Throughout history the role of women in literature has changed significantly and rapidly. A great example of this can be seen through the difference between the Anglo Saxon time period and the Norman time period. In the Anglo Saxon time period the main genre of focus is Heroic poetry which centers on men and more often than not women are considered insubstantial especially when compared to the women we see in the Norman genre of romance.
In Romantic literature women are portrayed as powerful, sexual figures who are the object of lust and whose desires come before that of the mans. The differences between Anglo-saxon and Norman literatures view on women is clear especially when looking at works from the time period such as Beowulf from the Anglo-saxon period and Lanval from the Norman time period. In both of these works the women mentioned in them are supernatural creatures yet are completely different in how they use their powers.
In Beowulf the supernatural female antagonist in the story is Grendel’s mother. Due to the fact that Beowulf is Heroic Poetry women are either docile or needed to be rid of, unfortunately Grendel’s mother falls into the latter. She is even described as related to a [as a] demon, as a fiend, as disgusting, immoral and savage.
After Beowulf kills her son she becomes enraged and takes part in an epic battle with him. It is in this battle that we see her supernatural powers of strength and determination. This powers are considered There were many times throughout this fight that she almost overpowered him, but in the end she was defeated. This shows that Grendels mother possess supernatural powers that are tough and rugged especially when compared to those in Lanval.
In Lanval the hero and the villian are both female. This is very important considering the fact that in Beowulf none of the women were named nevermind had such essential roles. The female that breaks the gender roles seen in Anglo Saxon literature such as Beowulf is the Mistress. She not only rescues the protagonist from death at the end of the story but also controls the terms of their relationship. This is something not seen before romantic literature. A common theme throughout romantic literature is women’s desires so its not surprising that the mistress body and characteristics are described as supernaturally beautiful.
He looks at her; he sees her beauty;
Love pricks him, strikes in him the spark
Now his heart blazes in the dark.
(117-119, Marie de France, Lanval ).
She is so beautiful that he falls in love with her at first glance, this is because she is a magical creature that is otherworldly and so is her beauty. The mistress also has the power to give Lanval an endless abundance of gold, so much so that he is able to share the wealth. This can be seen in Lines 135-142
She gives a present:
Anything he may ever want
He’ll get, as far as his needs extend;
Generously he may give and spend
She will find the wherewithal.
Lanval has found a noble hostel:
The more he spends, in buying bold,
The more he’ll have of silver and gold.
(Lanval, Marie de France)
This shows her supernatural abilities of giving gifts, including the gift of herself and an endless amount of riches. This is a girlish ability especially in the sense of her abnormal beauty. Her powers are very feminine which is a great contrast between the powers seen in Grendels mother.
The Mistress from Lanval and Grendels mother from Beowulf are completely different in every sense of the word. The Mistress has striking beauty which intrigues men and grabs the affection of Lanval while Grendels mother is described to be a hideous grotesque monster. Their supernatural abilities are also fundamentally different, Grendels mother had brute strength and her supernatural abilities could be described a barberic, while The mistresses abilities are elegant and feminine. The way they use their abilities are also like night and day, The mistress uses her powers to lure men, give them what they want, and also save them. While Grendels mother uses her powers to defeat and try to kill men.
The two female characters are completely different and come from completely different worlds. This is because when Beowulf was written when women were not consider significant or useful in any manner. While Lanval was written in a time that Romantic literature was popular making women and their needs the main role within that genre. So the two women not only have differences in appearances and supernatural abilities but also in the way their genres and cultures appreciated women.
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