Beowulf and Lanval: The Role of Women in Warrior Legends

Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother in Beowulf

Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother in Beowulf

The written accounts of these two warriors exalt in their strength, their loyalty, and their obvious position of being “chosen ones.” However, even in the presence of such lofty destiny, heroic deeds and aristocratic origins, these men have enemies, they have tragic faults and ultimately they are not as happy as all their blessings would seem to foretell, but it is these flaws that make these men ever more endearing, ever more heroic. Important too is what these tales tell present day readers about the roles of women in the medieval world. Certainly in both stories we see evidence of patriarchal society, of gallant love, and a humanity that both included men and quite effectively excluded women. Conversely, in Lanval there is an extreme level of female power, as seen with both the fairy queen and in treatment of both Lanval and Arthur by Guinevere. On the one hand, Guinevere’s homosexual remark in retaliation to Lanval not wanting her is certainly a commentary on the relationship between men. The women in Beowulf though are not as powerful as the women in Lanval, but play an important role as comforter and creator of harmony on the home front. Overall, I would conjecture that Marie de France’s Lanval has more powerful female roles then Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, simply because in the end of Lanval we last see him [Lanval] “behind her [the fairy queen] on the saddle” (642) and Beowulf of course defeats Grendel’s mother, the powerful female figure in that story. Overall, the two heroes’ tales share much in common, in terms of gestures, but the details tell a different tale indeed.

Beowulf and Lanval are both strangers in the land they find themselves in. However, Lanval isn’t well liked, “There were those who made a show / Of friendship, but in case some blow / Of fortune were to cause him pain / They’d have no reason to complain.” (25, 26) On the other hand, Beowulf when upon hearing of Grendel’s attacks on Heorot decides to go there, the narrator says, “Nobody tried to keep him from going, / no elder denied him, dear as he was to them.” (202, 203) Both men are loyal fighters and seek nothing in return for what they see as their duty to serve. Lanval served “King Arthur very well […]” (40) and Beowulf appear s on the shores of Heorot saying, “We come in good faith to find your lord / and nation’s shield, the son of Halfdane. / Give us the right advice and direction. / We have arrived here on a great errand / to the lord of the Danes […].” (267 – 270) Both heroes are in their situations because they are noble and great warriors. On the whole, their valiant and noble deeds are selfless and brave. They are both superhuman in their size and strength. Beowulf recounts his own adventures when he says to the King Hrothgar, “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. I have suffered extremes and avenged the Geats […] / Now I mean to be a match for Grendel, / settle the outcome in a single combat.” (419 – 426) As for Lanval the narrator explains that, “They envied him his handsomeness, / His courage, prowess, and largesse.” (21, 22) Overall, the legends of these two men both point to stalwart and resilient champions.

The women in Beowulf’s world are seen as both subservient and hysterical. In the beginning of the poem we are introduced to a queen that is worth no more of mentioning than to say she was “a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede.” (63) During the feast at Herorot, Hrothgar’s queen, “ […] went on her rounds, / queenly and dignified, decked out in rings, / offering the goblet to all ranks, / treating the household and the assembled troop.” (620 – 624) Although she is a queen, she is presented as being no more a player in this tale then a lowly servant proffering wine for the guests. This surely demonstrates the medieval view of women. Furthermore, Beowulf must defeat Grendel’s mother, who is described in the most unsavory of terms. She is related as a demon, as a fiend, as disgusting, immoral and savage (1350 – 1519). This all solidifies the notion that women in Beowulf’s day were either polite subservient creatures or she-devils that must be put down. On the other hand, the women in Lanval’s world are slightly better treated in verse, but not much more. As Guinevere sends “her maids-in-waiting, / The fairest and most captivating. / With her in the garden then / They went to relax with the men. / Thirty she took along and more, / [the men] Rejoiced to meet them […] Each girl by a knight’s hand is led: / Such pleasant talk is not ill-bred.” (241-251) This shows that women were essentially for the men’s distraction, because Guinevere wishes to get Lanval alone. She attempts to persuade Lanval to be her lover and when he refuses she accuses him of homosexuality with young boys (275 – 280). Guinevere then effectively pits her husband, King Arthur against Lanval in a pre-emptive strike by telling of Lanval’s mystery lover saying, “He had reviled her shamefully / And boasted he had an amie / So chic, noble, and proud, he said, / That even her lowliest chambermaid, / The poorest one that might be seen, / Was worthier than she – the queen.” (317 – 322) This raises the ire of the King who then bids Lanval to reveal this enigmatic lover of his or else. However, Lanval has been sworn to secrecy by the fairy queen, so he is caught as to what to do. Eventually he decides to betray her and tell of her, but no one believes him because she will not make herself known. However, in the end she comes to rescue him and take him back to the magical fairy land, and for a moment at the end the tables are turned as Lanval must ride behind her on the horse, and this the last we see of him (641).

Horse and Faerie by Dan Hanna

Horse and Faerie by Dan Hanna

The ending of Lanval rather symbolically paints a picture of a subservient male, one which is not in juxtaposition to the way women were normally seen in medieval times. Perhaps the telling of the story by a woman, de France has something to do with this. For in Beowulf, women are never raised above deferential levels and this story is indeed re-told by a man. However, it is a modern man telling the story, so we are not to be led into believing that Heaney was in any way being misogynistic, just perhaps more realistic to the times then perchance de France was being. Also, conceivably, de France’s story is more a commentary on a love affair then a heroic tale of a warrior culture, although unquestionably a tale of a hero nonetheless. While Beowulf is considered to be a hero tale in every way, and love between men and women is rather a tertiary topic in the tale and hardly in the forefront. One could even make the argument that the existence of the women, outside of Grendel’s mother is hardly even necessary to tell the tale. The reality of women in Beowulf though at least suffices as a reference to the treatment of women in medieval times.

The stories of Lanval and Beowulf have many parallels on the surface, without doubt. Both tell the tale of powerful soldiers, loyal to their kings, and ever more loyal to their own fierce dominance, they hold sway among their kingdoms as powerful warriors, supreme in command with the utmost respect, (albeit grudgingly in case of Lanval) among their peers. The women of both tales are shone upon in different lights; in Beowulf cast as acquiescent (except for Grendel’s mother) and in Lanval certainly less docile and accepting. Possibly the authors of the written legend have something to do with the way women are presented in each respective tale. Overall, the two stories pay tribute to the heroes whose conquests on the battle field were memorable indeed and legendary.


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