The Importance of Women in ‘Idylls of the King’ vs. ‘Beowulf’

In comparing these two works, a few things stuck out for me. Most interestingly was the contrast of women’s roles. In Idylls of the King, the very first sentence is describing Guinevere, and how beautiful and lovely she was. I found it interesting that Tennyson thought it important to establish this before discussing politics, or the state of England, and even mentioning the main character. When Arthur is crowned, he doesn’t immediately think of the changes he wants to make for his country, but of how beautiful Guinevere is and how he would only be able to do these things with her by his side. I’ll just fast forward here with a few points:

-Arthur even rules his kingdom under the idea that four ‘ladies’ (Lady of the Lake, and the Three Queens) embody the virtues he must portray as a leader.

-Geraint and Enid are madly in love, and though their road is rocky, Enid refuses Doorm’s advances and Geraint seems to feel guilty for everthinking any less of his wife.

– Vivien seduces the old, wise magician, Merlin, in order to obtain a spell. She takes advantage of his loneliness and pretends to be in love with him, surpassing his ‘wise’ demeanor. He resists, but is ultimately helpless to her compliments.

– Elaine has a schoolgirl crush on Lancelot, but since he is off with Guinevere he does not return the feeling, and so like any irrational woman, she kills herself.

-Ettare just wants Pelleas to give her his trophy, so she takes advantage of his affection before she dumps him and he ends up waiting outside her residence for days on end in the hopes that she’s only kidding.

– Arthur finds out about his wife’s affair with his dear friend, but because he is the epitome of a perfect human, he is only slightly faded with his impressions of his impeding demise.

All in all, the woman’s role as wicked seductress, angelic wife, or heartbroken girl is so crucial throughout the story. These women are able to manipulate and influence the most powerful men in the kingdom. The power of beauty alone is a factor in bringing the strongest and most noble knights to their knees.

In Beowulf, however, there would never be any mention of a man being influenced negatively by a woman. In fact, the only ‘woman’ (I use this term loosely) is Grendel’s mother. Granted, she is quite the irrational being considering that she is literally a monster, but of course not even this fact brought down the great and mighty king. It seems that in the Beowulf days, the only important thing a man could focus on was fighting and winning. Of course women had no power there. Apparently, men did not have emotions back then; such signs of weakness were unheard of from great warriors and kings. But does Arthur’s sadness at Guinevere’s infidelity prove to be the one hit to the soul that ultimately makes him realize he is growing weaker? Is this a flaw in this portrayal of an ideal human, or does it make him even more perfect?

Vivien seduces Merlin

Image retrieved March 1, 2013 from:

Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “Idylls of the King.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print.

N/A. “Beowulf.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print

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5 Responses to The Importance of Women in ‘Idylls of the King’ vs. ‘Beowulf’

  1. Murtaza says:

    Definitely beat me to the punch on this one, but I noticed a slightly different pattern. In Beowulf, there is that very typical appearance of women for…celebratory purposes (page 60, the section starting at line 915), but other than that women are mainly absent. The definite difference was with women truly being multi-dimensional and playing (to some extent) an important role in the Idylls of the King.

    • Murtaza says:

      I apologize, after re-reading that section in Beowulf I noticed I misinterpreted “crowd of maidens”, and really that is only the help. On top of that in context it doesn’t make sense for the women to be playing a sexualized role because of the intense religious influence at the time. But nonetheless, the women do play a static and a background role in the plot.

  2. bkmilne says:

    Your response was very interesting. It become apparent that between the story “Beowulf” and the Poem from “Idylls of the King” that women become characters that resemble heroines rather than just people in the back ground.
    I think women become more important in “Idylls of the King” because King Arthur is a romantic and compassionate hero, where as Beowulf is simply a hero for his actions. King Arthur is noble, watches over the kingdom, and accepts help, and praises others for helping him along the way. Because of this, I think it does make him even more ‘perfect’, because it idealizes him as a ruler. Beowulf on the other hand takes everything for granted, does not want help on his epic journeys, and prefers bragging about himself instead of praising others for their achievements.
    When we realize this it allows women to become a part of the story. Guinevere was a large part of King Arthur (and many other men’s lives), which lead to their rise and fall. King Arthur accepts his desire “to be join’d with Guinevere” and wins her in battle. His fight for her is a grand start of the story, that plays just as large a role as his fight against Sir Modred.

    Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “Idylls of the King.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print.

  3. npelletier says:

    I find it very interesting that you thought to point out the role of women in the two stories. It is something I never would have thought of. I think it is interesting that you made the connection of the roles of women with the rime that these stories were written in. It is true that in most literature from the time Beowulf was written would not have acknowledged women. However at the time Idylls of the King was written women were at least beginning to be recognized more as people with minds of their own. The best part about this blog was the way you picked out the three most common stereotypes of women in Idylls of the King, because even though women were beginning to be recognized as vital contributors to society, they were still viewed in one of the three ways that you mentioned which I think is very important to still keep in mind.

  4. dagny says:

    I’m looking over Beowulf again in preparation for the final, and this blog post has made me question the role of Wealhtheow, King Hrothgar’s wife. I think she has quite an important role, even if it consists of lesser, background duties. She bears Hrothgar’s children, gives a good speech to Beowulf after he succeeds in his first two battles, presents him with food and drink and riches, and generally keeps the social aspects in order. Although she doesn’t slay any dragons as Beowulf does or have a more modern, important role like the women in Idylls of the King do (modern being a relative term), I think Wealhtheow deserves more attention for her part in the poem.

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