Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German
Figurative Language in Beowulf
Like many literary texts, Beowulf features figurative language like metaphors, similes, and symbols. Some of the most distinctive poetic devices of this Old English poem, however, are kennings, alliteration, and variation. These are used in various ways to heighten the poetic effect of the poem, and they are part of what really sets Beowulf apart as a distinctive and memorable work of literature.
A kenning is a special way of describing a noun using imaginative language. Usually, kennings use compound words to replace a single noun. For example, an airplane might be described as an iron-bird. Likewise, you might call your classroom a knowledge-den. Can you think of other kennings for things in your daily life?
Beowulf frequently uses kennings, making them one of the most characteristic types of figurative language in the poem. For example, the sea is often called the 'whale road.' Likewise, in the poem's many violent scenes, blood is frequently referred to by the kenning 'battle-sweat.' Other kennings you might come across in the poem include 'wave skimmer' ('ship'), 'ring-giver' ('Hrothgar'), or 'hoard-keeper' ('dragon'). It's important to note, however, that simple hyphenated phrases that you might see in Beowulf, like 'swift-flowing waters' or 'grey-haired king' aren't kennings. To be a kenning, the phrase has to be figurative in some way, often by using metaphor. For example, the sea isn't actually a road, but for a whale, it's as great a way of getting around as the highway is for us.
Kennings give a long text like Beowulf a sense of cohesion and flow. Whenever you hear or read the phrase 'battle-sweat,' for example, you know that the poem is discussing another moment of battle, linking it to the other struggles recounted in the text. Kennings also make things more interesting. By line 2016 of the text, you might be tired of hearing the name Beowulf, if that's all he were ever called. Hearing him referred to by kennings like 'strong-hearted wakeful sleeper,' however, makes things much more exciting and poetic.
Alliteration is a poetic device that simply means the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words that are next to each other, or at least close together. For example, the phrase 'hungry as a horse' is alliterative, because the 'h' sound is repeated at the beginning of 'hungry' and 'horse.' Old English poetry, including Beowulf, didn't rhyme like modern English verse often does (think: Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.). Instead, alliteration and other devices were used to give lines of poetry a sense of connection and flow.
Since modern English sounds vastly different than Old English, it can be very difficult to replicate alliteration in translations of Beowulf. Some modern versions use rhyme as a replacement for alliteration. Other translations will try to insert alliterative phrases, even if they're different than original ones, so that readers get at least some sense what the poem sounds like in its original language. Depending on which translation you're reading, you'll find different alliterations, or a lack of them.
The poetic device of alliteration is often used together with metaphors to heighten their effect. For example, at line 276 in Burton Raffel's translation of Beowulf, we read that our hero's 'mind was flooded with fear.' Our minds can't literally be flooded (though it can sometimes feel like that!), so the phrase is metaphorical. The alliteration of the 'f' sound in 'flooded' and 'fear' helps make the metaphor really stand out. Think about it: the phrase just wouldn't be the same if it read 'his mind was jam-packed with fear' or 'his mind was stuffed with fear.'
One type of figurative language in Beowulf that may seem less familiar is variation, sometimes called apposition. Basically, this just means that a phrase or passage is repeated in different terms, to emphasize its importance or clarify its meaning. For example, a simple variation would be 'my mother, the woman who bore me.' The meaning of the concept 'mother' would be clear without the additional phrase 'woman who bore me,' but that repetition helps to emphasize that aspect of motherhood. There are lots of examples of variation in Beowulf. For instance, at around line 1405, we are told that King Hrothgar is traveling with a troop of warriors through a treacherous landscape:
'the steep, stony slopes, the narrow ways,
the strait single paths, the unknown course,
the headlands steep.'
Through the repetition of several phrases that really mean more or less the same thing, the figurative language emphasizes the danger of the soldier's journey. You can almost hear the soldier's careful steps in the halting rhythm of the poem's lines.
Sometimes, variation can apply to an entire passage, not just a phrase. For example, Beowulf (around lines 700-720) thrice mentions that the monster Grendel sneaked up on a hall filled with sleeping soldiers, intending to make a meal of them. The repetition isn't really necessary for the plot - the poem could have just stated once that Grendel appeared - but it does help emphasize the drama of the moment. You can think of it kind of like a stereotypical scene in a horror movie when the camera keeps cutting back and forth between a murderous villain and an unwitting victim.
Some scholars think that Beowulf was meant to be recited out loud, though others aren't so sure. For such a long text, figurative language does provide a sense of unity, rhythm, and flow, which would make it easier to remember and follow the text as it is recited. Even if you're just reading the text, however, devices like kennings, alliteration, and variation, as well as more common ones, like metaphor, give Beowulf a unique style. While no translation can completely convey all of the figurative language that Beowulf showcases in its original Old English version, there are still plenty of memorable phrases to share with modern audiences. Long live the 'strong-hearted wakeful sleeper!'
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