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Ides Aglaecwif? Or, Why the Hell do Modern Iterations of Beowulf Sexualize Grendel’s Mother?

After witnessing the CGI spectacle that is Zemeckis’ 2007 film, Beowulf, I am once again struck by our culture’s fascinating ‘need’ to sexualize Grendel’s mother in cinematic adaptations of the Old English epic poem. First, let’s briefly outline her original role and motivations in the Old English poem. Distraught by her son’s death ensuing from his brawl with Beowulf in Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, Grendel’s mother launches a surprise attack on the overconfident and unwary Danes. Though she is not physically described in detail, we know that she is an “ides aglaecwif,” or a “troll-wife lady,” that though she doesn’t equal Grendel in strength, she is still able to carry off Hrothgar’s beloved retainer, her skin is superhumanly hardened, and her blood is acidic. These factors seem to indicate that she is indeed monstrous in appearance. However, the poet’s curious use of the term “ides” (a less-commonly used word for ‘lady’) aligns her, as some scholars have noted, with the female Valkyries. “Ides” usually identifies a woman as aristocratic, interesting considering that Grendel’s mother lives in a subterranean cave only accessible from a toxic mere. Whereas Grendel fights with his hands, his mother fights with her hands and a “seax” (short sword or dagger) in her fight with Beowulf, implying that her form may in fact be more humanoid. Grendel’s mother enters the narrative to avenge the death of her son, and steals away and murders Hrothgar’s favorite retainer. Thus, she operates according to the early medieval Northern European principle of wergeld, a revenge system under which men could demand a life or an exorbitant fee as retribution for murdered kin.

In both Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007) and Baker’s Sci Fi spectacle, Beowulf (1999), however, Grendel’s mother is more alluring seductress than monster. In fact, Baker’s choice for the role, Layla Roberts, was a Playboy playmate, bringing campiness, sex appeal, crimping, and tragic lipgloss to the role.

The only thing she teases more than Beowulf is her hair.

The only thing she teases more than Beowulf is her hair

Quickly forgetting her son’s death, Roberts’ character quickly moves in on Beowulf for the irrestistible opportunity to create more progeny. Sadly, Zemeckis fares little better, presenting viewers with what hard-hitting news source OMG News! called a “sexy killer lizard beast.” Strategically covered in liquid gold and wearing the world’s first invisible support bra, Jolie’s further-enhanced CGI avatar succeeds in seducing Beowulf, who later discovers Hrothgar had also succumbed to her charms. I’d also like to point out that in our culture female monsters apparently have built-in stiletto heels and a fierce catwalk strut.

Beowulf

This unfortunate scene leads to Zemeckis’ most insidious upheaval of feminine agency under the guise of a more developed role for women in the epic: an extended scene in which Jolie’s character proceeds to caress Beowulf’s treasured sword, up and down, up and down, until it melts. I am not exaggerating. See still for a sample of the sexual insinuations this film makes.

beowulf sword

Jolie’s CGI avatar is a far cry from the poem’s ravenous vengeful mother, whose hard skin and acidic blood prove impenetrable to Beowulf’s sword as she tries to rip him asunder with her hands and dagger.

So why are these movies so intent on sexualizing Grendel’s mother? Part of the reason, I think, is that our culture, particularly cinematic culture, repeatedly refuses to acknowledge that women have other motives than securing a man and having babies. The Bechdel Test easily proves this sad truth. Even more sadly, directors sexualize Grendel’s mother despite the fact that none of the women of the original poem express a desire to find a man. Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son’s death; Wealtheow speaks to protect and secure the lives of her young sons; Hildeburh laments the deaths of her kin as a result of her peaceweaving marriage which was arranged to prevent just such a tragedy; and heck, Modthryth has men killed for looking at her, displaying a violent reaction to the possibility of being perceived as a sex object.

What irritates me about these cinematic adaptations is that they destroy feminine agency in rendering Grendel’s mother as a sex object. In the original poem, I read Grendel’s mother as a subversive, interrogating figure who coopts masculine agency and exposes the flaw of an early medieval patriarchal society based on the concept of revenge. Performing Danish and Geatish masculinity in taking a life for a life, and in wielding a “seax” (shortsword or dagger) like a man, Grendel’s mother queers heroic masculine identity in the text, perhaps justifying the Danish warriors’ extreme response to her. Furthermore, her monstrous body both embraces and inverts medieval notions of gendered bodies. Whereas female bodies were considered more open and permeable, Grendel’s mother possesses a hard skin that cannot be pierced by Beowulf’s sword. Her physical strength, though less than Grendel’s, is such that she is able to wrestle with Beowulf and carry off Hrothgar’s retainer. When Zemeckis tries to give us a more “empowered” feminine figure, he gives us instead a heteronormative female monster who, despite her quest for vengeance, yearns to be penetrated by the hero. If you’ve seen either of these filmic adaptations, what do you think of their representations of female characters versus those in the poem? For the sake of brevity, I’m not covering Baker’s inclusion of the fictional Kira, nor am I discussing Zemeckis’ invention of Beowulf’s mistress, Ursula.

For further reading, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has provided a fascinating conversation on the dynamics of monsters in Beowulf:

http://politicalobjects.com/2011/06/11/interview-jeffrey-jerome-cohen/

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October 2, 2013 · 6:08 pm

Lannister=Lancaster?

