Beowulf gets mytho-poetic and words reveal more than meanings (feat. Robert Graves) (ll.598-606)

Finding the goddess in Beowulf
Words with mythical connotations

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from

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Beowulf finishes off his reply to Unferth with another boast.

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“‘After all, against that apostle of violence none arise
from among the Danish people, so he wars as he likes,
killing and feasting, prosecution he knows comes not
from the spear-Danes. But I shall now surprise
him with the might and strength of the Geats,
bringing him battle. Afterward whomever wants to
go to mead shall and heartily, once the morning light
brings another day to humanity,
when the light-clad sun shall shine once more from the south.'”
(Beowulf ll.598-606)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Finding the goddess in Beowulf

Since I’m reading Robert Graves’ The White Goddess over on my reading and gaming log Going Box by Box, I feel like I might have some insight into the meaning of Beowulf’s language here.

After all, this is the end of his speech to Unferth and the Danes. As such, he’d not want to waste any words getting his point across. He will defeat Grendel because he will do things in a way that the Danes never yet have. Such a statement is impressively logical.

But impressive enough to complete steam roll all of the Danes and get away with it? Well. Apparently. I still think he says things like “none arise/from among the Danish people” (“nænegum arað/leode Deniga” (l.598-599)) to stir them up to some extent. And to show that where they failed, he will not.

Though, using what I’ve gleaned from The White Goddess, I think that Beowulf isn’t just boasting about strength and power and the ever important element of surprise. I think he’s also speaking in a poetic language. Since I’ve not absorbed everything from The White Goddess like some sort of giant sponge, I won’t be covering all of the poetically sealed things that Beowulf has to say in this passage, but I will be speculating about the two that are the most apparent to me.

In line 602 when Beowulf speaks of the “power and might” (“eafoð ond ellen”) of the Geats, the second word he uses in his alliteration stands out. This word is fairly commonly used in the poem Beowulf, and, although my reading’s limited, probably other Old English writing as well. It stands out here, though, because one of the definitions that my Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary offers is “elder-tree; elder-wood.” A large part of The White Goddess is about Graves deciphering the Druidic tree alphabet, and elder is amidst its letters.

I think that there might be a connection between that alphabet and Beowulf’s speech here.

According to Graves, the elder tree is the one that stands for the last month of the Druidic calendar. It signifies death and is said to have been the crucifixion tree. Graves backs this connection up with the mention of elder-leaf shaped funerary flints found in megalithic long-barrows.

In short, the elder tree is deeply associated with death.

It’s also quite deeply connected with witches and the devil itself. Though, because of its white flowers that are “at their best at midsummer” (185), the elder is also an aspect of the white goddess herself, the ruling triple deity of Graves’ Indo-European religion.

Setting this into the context of Beowulf’s speech, specifically his boasting that Geatish “might and strength” ((“eafoð ond ellen”) l.60) will prevail, does actually make sense.

The word “eafoð” specifically means “power,” “strength,” or “might,” and “ellen” means “zeal,” “strength,” “courage;” “strife,” “contention.” As a noun or adjective “ellen” means “elder-tree” or “elder-wood” respectively.

Pairing both words up is, thus, a little redundant. Though this apparent redundancy could be emphasizing the power of which Beowulf speaks. Combining the strength of eafoð with the death connotations of ellen as “elder wood,” though, I think that Beowulf is pushing his claim that he’ll beat Grendel with brand new tactics even further. He’s really saying that with the strength of death he will overcome the fiend that has been terrorizing the Danes for years.

Maybe that sounds a little far-fetched, even for something on the blog of someone who studied literature up to the graduate level. But hear me out.

The Geats have so far been characterized as a warlike people. Anyone who is so warlike will likely invest a lot of importance in their armour and arms.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly do this, as a good portion of the poem to this point has been about this or that bit of armour. Beowulf even gives Hrothgar explicit instructions to send his armour back to Hygelac should he fail.

In a sense, then, Beowulf identifies with his armour, as any culture that puts hereditary significance onto arms will. (Passing a sword down from father to son, I think, signifies a passing of a sort of family spirit, something that identifies the rightful wielder as a true member of the tradition and therefore of the family.)

When push comes to shove, Beowulf’s tactic for defeating Grendel is to fight him at his own game. Beowulf knows that conventional weapons have no effect on the fiend and so he strips away his armour and wrestles with him. Removing his armour signifies a death of sorts, and I think that (along, of course with alliteration), that’s why Beowulf refers to the might of the Geats with eafoð and ellen. I think that he’s definitely pulling on the alternate interpretation of “ellen” as “elder” and all that the tree connotes.

Jumping down to the bottom of the excerpt, I think that Beowulf completes very intentionally ends his speech about defeating Grendel and restoring Heorot with a reference to the sun rising and shining from the south.

