Friday, October 28, 2016

The crushing of Dayraven: An oddly specific detail?

One more note about the banhus gebræc section in my previous post. This particular detail -- the fact that Beowulf crushed a Frankish warrior named Dayraven in a (possibly literal) bear-hug seems sort of oddly specific. Why would Beowulf include this particular feat of strength in the inventory he is taking of (or possibly the apology he is making for) his life? Surely the fight with Grendel or Grendel's mother would have been more impressive here.

But the context from line 2490 on is the ways in which Beowulf has been a faithful retainer to Hygelac all throughout his life: he has done so by repaying all of the gifts Hygelac has given him with valor in battle, meriting Hygelac's further favor in gifts of land and rulership. Which leads to an implicit question: if Beowulf is such a great warrior, why are the Geats routed at the Frisian raid? Why is Hygelac killed and why is Beowulf one of the only survivors, swimming back to Geatland with the spoils of thirty warriors, while Hygelac's body is picked over by a "lesser warrior than himself?"

In the killing of Dayraven we find something of an answer. Note that Beowulf always fights, by his own admission "ana on orde" -- "alone in the van." In other words, Beowulf fights best out alone, in front of the rest of the warband. The specific instances we see of Beowulf's prowess against monsters seems to bear this out: he goes in alone against both Grendel's Mother and the Dragon. So the first half of the answer to "where was  Beowulf when Hygelac was slain?" is "he was out in the front of the rest of the army, where he always is."

The second half of the answer may be found in the identity of Dæghrefn ("Day-raven"). He is the cumbles hyrde, the standard-bearer of the Frankish army. So when Hygelac is killed during the Frisian raid, Beowulf is out in front of the rest of the army, taking down the enemy standard alone. He is serving Hygelac as he has always served him.

banhus gebraec

Symle ic him on feðan    beforan wolde,
ana on orde,    ond swa to aldre sceall
sæcce fremman,    þenden þis sweord þolað.
Þæt mec ær ond sið    oft gelæste,
syððan ic for dugeðum    Dæghrefne wearð
to handbonan,    Huga cempan.
Nalles he ða frætwe    Frescyninge,
breostweorðunge    bringan moste,
ac in cempan gecrong    cumbles hyrde,
æþeling on elne.    Ne wæs ecg bona,
ac him hildegrap    heortan wylmas,
banhus gebræc.

Always I for him [Hygelac] would be in the front of the band of soldiers, alone in the van, and so [in this manner] through life shall battle do, while this sword lasts, which has served me early and late, since I before the experienced retainers proved to Dayraven as slayer-by-hand, champion of the Franks. Not at all he the trappings to the Frisian King, might be allowed to present breast-adornment, but in battle fell the standard-bearer, prince in valor; nor was edge the slayer, but for him the battle-grip bone-house and heart's surges crushed.

Beowulf, 2497-508

This passage, which contains not one, but two digressions starting back around line 2300, has always been a difficult one for students of the poem, and is sort of doubly difficulty to follow if you are reading the poem in the original. Having gone through it a couple of times over the last two weeks, I have a new appreciate for how intricately (and artfully) these digressions have been interwoven.

One cannot help but see a bit of irony (whether or not it was intended by the poet) in Beowulf's words "þenden þis sweord þolað" given that his sword will fail him at the last, when he is fighting out in the front of the "band of soldiers" without the help of his thanes.

Thesis Theater: The Digital Hervararkviða

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