What are the kennings used during Beowulf's battle with Grendel?

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A kenning is basically a two-word description in place of a more common one-word noun or name. Kennings are often seen in Anglo Saxon poetry, which was originally transmitted orally. In Beowulf, as in other poems of the time, the poet uses kennings to add variety to the wording and to more vividly paint a picture of the action for the reader.

In the section of the poem where Beowulf fights Grendel, we see a couple of kennings to describe Grendel. The poet calls Grendel a "terror-monger," which is a kenning that conveys the fear evoked by Grendel. Grendel is also referred to as a "hell-serf," which shows that he is a servant and devotee of Satan. Both of these kennings enhance the description of Grendel as evil.

A couple of other kennings are used throughout the battle to describe places or things. Grendel's presence in the mead hall is referred to as "a hall-session," which, unlike the kennings applied to Grendel, seems to de-intensify the event. Grendel's sinews, muscles, or tendons are referred to twice as "bone-lappings," a vivid description of Grendel's physique that adds to the gore and violence of the battle scene.

Beowulf is described as "the earl-troop's leader" in a kenning as well. This kenning indicates his position and contrasts with the more loaded descriptions of Grendel discussed above.

These kennings give the poem more stylistic variety than if the poet had used Grendel's name or simple nouns. The poetic descriptions also enhance the imagery and mood of the scene.

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Beowulf's battle with Grendel begins on line 750 when Grendel seizes Beowulf's arm, not knowing that it is Beowulf, nor knowing anything of his strength. However, he immediately realizes that Beowulf is not like the other men, nor any man he has ever encountered. The battle ends on line 823, when Grendel flees, and is concluded on line 836 when we are told that Beowulf has fully ripped off Grendel's arm.

Kennings are compound metaphors common in Old Norse and its derivative languages and literary cultures. One of the first encountered in "Beowulf" is "whale-road" in line 10, a metaphor for the ocean. At first glance these might seem frivolous and unnecessary to the casual reader—why not just say "sea"? Part of the answer lies in the fact that "Beowulf" originated as oral poetry, and thus it would serve the poet to have an array of imaginative phrases, with different sounds and length, to drive the telling more in the direction of art than a simple relaying of facts. Some translations attempt to preserve the extensive alliteration present in the original text, some of which is supported by kennings. For example,

syndolh sweotol·      seonowe onsprungon·

burston bánlocan·      Béowulfe wearð

gúðhréð gyfeþe·      scolde Grendel þonan

feorhséoc fléön      under fenhleoðu,

This section from lines 817-819 employs frequent kennings to construct a "s - b - g/th - f" alliterative scheme with one sound dominating each line.

Kennings used in the battle include:

  • bone-adorned (probably meaning "armored")
  • life-days and day-count (lifespan)
  • sin-scather (using an archaic form of "scathe", meaning injury)
  • bone-locks (muscles)
  • slaughter-storm (massacre or gory battle)
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Kennings are a type of metaphor in which a descriptive phrase is substituted for the word itself.  There are many modern examples of kennings such as "four eyes" for someone who wears glasses.  Kennings are prevalent in Anglo Saxon literature, and in Beowulf's battle with Grendel, there are many examples.  Here are a few:

"gold-shining hall" for Herot

"shepherd of evil" for Grendel

"mighty protector of men" for Beowulf

In the description of the battle, the poet uses many different kennings to describe the major players.  You can find kennings for Hrothgar, Beowulf, Grendel. These serve to emphasize the magnitude of the battle between good and evil.  There is no ambiguity here.  Through the kennings, we see Grendel as unequivocally evil and Beowulf as the ideal Anglo Saxon hero, who is championed by god. 


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