The power of women in “Beowulf”, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” and in “The Miller’s Tale” varies but still remains a prominent part of not only the text but the subtext as well. In “Beowulf”, we have the power of a woman regarded as a monster but also the power of a mother wanting to avenge her son’s death. In the tale that the wife of Bath tells, we have an old woman who’s power resides in her knowledge and wisdom and in “The Miller’s Tale” we have an ultimately clueless young woman who’s main power is merely her sexuality. Her sexuality is something that she uses to get what she wants but also what leads her into trouble, hurting those who love her and ultimately herself as well.
In the story of “Beowulf”, we meet a man named Beowulf who is a legend in his own time. The toughest man that ever was, he can beat out any other man in any type of physical triumph that is needed. Between swimming, fighting and saving those around him, he has proven himself time and time again. When the people of Heorot need a hero, they receive one in Beowulf. He comes and conquers their foe, Grendel, in a fight that leaves them in awe. “But you have made yourself immortal by your glorious action” (Beowulf 1652). This awe, however, is short-lived by the rise of Grendel’s mother from the deep. She comes charging in to make them pay for the wrong that she feels has been done to her son. “Grendel’s mother, monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs” (Beowulf 1661). She attacks those in Heorot’s hall ferociously. “Her onslaught was less only by as much as an amazon warrior’s strength is less than an armed man’s” (Beowulf 1661). While the people of Heorot thought their troubles were over, they had unleashed a mother’s rage on themselves, “now this powerful other one arrives, this force for evil driven to avenge her kinsman’s death” (Beowulf 1662). In the end, Grendel’s mother does lose the fight but not without putting up a good one and taking others with her when she goes.
In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, we are introduced first to a knight who has raped a woman along the side of the road. In doing so he has gotten himself in a world of trouble. His life is spared but only insofar as he can come to a proper answer to one question: “what is the thing most of all that women desire?” (Chaucer 2100). He wanders for some time, trying to find the answer to this question, for surely a man who rapes a woman by the side of the road would not be able to find the answer within himself. He receives many answers but none quite as good as that of an old woman he happens upon in the woods. She lets him know immediately that she can give him an answer for that which he seeks, with an outright declaration of the knowledge that old age brings. “We old folk know a lot of things” (Chaucer 2102). In order to save his own life, in desperation, he agrees to give her anything he can if she will provide him with the answer. In this agreement, she holds the utmost power. She has what he wants and he will do as she wishes in order to get it. She holds his life in her hands. For anyone, man or woman, the ability to save or end a life is one of the most – if not the most - powerful forces possible. By her wisdom, she does, in the end, save his life. The answer to the question: “Women desire to have the sovereignty and sit in rule and government above their husbands, and to have their way in love” (Chaucer 2102). The truth of this statement is shown, not only when the old woman outwits the young knight at the end, demanding that he choose either the old woman or the young woman to marry. Both of these choices having their benefits, both having their disadvantages. The truth of this statement is also shown when the queen, the one seeking the answer to the question, has the power of giving or taking the life of the young man.
In “The Miller’s Tale”, we meet a completely different type of woman than in the two previously mentioned stories. Her power is not so strong in that it is not made up of a mother’s love nor is it made up of a woman’s mind but, rather, it is made up of pure sexuality. The power here does not only reside in the fact that this woman is attractive to many men “She was a prettier sight to see by far than the blossoms of the early pear tree are” (Chaucer 2070) but that she also knows she is attractive to these men. This tale is not as serious as the others but the young woman, Alison, still holds a certain power in her hands. There is the young man Nicholas, whom she wants and he wants her, there is the carpenter who is her husband and then there is Absolom, the man who pines for her. “Till jolly Absolom was woebegone for wooing her, awake all night and day” (Chaucer 2073). This power that she has leads all three men down a troublesome road. Bringing them all to a different end, including herself when she abuses the power that she has over them. She ends up with a husband, more jealous than ever, who is now looked upon by their town as absolutely crazy. Nicholas ends up with “his bottom roasted well” (Chaucer 2082) and Absolom ends up having “kissed her nether eye” (Chaucer 2082).In all three of these works, women hold a very powerful place in the storyline. Grendel’s mother is forlorn, as nearly any mother would be about her son’s death. In pain, she attempts to avenge the taking of her son’s life. In some ways, she does what she embarks upon even if she does not “win” in the end. In the tale told by the wife of Bath, the old woman and the queen both show that what the old woman says is true. In essence, women want to rule over men in all matters – including love. Both of these women have the power to end the young knight’s life in their own way and both of these women appear to enjoy the power of doing so. In the final tale mentioned, “The Miller’s Tale”, Alison does not hold the power to take or give life in the way the other women examined here do but she does hold a power over them nonetheless. She does not give anyone their life back but she does destroy parts of their lives. The poor carpenter in the story is now looked upon as a joke in his town, Absolom has lost his dignity and Nicholas simply learned that it is best to avoid playing with fire so one does not get burned. All of these women held a certain type of fire and power inside themselves, all in different ways.
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Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: The Miller’s Tale”. Lawall, Sarah
and Maynard Mack, eds. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Second Edition.
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