What are the important physical descriptions of female characters in "Beowulf" and "Judith" 

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I tend to think that the physical descriptions of female characters in Beowulf and Judith are reflective of cosmological intent.  In the descriptions of Grendel’s mother and the titular Judith, their descriptions are reflective of the universal condition of being that both wish to convey.  For example, Judith is seen as a restorative force of justice.  She is seen as the force that rights wrongs, as seen in her beheading of Assyrian General Holofernes.  The conviction that Judith represents a force of good in the world is evident in her physical description:  “Then Judith loosed the hair about her brows, / About her brows the long black tresses loosed, And bent her head, and wept for Israel.   And while she wept, bowed like a lotus flower.”  Judith is seen as a force of honor for Israel, evident in the detail of a “lotus flower.”  Her beauty is convergent with goodness in the world.  The appeal to natural imagery is consistent with how Judith is portrayed as a force rising from the earth, embracing a restoration and redemption associated with the natural world.  There is a convergence between her characterization, the natural world, and her physical description: “And from the branch of amaranth he bore  A gleam fell on her, touching eyes and lips  With light ineffable, and she became  Fairer than morning in Arabia.”  In describing Judith in this manner, a restorative notion of justice is seen.  Her heroic stature and strength of will are communicated through physical attributes.

At the same time, Beowulf employs a similar means of physical description to communicate the sense of negative energy intrinsic to Grendel’s mother.  When Beowulf must defeat Grendel’s mother, his sense of heroism is contrasted with the primal sense of evil that is within her that her son embodies. The physical description of Grendel’s mother is reflective of the evil energy that her son possesses and what Beowulf stands in stark opposition.  Grendel’s mother is described as one who grabs Beowulf with “grisly claws” and as “filled with wrath.”  Her lair is one that is located beneath a lake and in different translations terms like “monster,” demon” or “troll” are used as means of physical description that conveys a distinct aspect of her characterization.  Even if one sees her as a type of “warrior woman,” it is evident that she is described with a lack of physical beauty.  This description of her physicality is a means to suggest that her lack of beauty is reflective of her own demonic nature.  In both physical descriptions, physical qualities of women are meant to convey elements of cosmological reality.  Restorative hope is found in virginal beauty, while savage hideousness in a woman conveys a sense of doom and condemnation in the world.