In order to begin, one must understand the terms one is trying to identify. A kenning is simply another form of a metaphor. Essentially, a kenning (famous in Anglo-Saxon texts such as Beowulf) is a typically a two word phrase meant to elevate and beautify the language of the text. For example, battle sweat is a kenning for blood. Personification, on the other hand, is the giving of human characteristics to non-human/non-living things. For example, the sun smiled. People can smile; the sun cannot.
In regards to the text of Beowulf, many examples of kennings and personification can be found. Here are a few examples of each.
God- All-wielding Ruler, Guardian of Heaven, The Wielder of Glory.(Chapter III, lines 66-68.)
Grendel- Horrible Hermit (Chapter III, 52), devil from hell (Chapter III, 62).
Beowulf- chief of the strangers, War-troopers’ leader (Chapter V, lines 1 and 2).
Mouth- word-treasure (Chapter V, line 2).
King- Giver of rings (Chapter 6, line 34).
Sea- wave-billows (Chapter 7, line 22).
"The lances stood up." (Chapter 6,line 10).
"If death overtake me." (Chapter 7, line 75)
"The mere fishes’ mood was mightily ruffled." (Chapter 9, line 51)
"My obedient blade." (Chapter 9, line 59)
Anglo-Saxon poems like Beowulf are riddled with kennings, and they add to the rich imagery that is used to describe the adventures of their epic heroes like Beowulf. Kennings are a descriptive phrase or compound word that replaces a noun; a noun phrase which describes a well-known, familiar noun in a new and more descriptive way. They are typically (but not always) two word phrases which give specific information about the qualities and characteristics of the noun the phrase replaces.
A kenning can be almost like a puzzle or riddle, because its purpose is to show the item in an unusual way.
Kennings are often used in Beowulf to describe the hero as well as the supernatural opponents that he faces. Kennings used to describe Beowulf include the Geats ring-giver, mighty protector of men, or the Prince of the Geats. Grendel is described as the Midnight Stalker, sin-stained demon, or the Almighty's enemy. By using such powerful language, the poet not only refers to a character in a new and interesting way, but they also are able to use charged imagery to develop and color the character as well.
Kennings are also used throughout the poem to describe everyday objects and people: sky-candle (sun), feeder of ravens (soldiers), light of battle (sword), breaker of trees (wind).
The authorship of Beowulf is a total mystery, and even the country in which it originated is in question. Although it is widely studied as the oldest extant epic poem in the English language, it is quite possible that it was not composed by an Englishman. The fact that the main characters come from what is now Denmark and Sweden lend credence to the claim that the poem was written by someone from that area rather than from England.
At any rate, it is quite apparent that the poem was written by someone who lived in a society in which battle was a proving ground for manhood and the sea was a major part of everyday life. We see this in the figurative language of the period, the kenning. A kenning is a two-word metaphor that serves to describe an important noun in an interesting way. The following kennings from Beowulf are associated with battle and the sea:
Spear din: battle
Bone crusher: Grendel
Sea road: ocean
Whale road: ocean