Beowulf Questions and Answers

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What is the poetic language and biblical allusions of "Beowulf"?

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Eleanore Trupkiewicz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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You have asked about the style of the poetic language in the epic poem Beowulf and about the Biblical allusions found therein.

For an epic poem--one whose content largely concentrates on such rough, brutal subjects as the reality of warfare, the devastation of death and loss, and the gruesome cruelty of the various monsters with which Beowulf (as the epic hero) contends--Beowulf is full of surprisingly lovely, stylized language. You might consider such poetic devices as alliteration (common in poetry in general) and the kenning (a device particular to Anglo-Saxon poetry and the Old English language in which Beowulf was written).

Alliteration, the use of similar sounds at the beginnings of words near to one another in a text, is evident throughout the poem and even in the very earliest lines of Part I: "The folk-kings former fame we have heard of" (line 2) uses the letter "F" several times in words in close succession to intriguing effect, enhancing the musicality of the phrase. Line 21 uses the same letter again: "The friends of his father, with fees in abundance." Similarly, lines 14-15 of Part III contain the extended use of alliteration with the repeated "M" sound: "Then, his meal-taking finished, a moan was uplifted, / Morning-cry mighty. The man-ruler famous ..."

The kenning is a poetic device whereby rather than use a single direct word for a noun the poet instead chose to use a two-word phrase connected by a hyphen to paint more of a word picture for the noun in question. One of my favorites in the Beowulf text is the use of the kenning "whale-road" (line 10 of the Benjamin Slade translation, included in the reference links below for your further consideration) for sea or ocean. The poet could have used the noun "sea" or "ocean" but without the same effect: the kenning "whale-road" paints a far more evocative picture for the reader to imagine in his or her mind's eye. Beowulf is full of such kennings: "world-honor" and "land-prince" and "All-Father" and "holm-currents" (in Part I of this translation alone!).

Beowulf also contains Biblical allusions, or indirect references in the poem to people, places, or circumstances contained in the Bible. You might start by researching the influence of the Christian faith upon the Anglo-Saxon culture and tradition during the Old English period of history, along with the activities of Vikings and other similar seafaring peoples (most of whom tended to raid other countries and peoples with no regard at all for their victims' lives or well-being) versus the activities of the characters discussed in Beowulf, for whom character traits like honor, loyalty, justice, gallantry, and fairness (along with various other Christian virtues) seem to be well out of proportion to historical actuality . . . and yet that is indeed the nature of epic poetry, to create larger-than-life characters with even nobler, more honorable, more heroic virtues than real people possessed.

Kristy Wooten eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Beowulf is an epic poem, which is a long poem that tells the story of  a hero.  Because it is a poem, it is full of "poetic language."  Some elements of the poem include imagery, metaphor, and theme, all of which add to its "language" and meaning.  For example, vivid images contained in the poem include the description of the battle of Beowulf and Grendel, in which Beowulf rips Grendel's arm from its socket and takes it back to Hrothgar's kingdom.  Biblical allusions include the presence of good vs. evil, a hero who saves people (Jesus can be compared to Beowulf), and the hero sacrificing himself for the good of the people (Jesus sacrificed himself for the good of humankind and Beowulf sacrificed himself for the good of his people). 

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