There’s more boasting from Beowulf today, as he recalls the turning point in his career and then starts to talk some smack about the dragon’s hoard.
“Always would I go on foot before him,
first in the line, and so ’til age takes me
shall I conduct war, so long as this sword survives,
that which has and will endure;
ever since before the hosts I became the
hand slayer of Dayraven,the Frankish warrior
No treasure at all did he
bring back to the Frisian king,
No breast plate could he have carried,
for, in the field as standard bearer, he fell,
princely in courage; he was not slain by the sword
but by hostile grip I halted the surge of his heart,
broke his bone-house. Now shall the sword’s edge,
hand and hard blade, be heaved against the hoard.”
As with any passage that concentrates so much on warfare there are some bits here that are so loud that they can’t be ignored.
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A Word and a Name
One such bit is the word “feðan.” It looks like it should be a verb because of its “an” ending, but the Clarke Hall & Meritt dictionary isn’t quite so sure about it.
However, the translation of “marched” or “go on foot” makes sense since the entry right before it is feða, meaning “footsoldier.” It might not be a perfect translation, but just turning that word into a verb might be an all right way to go. Sense be damned, right?
Speaking of sense, the name Dayraven (originally Dæghrefne) could carry an odd one. As came up in an earlier entry, the raven is one of the three beasts of battle. But the significance of the raven isn’t finished there.
Based on the appearance of a raven at daybreak earlier in the poem (l.1801, during the celebration of Beowulf defeating Grendel’s mother), the bird is definitely a bringer of joy. So what could it mean for Beowulf to kill a warrior named for this good omen-bearing bird?
Moreover, should we take the suggestion that Beowulf has killed a symbol of joy to mean that he has doomed himself, or is this joy only that of the Franks who have lost their standard bearer and a man that is “princely in courage” (“æþeling on elne,” l.2506)?
Dayraven’s being identified with the Franks twice within two consecutive lines suggests that if he is to be understood as some sort of embodiment of joy he is definitely the Franks’ joy only. But given what happens to Beowulf when he faces the dragon, one wonders.
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As this passage is one of the climaxes of Beowulf’s boasting there are some cool compound words in it. Among them are “brēost-weorðunge,” “hilde-grāp” and “bān-hūs.” None of these yield any crazy literal translations, being breast-ornament, hostile grip, and bone-house respectively, but they’re all compounds that hint at bits of the poem’s culture.
“Brēost-weorðunge” is possibly the most nebulous. A breast ornament could be decorative plate armor, but maybe it refers to something like a heavy necklace, or something that you could hang off of armor – medals, maybe. But that such an accessory was important enough to have its own name (poetic or otherwise) implies that the Anglo-Saxons took their bling seriously.
“Hilde-grāp” and “bān-hūs” are clearer and more direct, but no less curious. Why? Because they’re both readily translatable into words/phrases that could easily transfer into today’s English.
Also, that “hilde-grāp” specifies a certain kind of grip makes it clear that grappling was pretty important to Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf’s feats earlier in the poem also back up this implication about their culture.
With “bān-hūs” the implication seems to be more metaphysical, or at the least spiritual. Referring to a body as a “bone-house” might hint at there being something not of flesh dwelling within that house. That Clark Hall & Meritt translate it as “body, chest, breast” supports this idea that it hints at a belief in a soul of in-dwelling life force, since the “chest” or “breast” contains the heart.
All of this connotation puts me in mind of another Old English compound: “word-hoard.”
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Conclusion and Wrap Up
Since Beowulf has talked up his sword skill with all of this boasting the dragon definitely needs to fear what’s coming to it. But – it won’t be coming just yet. Beowulf still has some more boasting to get out of the way before he’s ready to head over to the beast’s den. And, at the opposite end of things, Isidore gets into talk of ibexes next week.
So, be sure to check back next week for those two entries. In the meantime, what do you make of Beowulf’s killing Dayraven? Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment.
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