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Kennings in Beowulf: Examples

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  • 0:02 Background to Beowulf
  • 0:52 Defining Kenning
  • 1:51 Examples of Kennings…
  • 3:18 Purpose of Kennings
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rachel Noorda
This lesson shows you examples of kennings, or metaphorical phrases, in the Old English epic poem 'Beowulf.' After this lesson, you'll understand what a kenning is, the purpose of a kenning, and examples of kennings in 'Beowulf.'

Background to Beowulf

Beowulf is an epic poem written in Old English. It is the story of the warrior, Beowulf, who comes to fight the monster, Grendel. Grendel has been attacking the hall of the Danish king, and so the Danish king asked Beowulf to come and help. Beowulf kills Grendel, but then Grendel's mother comes after Beowulf in revenge of her son. Beowulf kills Grendel's mother too. The last of Beowulf's feats is killing a dragon that ends up killing Beowulf as well.

Beowulf is full of kennings, a literary device common in Old English poems. Kennings were used to add description, richness, and meaning to the poem. The kinds of kennings in Beowulf include words to replace battle words, God, Grendel, and the sea.

Defining Kenning

Kenning is a two-word metaphor used in place of a word. A kenning is a literary device used in Old English or Norse poetry. Basically, a kenning was a fancy way of talking about something, which is why it was used in poetry. Instead of saying ordinary words like 'sea,' 'armor,' 'god,' or proper names like 'Grendel,' Old English used compound words, or joined words, in place of one word.

Unlike an actual metaphor or simile where the word that is being replaced is named, such as 'the queen was like a gazelle' or 'the queen was a gazelle,' a kenning would not say 'the queen'. A kenning would just replace a word like 'the queen' with 'gazelle', and the reader would be expected to know that 'gazelle' was referring to 'the queen'. Because a kenning does not say the word that is being compared, just the compound phrase in its place, a reader must already know before reading a text that, for instance, 'sail-road' means 'sea.'

Examples of Kennings in Beowulf

Sail-road = the sea

To Scandinavian heroes, peoples, and cultures like Beowulf and the Danes, the sea was an important part of their everyday lives. There were many names for the sea in Old English poetry. The poet uses the kenning sail-road for sea because it was like a road that ships would sail on. The sea was also called the swan road and the whale road in Old English poetry.

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