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Figurative Language in Beowulf

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  • 0:00 Figurative Language in…
  • 0:26 Kennings
  • 2:03 Alliteration
  • 3:36 Variation
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Beowulf is often thought of as an adventure tale, complete with hideous monsters and a hero to save the day. At its core, however, it is also a stunning example of Old English, brimming with poetic language. This lesson will review the primary types of figurative language in the text, along with some illustrative examples.

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.

Kennings

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

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.

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