Essay on Power of Women in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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As the poems of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight show, women have always had power, yet not as overt a power as wielded by their masculine counterparts. The only dynamic of women’s power that has changed in the later centuries is that the confines and conditions in which women have wielded their power has become more lax, thus yielding to women more freedom in the expression of their power. The structure, imagery, and theme in the excerpts from Beowulf (lines 744-71) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (lines 2309-30) support the concept of more power in the later centuries, by contrasting the restriction of Wealhtheow and the power she practices in Beowulf with the Lady’s more direct assertion of power in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight five centuries later.

The confines of structure, in which the poems are written, parallel the confines of society that these two women inhabit. Beowulf presents a more restricted society for women; the actual passage itself is set up to reinforce the ideology that women’s power alone is ineffective. Before Wealhtheow begins her speech, the poet introduces her, “Then Wealhtheow pronounced in the presence of the company” (Beowulf l 1215). This device is used not only to introduce her to the reader, but also to reinforce her presence as the Queen. Instead of just inviting her to speak, it ironically undermines her authority and magnifies the need of intervention on someone else’s part. This frames Wealhtheow’s power as ineffective, because she needs someone else to command attention for her to speak, and is not able to command that attention on her own. Even after the end of her speech, the poet feels the need to follow up with a few lines of his own by saying, “...

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...ight. The centuries that have elapsed between the two poems indicate that the power of women has increased in direct proportion to the later centuries. Though both these women have power, and each one of them practices it in her own right in accordance to the time period that each inhabits, the perception of their power is nowhere near that of their husbands. Where does that leave these women in their own societies? Though it may seem that both Wealhtheow and the Lady are in their husbands shadow, both considerably contribute to the control of the society in which they are part of the ruling class.

Works Cited

Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Sixth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. M.H.Abrams. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, Inc., 1993.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

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