Again, turning to Graves, he gathers quite a bit of evidence for the conception of the most terrible place on earth in many European myths being the far reaches of the north (it’s basically the whole point of chapter six). Thus, the sun’s shining from the south signifies a complete turn around in which the Danes’ troubles are over and the light of the sun (already equated to the light of god elsewhere in Beowulf) will shine down on them with all of its might.

Ultimately, then, I think that Beowulf’s not just boasting about taking a new tack against Grendel to beat him, I think he’s making the extreme claim (at least in the connotation of his full boast from lines 601 to 606) that he will defeat Grendel by dying and resurrecting.

If this is the case, then I have no idea what to make of the reference to one of the most important events in the pre-Christian year (the festival celebrating the death and rebirth of the year) in a poem that was very clearly written in its current form in a post-Christian time. The reference’s not being a direct one does suggest the sort of subterfuge that Graves writes about poets using to avoid church persecution, but I’m not entirely sure that’s at work here.

Though I could push my analyses of these references further by pulling one more thing from Graves.

In chapter three he writes that in the old poetic language, the roebuck signifies something hiding. A hart (the animal on whose name “Heorot” puns) isn’t exactly a roebuck, but again, maybe the poet/scribe was just covering himself.

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Words with mythical connotations

Unsurprisingly for a passage that contains the sort of arcana that I pointed out in the first part of this entry, this one has some doozies so far as words go.

In its first line, for example, is the mysterious word “nyd-bade.”

The Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary I have defines it as “messenger of evil?[sic]” and grabs this definition from the word’s context in the Old English Exodus. Breaking down the word doesn’t give us a clear definition, but it might shed some light on just what it means.

The word “nyd” is an alternate spelling of “neod” meaning any one of “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” or “delight” or of “nied” meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business;” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain;” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary;” “inevitableness,” or “fetter.” This word could also signify the name for the rune “n.”

Notwithstanding the possible rune reference, the common denominator in the various meanings of “nyd” is urgency. Drawing urgency out of “fetter” might be a stretch, but something that’s fettered is usually so bound quickly to prevent it from doing any unnecessary harm.

Thankfully, “boda” is much more straightforward; it means “messenger, herald, apostle, angel; prophet”

Taken together, then, these words seem to refer to someone who brings something urgent.

In that general sense, they don’t need to bring something evil.

It could even be interpreted as referring to someone who is a forerunner for some important piece of information. Actually, following that interpretation could lead to reading Grendel not as some godless monster, but perhaps as a pagan priest who continually visits the freshly converted Heorot in an effort to bring them back to the old beliefs.

Grendel’s only known relation being his mother makes this a very curious interpretation indeed, since that could make Grendel the final, faded champion of a now perverted great goddess. Or perhaps even the champion only of the death aspect of Graves’ triple goddess.

Looking at it that way really casts the whole poem into a new light – it’s not just about a vaguely Christian warrior claiming victories over monsters in god’s name and ruling his people well, but about the decay of the old religion and the revitalizing force of this new one. As well as how the new one is integrating aspects of the old.

A comparative study of Grendel’s mom and the as yet unintroduced Wealhtheow of Heorot could be quite curious in this light. But that’s a project for another day.

Another word worthy of note (and another compound!) is “sweglwered.” This word’s parts are much clearer than those of “nyd-boda.”

The word “swegl” means “sky,” “heavens,” “ether,” “the sun;” or possibly “music” while “wered” means “throng,” “company,” “band,” “multitude;” “host,” “army,” “troop,” or “legion.”

The combination of these two words creates a fairly vivid picture of the other things in the sky forming a sort of comitatus with the sun at its head.

Closing on this reference of a bright and shining lord and retinue really brings out the hope in Beowulf’s claim. He’s not just claiming that a new day will dawn on Heorot, bringing them all their old happiness, but that the sun will be out in all its grand array to herald this day, truly an omen of great things ahead.

Now, one more thing.

Something that’s clear to me from my reading of Graves is that the goddess of whom he writes is associated with the moon. The rising of the sun from its poetically strongest quarter, and with its full retinue then suggests something opposing the goddess.

In a general sense it could be the more aggressive, patriarchal religion that Graves believes overtook an older matriarchal one. This would make Beowulf’s claim all the grander, but it’s not as if his wrestling a terrible monster to death and then later facing a dragon were stories told with mind numbing regularity when one Anglo-Saxon asked another “how was your day?”

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Next week there’s an interlude in the dialogue. Hrothgar takes in what Beowulf says and Wealhtheow, his queen, appears.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “ Beowulf gets mytho-poetic and words reveal more than meanings (feat. Robert Graves) (ll.598-606)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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