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Epithets in Beowulf Video

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  • 0:01 What Is an Epithet?
  • 0:28 Epithets for Characters
  • 2:21 Tools of War
  • 3:19 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,' epithets, or descriptive phrases, help provide us with visual examples of different people and things. These phrases add to our interest an understanding of the poem. Epithets help us remain engaged and active readers.

What Is an Epithet?

An epithet is an adjective or descriptive phrase that adds to the quality of our understanding of the person or thing mentioned. While the term may seem a bit odd to us, we use epithets all the time. Have you ever given your friend a nickname based on the way he looks or because of something about him? So your friend with red hair becomes 'Red' and your friend whose last name is Beckingham is just called 'Beck.' Epithets are nicknames that help us remember the person.

Epithets for Characters

In Beowulf there are many epithets for different people that help us understand what they look like or what their role is in the kingdom. These nicknames add depth to their character in a way that is easily understood.

Unferth is, quite plainly put, jealous of Beowulf. He can't stand the fact that Beowulf is getting all the glory for stepping up to get rid of Grendel. He tries to shame Beowulf by telling everyone about a swimming match, and he implies that Beowulf lost. Beowulf doesn't really deny the claim but tells him that he hasn't been able to beat Grendel, which is why he is there, but Beowulf continues that Unferth is known kingdom-wide as a brother-killer. He is also known as Unferth Son of Ecglaf. Even Grendel has a nickname for him. He says, 'Let me tell them I was sent by Sideways-Walker.'

Like Unferth, Beowulf has many epithets that help add depth to his character. He is known as Prince of the Weders, Son of Ecgtheow, the Geatish Hero, Lord of the Seamen. Each of these epithets provides us with more information to better understand who the hero of the tale is and what he will bring to the tale. We learn that his father is Ecgtheow, and he owes a great debt to King Hrothgar because he helped him out of a difficult situation when he found himself in a feud with another tribe. When Beowulf is described as the Geatish hero, that is letting us know that he is a hero of his tribe. He also has great skills on the sea, which is why he is called the Lord of the Seamen.

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