Literary Devices In Beowulf

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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. 

amy-lepore's profile pic

amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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.