Examples of alliteration, epithets, hyperbole, kennings, and litotes occur throughout the Old English epic poem Beowulf, and often many of these traits appear together. Notice, for instance, how many of these traits appear in the following passage, which describes God’s punishment of Cain for murdering his brother Abel:
. . . For the killing of Abel
The Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder . . . . (107-09; Seamus Heaney translation)
Alliteration, which generally involves the repetition of initial consonant sounds, appears, for instance in the final quoted line, especially in the words “Cain” and “committing” and in the phrase “got no good.” Alliteration is by far the most common strylistic trait of Old English verse.
An epithet, in which a person is identified and defined by some quality or trait, appears in the phrase “Eternal Lord,” which is more precisely descriptive than “God” would have been.
Litotes is defined at dictionary.com as follows:
understatement, especially that in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary, as in “not bad at all.”
Litotes often involves irony, and thus the statement that “Cain got no good from committing that murder” is a perfect example of this stylistic trait. It would be hard to think of a better example of ironic understatement.
A fine example of a kenning, or a complex metaphor, usually linking two nouns, occurs when the poet reports Beowulf’s plan “to sail the swan’s road” in order to help the beleaguered Danes (200). Rather than saying “sail the ocean,” the poet uses the term “swan’s road,” implying that Beowulf’s journal will be easy, graceful, and untroubled.
Hyperbole, or exaggeration for emphasis, is less obviously evident in Beowulf than the other traits already discussed, although perhaps there is a bit of hyperbole when the poet reports that Grendel was able to grab and kill “thirty men” during his initial raid on Heorot and carry their corpses back to his lair (122-25). If the detail is taken literally, then Grendel is both enormously strong and enormously large (a kind of early medieval King Kong). The fact that he is later able to fit himself inside the hall suggests that the poet may be engaging here in a bit of hyperbole, although some other explanation may also account for this phrasing.