Alliteration in Beowulf: Examples

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  • 0:00 Background for Beowulf
  • 0:35 Language Makes a Difference
  • 1:48 Language Grabs Our Attention
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

In 'Beowulf,' the use of alliteration is seen in almost every line. In an epic poem that was meant to be read out loud, the repetitive use of the initial sounds of words captures the ear of the listener, engaging him with every line.

Background for Beowulf

The epic tale of Beowulf was first heard in the eighth century AD and was probably written down for the first time in about 1000 AD. This was an oral experience, and the poet, or bard, would chant it to the members of the court or audiences he would find along his travels. While the audience was more than likely aware of the story, it was important that the bard engage them in a way that held their attention. It was the poet's job to make it lively and entertaining. Because of this, there were frequent additions and subtractions made to the story along the way that served to make it more interesting.

Language Makes a Difference

The creative use of language makes all the difference to the listener in the telling of the tale. Alliteration, is the use of repetition of initial sounds in words close to one another. In Beowulf, alliteration is the mainstay of the poem. The use of alliteration, considering it was an oral experience, enhanced the experience for the listener.

'Heorot trembled, wonderfully built to withstand the blows, the struggling great bodies beating at its beautiful walls. . .'

In this example, the repetition of the 'b' would have resounded throughout the hall like the beat of a drum, and it would have signaled to all that a great battle was taking place.

As Grendel approaches the warriors he is going to kill, we hear these lines:

'He found them sprawled in sleep, suspecting nothing, their dreams undisturbed
Up from his swampland, sliding silently. Toward that gold-shining hall.

We hear the repeating 's' sound, and in our minds we are taken to a place where we imagine the big cats on the Serengeti watching the antelope, waiting for the moment to strike. The words, 'Up from his swampland, sliding silently,' allow us to imagine Grendel slipping into the hall unseen.

Language Grabs Our Attention

The use of alliteration speaks to us. It helps grab our attention, and it holds us captive in the language. The repeating sounds resonate, and with each line we are transported into the action of the piece. The bard understood the necessity for entertaining the audience, and to make it exciting he would exaggerate and emphasize the repetitive sounds to engage and delight, to frighten and entertain. Audiences loved the tales the bard brought to them; they begged for more.

Alliteration helps make lines in the poem sing for the listener and be more easily remembered for the bard. The rhythm helps both the teller and the listener follow the story line, and it enhances the process of retelling the tale. These lines demonstrate how the rhyme scheme made for an exciting and entertaining retelling:

'Cunningly creeping, a spectral stalker
Hot-hearted Beowulf was bent upon battle
He had often haunted Hrothgar's house
How glutted with gore he would guzzle his fill

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