Lannister=Lancaster?

This week I attempt to marry my shameless obsession with Game of Thrones with my recently drafted third chapter which deals largely with Margaret of Anjou, holder of the sobriquet ‘She-Wolf’ and leader of the Lancastrian army from the mid-1450s. George R. R. Martin has stated that the Wars of the Roses served as historical inspiration for his fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice. Naturally, I’ve found myself looking for traces of big players in the Wars as I watch Game of Thrones. Arguably the chief villainess of the despised Lannisters, Cersei Lannister uses her wit and cunning to manipulate the political climate of King’s Landing and beyond, all in an attempt to assure that Joffrey’s rule remains uncontested. How might Cersei Lannister have been influenced by the ‘She-Wolf,’ Margaret of Anjou? I’d like to start by going over some of the basic similarities (some spoilers may ensue):

-both queens exercise political savvy in tumultuous political environments which are the result of incapacitated husbands. Cersei becomes a dowager (more on this shortly!) while Margaret was forced into politics when Henry VI apparently went insane and stayed comatose for long sporadic periods for the rest of his life.

-both Cersei Lannister and Margaret of Anjou justify their intrusion into court politics with the need to protect their young sons.

-both women face accusations of sexual licentiousness: rumors of Cersei’s incestuous relationship with Jamie (she is called Brotherfucker, after all) hurt the family’s reputation, just as Yorkists alleged that Margaret of Anjou was involved with several important men in the Wars of the Roses, particularly the Duke of Somerset. In fact, rumors of Margaret’s infidelity had spread as far as Italy, where Pope Pius II writes of those “who defile the king’s bedchamber” and of Henry VI’s thoroughly whipped status: he was “ruled instead of ruling.”

-rumors of regicide surround both queens, and the circumstances involve poisoning. Cersei, faced with the impending fact that Robert will find out about her incestuous relationship with Jamie and the true parentage of her children, proffers her husband particularly potent wine before an ill-fated hunting expedition, during which he is fatally gored after losing his faculties because of the soporific. Margaret faced accusations that she had poisoned Henry VI in an attempt to seize power for herself. Following Margaret’s momentous Lancastrian victory in the Battle of Wakefield in December of 1460, word of the queen’s alleged regicide had reached the ears of the Milanese ambassador, Prospero di Camulio, who was staying in France: he writes, “They say here that the queen of England, after the king had abdicated in favour of his son, gave the king poison.”

-both queens are presented as somehow ‘unnatural’ with regard to their gender. In Martin’s series, Cersei is chronically dissatisfied with her lot as a woman and upset that she cannot employ her strategical and political acumen without the social limitations placed upon women in Westeros. The latest season of GoT began to delve into Cersei’s displeasure with her background role, particularly when she must remain locked away and drinks herself into oblivion in the Season Two finale and in Season Three in a brilliant conversation with her father regarding Joffrey’s manipulation at the hands of the Tyrells. Margaret of Anjou was similarly represented as ‘unnatural’ by contemporary fifteenth-century chroniclers. John Bocking, a contemporary onlooker, called Margaret in 1456 “a grete and strong labourid woman, for she spareth noo peyne to sue hire thinges to an intent and conclusion to hir power.” Margaret incited ire from onlookers following a council meeting in 1457, when she demanded in Henry’s absence to be escorted from the city like a king. The Coventry recorder writes,

The Meyre Rode next before her with a Mase yn his hande and the Shirrefs with here Whyte yardes next before the Meyre like as they before tyme did before the kyng, sauyng the kynges swerd was next to hym. And so they did neuer before the Quene tyll then, for they bere before that tyme alwey theire seuauntes mases before the Quene at her comynges at which doyng here Officers groged, seyng the Quene owed to be met yn like fourme as the kynge shold.

Clearly, both Margaret and Cersei feel the sociopolitical restrictions of being a woman, and both yearn to be free to act according to their own wills.

To conclude, many historical circumstances would suggest that Martin used Margaret of Anjou for inspiration in his creation of Cersei Lannister. Why does this matter and why do I care? Well, because hundreds of years later writers, directors, and artists still draw from the medieval pool when formulating characters, particularly villainesses. GoT fans’ responses to Cersei’s character are not unlike the medieval chroniclers who railed against the power wielded by formidable medieval queens. See e.g. “But why do you like HER? She’s a bitch!” (Or, a post about why we should take some inspiration from Cersei Lannister) (georgiebarron.wordpress.com). It is worth mentioning that many of these circumstances (queens acting in the interests of young sons, accusations of adultery and poisoning, charges of being unnatural women) were par for the course for royal medieval women exercising any sort of political power. After all, Margaret of Anjou was the second ‘She-Wolf’ (Isabella of France called dibs). One would like to think that this sort of gross vilification of politically powerful women could be cordoned off to the “Dark Ages” (I mean that facetiously), but this is obviously not the case. All one need do is examine the rhetoric of criticism against women like Hilary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and Nancy Pelosi to see that figuring women in power as unnatural is pretty much ingrained into Western thought. I’d like to acknowledge that I’m not the only one writing on this topic. I’ll link a few articles below for further reading:

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September 4, 2013 · 8:24 pm