Judith and the English Canon


Did She Just Lop That Guy's Head Off?!*

There are several aspects about Judith that make it unique. The fact that it's a take on an actual Old Testament Biblical story (though, admittedly, one from the Apocrypha, so the legitimacy of the original tale itself is in question). The fact that we've only got part of the actual story as the first bit was destroyed /lost/accidentally tossed out by the translator/whatever. Or even the fact that it's about a woman. Not just a woman, but a woman who actually doesstuff.

See, unlike the Ruth's and the Esther's and even the good mother Mary herself, Judith isn't a passive player in either the original story or the Anglo-Saxon poem. Ruth was the prototypical Good Christian Woman, even before that was an actual thing (you know. Due to the lack of Christianity and all). She was Cinderella-esque and kind and certainly sweet enough to stay with Naomi, but she didn't really contribute much to her own story other than following Naomi's advice (really, the book should have been called Book of Naomi, as she does more to forward the story than Ruth does) and scoring a husband in the end. Rather abruptly, actually.

    "So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son." (Ruth 4:13).

Esther was a little more proactive, but again, she wound up having to rely on her husband not to go and kill everyone. Her whole plan (which was more Mordecai's plan than anything) basically boiled down to 'ask the king nicely not to listen to Naman and his idea to kill all her people'.

Judith, however, can almost be considered a more modern character in her story. Not that the lopping of heads is a common modern past time, but the fact that she actually plays an active role that sets the story in motion.

Like Ruth, Judith is a virtuous widow with strong religious morals. The bit the poem doesn't cover (due to the aforementioned 'destroyed /lost/accidentally tossed out by the translator' gag) is the beginning where (according to the actual text), Judith hears that Ozias is going to give the city up in five days unless God gets off his throne and starts smiting people. She goes to talk to him, and he asks her to put in a good word for them to God.

    "And Judith said to them: As you know that what I have been able to say is of God: So that which I intend to do prove ye if it be of God, and pray that God may strengthen my design.

    You shall stand at the gate this night, and I will go out with my maidservant: and pray ye, that as you have said, in five days the Lord may look down upon his people Israel.

    But I desire that you search not into what I am doing, and till I bring you word let nothing else be done but to pray for me to the Lord our God.

    And Ozias the prince of Juda said to her: Go in peace, and the Lord be with thee to take revenge of our enemies. So returning they departed."

    (The Book of Judith, 8:30-34)

The poem begins right after Judith has been welcomed into Holofernes' camp with open arms (because she is the paragon of Godly virtue, after all), and Holofernes calling out for the feasting and booze.

I do find it interesting how Judith in the story sees Holofernes is completely plastered and follows him of her own accord, while in the poem, Holofernes is in possession of the Villain Ball** and demonstrates his Capital-E-Evil by demanding Judith be brought to his bed.

    ". . .Then, corrupted by evil, he commanded that the blessed maiden should be hastily fetched to his bed, adorned with bracelets, decorated with rings. . .

    Then the notorious one, that lord of cities became happy in his mind: he intended to violate the bright woman with defilement and sin."

    (Judith, Norton Anthology, pg. 102-103)

He's not just going to have sex with her, oh no. He's going to violate her. Defile her. With his sin. At least, he wants too, before falling drunkenly onto his bed and falling asleep with her still in the room. Which, as it turns out is kind of a bad idea.

    "Then the Creator's maiden, with her braided locks, took a sharp sword, a hard weapon in the storms of battle, and drew it from the sheath.

    She seized the heathen man securely by his hair, pulled him shamefully towards her, And skillfully placed, the wicked and loathsome man so that she could more easily manage the miserable one well. Then the woman with braided locks struck the enemy, that hostile one, with the shining sword, so that she cut through half of his neck. . .

    The courageous woman struck the heathen hound energetically another time so that his head rolled forwards on the floor."

    (Judith, pg. 105, Norton Anthology)

She leaves Holofernes' decapitated corpse inside his one-way bed-tent, goes home, shows off the severed head, and everybody celebrates. A speech later, and everyone gets to go conquer those Assyrians who, at this time, are all waiting around Holofernes' tent, presumably elbowing one another to try and wake up the boss.

Now. Why does this poem belong in the English canon? There are probably a lot more, scholar-certified, laureate-approved reasons, but my best guess is because it is basically a distaff counterpart to all the Beowulf's.

Sure, it's not a grand and sweeping epic, taking course over years and years. Sure, there aren't any naked monster wrestling matches, or dragons, or dismemberment. Sure, the religious aspect was at the forefront of the work, rather then haphazardly sprinkled throughout like in the Beowulf story. And sure, Judith didn't take on the entire army single handedly as Beowulf might've tried (really, I wouldn't put it past the guy), but the work still follows the themes of good versus evil (and in this case, piety versus- well, not outright heathenry, despite what the text says***, but at least piety versus unrighteousness).

Beowulf (eventually) faces Grendel alone. Judith has to face Holofernes alone (no mention at all is given to the maid who accompanied her to the camp in the actual Book).

Neither Beowulf nor Judith express any outright fear in facing their respective obstacles, but Judith does show some doubt before cutting into the throat of a sleeping man:

    "'God of creation, Spirit of comfort, Son of the Almighty, I want to beseech you for your mercy on my in my time of need, glorious Trinity. My heart is intensely inflames within me now, and my mind is troubled, greatly afflicted with sorrows'. . .

    Then the highest judge inspired her immediately with great zeal. . .

    Then she felt relief in her mind, hope was renewed for the holy woman."

    (Judith, Norton Anthology, pg. 103)

. . . Which gives Judith more psychological insight than just about any other surviving work of the time gives to any other characters. Granted, the insight was brief and immediately hand waved away by God, but still. Points go to Judith for being human, while Beowulf was very much above the more detrimental of human emotions.

She echoes the Scandinavian shield maidens while still retaining that holy-widow virtue so favored by the religious at the time. Yes, she kills a man in cold blood with only the slightest qualm, but she does it to save her city and does so with God's approval. This work perfectly plays up to both aspects, and tosses in a few dramatic speeches as well because people of the time apparently loved dramatic speeches.

The work is rough, yes, like everything was back then (by today's standards), but it tried to make a character with at least a few levels of thought, rather than a Beowulf-esque cardboard cut out with only one setting (In Beowulf's case, the setting was stuck on 'hero'), but for the most part, it took an already interesting story and spiced it up with a few artistic liberties. It's a valuable precursor, not only to all the stories where characters have more than one level of depth, but to stories where a female character has more than one level of depth.


** A colloquial term referring to a character who the author really, really wants the reader to see as an obviously evil antagonist, as though the character is holding a brightly colored ball or other sign and showing it off to the audience, as though to say, "Hi. I'll be your villain for the duration of the story. Pleasure working with you."

*** Because after all, part of the reason Holofernes' men lets Judith and her maid into the camp at all is because of her renowned piety, and the reason he threw the feast was because he was certain God was on his side, so he's not a heathen.


Since Node your homework seems to actually be a thing, and nobody lopped my head off for the last one, I have presented to you Out of Class Essay Number One: Why does -INSERT WORK HERE- Belong in the English Canon?

Basically we had to pick a work we'd covered in class, and give some reason as to why we thought it was important enough to be still studying now. So, yeah, this whole thing was one opinionated litmus test so the teacher could get a feel for our writing styles (and to see if any of us knew the first thing about essay format- which a staggering number didn't. Seriously, what the hell, public educational system?) As ever, I reserve the right to be wrong, stupid, and both.

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