Something struck me this year as I was reading through Beowulf with my tenth graders: Pixar's Brave is Beowulf from the perspective of Queen Wealtheow and Princess Freawaru and set during the time of the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland as opposed to the rise of the Danish people over their neighbors. As in the case of Hrothgar's developing kingdom, Brave's Scotland is besieged by two troubles: a giant monster that carries off the people and an unstable network of human alliances that threatens war and division. In each case, the reigning monarch finds himself powerless to stave off the supernatural terror and relies on the aid of his politically astute wife to keep order among the clans. Where Beowulf deals with questions of finding a new warrior with courage and greatness enough to solve the problems and eventually become king, Brave deals with the problem of forging a marriage alliance with the princess and raising her up to be the next queen.
A careful read of Beowulf reveals that strong and capable queens are every bit as important to a society's flourishing as a good king or a great warrior. In the world of Beowulf, good queens are astute politicians that use a knowledge of protocol and the art of speech-making to control the network of alliances that uphold a kingdom. The good queen Wealtheow carefully times her appearance to prevent the argument between Beowulf and Unferth from getting out of hand. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, Wealtheow moves in to make sure that Beowulf knows that while he will be amply rewarded for his loyalty, he will meet firm resistance if he sets his eyes on the throne of Denmark. In contrast to Wealtheow is Grendel's mother, a hell-dame who brings war and division with only sea-snakes to rule over and a murky cave for a mead-hall. Brave takes up this theme by transforming the queen (literally) into both Wealtheow and Grendel's Mother and thus throwing the young kingdom of Scotland into chaos. To restore order, the young princess must learn the arts of political persuasion, culminating in a speech that heals the divisions within the kingdom while buying her time to free her mother from the curse and put off an unwelcome choice of suitors.
There are other themes in Brave, including ones that also find correspondences in Beowulf.* For today, however, I would like to limit my thoughts to the way that both stories explore the role of a good queen. Looking at the film Brave through this lens not only casts more light on the artistry and message of the movie, it also gives us a better understanding of the female characters that dominate the middle portion of the Old English poem Beowulf.
*For instance, Merida has already learned from her father how to be a good warrior when the film begins, but needs to learn the skills of a good queen that her mother can teach her. By the end of the film, Merida has learned both what her father and her mother have to teach her, thus becoming the woman Scotland needs to forge new customs for a new age.