What's an example of a kenning in Beowulf?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A kenning is an aspect of Anglo-Saxon poetry where two words are combined to create a powerful, creative and evocative alternative word, which act as strong metaphors. The Anglo-Saxon poets played around with words in this way to experiment with the sound and feel of words and their works. There are plenty of examples in this famous Anglo-Saxon text, including "bone-house" for the human body, "battle-light" for sword and "wave-floater" for ship. Note the following kenning in the following quote:

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and began to pay tribute. That was one good king.

The description of the sea as a "whale-road" is particularly evocative, as it helps create a powerful image of the sea as the habitat of enormous sea creatures, mysterious in their own right, such as whales, who use the sea as their "road" in the way that humans use roads. This helps highlight or augment the bravery of those who travel on these so-called "whale-roads," as they are choosing to travel with such enormous creatures.


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