus. “Beowulf”. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. 2000
Marshall, Joseph E. “Goldgyfan or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology for Beowulf and Treasure.” Studies in Philology; Vol. 107 Issue 1, p1-24, 24p.2010. EBSCO. University of Pittsburgh Lib., HI