Literary Devices In Beowulf

What were some of the literary elements (with line numbers) used in Beowulf?

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droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Beowulf uses many literary devices common to Anglo-Saxon poetry, particularly heroic poetry, of which this is a key example (and the oldest surviving piece). One of the main defining elements of this kind of poetry is its use of alliteration to connect the two "half-lines" to each other, and to maintain a rhythm. The reason for this is that this type of poetry was meant to be recited by a scop, or bard, rather than read from a page, and the alliteration made it easy for the bard to remember the words, while the caesura, or line break, offers the bard an opportunity to pause for breath. You don't say in your question whether you are reading the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon or in translation, but most translations do attempt to preserve the alliteration of the Old English, although often they do not retain the caesura. It is sometimes difficult, however, to keep all the alliteration of the original, so pervasive is it. In Old English, indeed, we can find alliteration and caesurae consistently from the opening lines of the poem: 

"Hwaet! We Gardena [caesura] in geardagum..." 

This in Modern English translates to something like: "So! We of the Spear-Danes, in the days of yore..." Already, then, you may see the importance of reading in facing-page translation with the original to ensure all the literary devices of the Old English poetic form can be appreciated. 

Another literary device that appears frequently in Beowulf and does translate well, however, is that of the kenning. kenning is a type of metaphor common to Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry. It is a device that describes a thing based upon its purpose or use, or by allusion. The "whale road," for example, in line 10, means the sea, and would have been understood as such by the Anglo-Saxon listener. There are many more examples of kennings: some very common ones include references to lords or kings, such as "ring-giver" or "gift-giver," because it was in giving gifts that a lord bound himself and his vassal together. Vassalage is a very important theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry. 

If you have not read Beowulf in the original language, I highly recommend reading it in facing-page translation, and attempting to read the Old English aloud to appreciate the rhythm of the poetry and the intention of the caesurae. 


amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Three typical literary elements that readers identify in Anglo-Saxon literature are:  kennings, alliteration, and caesuras.  Kennings are phrases which are used in place of the thing they represent in order to serve as a memory device for the poet.  For example, "bling-bling" is a modern Kenning for "shiny jewelry". Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in a line of poetry.  It serves the poem for rhythm and sometimes for tone or mood. Caesuras are breaks in the line of poetry, and are not usually found outside of Anglo-Saxon literature.  It serves as the unifying element in Anglo-Saxon poetry instead of rhyme.

Examples of kennings in the poem are abundant.  Some of them include "blood ember" for axe, "battle-sweat" for blood, and "whale-road" for sea.

Alliteration examples include, "He slipped through the door and there in the silence snatched up thirty men, smashed them..." line 36-37.  Generally, there should be two or more words with the same consonant sound repeated to be considered alliteration. (Note that alliteration depends on the translator: though there is alliteration throughout the Old English version, it is up to the translator to decide where to create alliteration in modern translations.)

Caesura examples include, "Swaddled in flames, it came gliding and flexing and racing toward its fate" lines 719-720.  The pause is in the middle of the line, indicated by a natural break in the language and also a comma. 

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the literary elements in Beowulf is kennings, which are compound words that have figurative meanings. An example is "whale-road," which means "ocean" in line 10 and "swan-road" (also meaning "sea") in line 200. Other kennings include "sea-wood" (for "ship" in line 208) and "foamy-necked frother" (meaning "ship") in line 218. "Foamy-necked frother" is also an example of alliteration. 

Another literary element is the use of allusions. For example, Grendel is associated with the "kin of Cain," (line 107). This is an allusion to the Bible, in which God curses Cain and his descendants for slaying Abel. 

The poem also uses symbolism. For example, Heorot (in line 78), the mead-hall in which Hrothgar and his people celebrate, is a symbol of communal life and of the advancements of civilization. The hall is described as "high and horn-gabled" (line 82), a symbol of God and the glory of Christian civilization. There, bards sing of the glories of God, and people celebrate together. Another symbol is Grendel's cave (Grendel is referred to as "he who dwelt in darkness" in line 87). The cave is a symbol of darkness, of loneliness, and of evil, as it is where Grendel, the descendant of Cain, dwells.