Litotes in Beowulf: Examples & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Definition Of Litotes
  • 0:37 Grendel's Death
  • 1:10 Grendel's Mother
  • 1:45 Failed Weapons
  • 3:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson will identify various examples of litotes, or understatements, in the epic poem 'Beowulf.' The author uses the litotes when describing parts of the great battles that Beowulf participates in and when his weapons fail him to point out his heroic qualities to readers.

Definition of Litotes

This lesson won't be terrible. Does this statement evoke excitement in you? Probably not.

This lesson opened with an example of litotes. Litotes is an understatement that uses a double negative or an element of irony. Irony is when an author highlights something that is unexpected, sometimes for humorous or dramatic effect. These literary elements are common in epic poetry. Have you ever told anyone that he ''won't regret it?'' If you have, then you have used litotes. The epic poem Beowulf uses many litotes that draw attention to Beowulf's heroic qualities and some of the themes in the poem.

Grendel's Death

Grendel has terrorized the Danes by entering their mead halls and murdering them. After Beowulf defeats and kills Grendel, the poem describes the relief and happiness that the Danes experience. The following quotation understates the importance of his death to the Danes:

''They gaped with no sense of sorrow, felt no regret for his suffering.''

We would not expect the Danes to mourn the death of someone who has been terrorizing them, so this statement understates their relief at the death of him with irony. This draws attention to the feelings of the Danes and shows how heroic Beowulf was when he murdered Grendel.

Grendel's Mother

After Beowulf kills Grendel, he is also asked to kill Grendel's mother by the Danes. When they are asking him, they use an understatement to persuade him: ''It isn't far, nor is it a pleasant spot!'' In this quotation, they are describing where Grendel's mother is located in an ironic manner.

Unfortunately, Beowulf finds himself in a distressing situation in the ''unpleasant spot,'' but manages to find a sword and kill Grendel's mother. When the poem uses this understatement, it draws attention to the place that Beowulf is supposed to go and demonstrates the great feat he overcame in defeating Grendel's mother.

Failed Weapons

One common thematic topic in Beowulf is the failing of man-made weapons. This serves a few purposes. Beowulf is supposed to be an epic hero, so this highlights his superhuman strength. Another purpose is to show that technology is not always something we can rely on. Let's look at two quotations that are litotes, but draw attention to the sword and show Beowulf's bravery.

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