What was the chief literary device used in Beowulf? What effects does it have on the poem?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving epic or heroic poems from the Anglo Saxon period which lasted until 1066 when the Norman Conquests culminated in  the Battle of Hastings in England. In the meantime, Beowulf was written in Old English, and surfaces as the story of the Spear Danes which endures with its modern translation and Beowulf, wise and strong is set to take over from Scyld, his father as "fate" ("Wyrd") has determined. The alliteration , the primary literary device, is evident in the repeated "w," "g" and "h": 

Then Scyld departed, at word of Wyrd spoken,
The hero to go to the home of the gods.

Alliteration gives the poem its rhythm and helps the poet to recall his words; especially important at a time when much was passed on verbally and sometimes only written down much later. Alliteration would have been used in place of rhyme, a rarely-used device in Anglo Saxon poetry. In Beowulf, the alliteration also serves to strengthen the poem as it stresses the action and gives emphasis to events or, in this instance, a noteworthy building. In recalling the newly constructed "master mead house far mightier than any,..." the repetition of "m" creates both the rhythm, a means for easy recall and identifies the significance of the building of the great hall and even the character of Beowulf himself - having built such an imposing structure. 

In building momentum, alliteration in Beowulf increases the anticipation of what is to follow; for example, as Beowulf will fight the monster, Grendel, "He slipped through the darkness under deep nightfall
sliding through shadows..."Again, the reader is reminded of the imposing structure as he proceeds, "till the wine-hall towered tall..." The reader understands how evil the monster is which "dwelt in darkness..." and how Beowulf feels as he "wrestled with woe" after the killing spree. It is clear, therefore that alliteration helps to drive the poem forward to a dramatic end as Beowulf is mourned and "hearts heavy laden" reveal the extent of loss.