Kennings In Beowulf

What's a good example of a kenning in Beowulf?

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Kennings are compound, descriptive phrases with metaphorical meanings that stand in for ordinary nouns and proper nouns in Old English or Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. The epic poem Beowulf is full of good examples of kennings, including “whale-road” to mean the sea, “light-of-battle” to mean a sword, “battle-sweat” to mean blood, “raven-harvest” to mean a corpse, “ring-giver” to mean a king, and “sky-candle” to mean the sun.


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Kennings are metaphorical compound words, and they were used to great extent in Old English and Old Norse poetry. They function as a way to make an ordinary noun more descriptive or awe inspiring. For example, "teacher" sounds mundane. "Student-transformer" sounds way better. Beowulf has plenty of kennings. One of my favorites is "sleep of the sword" instead of "death." "Breaker of rings" refers to a king and the action of breaking gold rings off of his arm to give to someone else as a reward. Another one that I especially like is "mind's worth" for "honor." Most readers know what honor is, but "mind's worth" seems much more immediately descriptive and accessible in terms of conveying meaning. "Whale road" and "sail road" are both used to describe the sea.

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Instead of giving us an abstract word to stand for an object, a kenning describes the object by comparing it to something else, usually mashing two concrete images together to paint a vivid picture in the reader's mind.

Beowulf makes frequent use of kennings, which add life and zest to this epic poem. Some examples are as follows:

A monster like Grendel, who comes and kills at night, is called, quite aptly, a "twilight-spoiler." He does, in fact, ruin the merry times at night in the mead hall.

The text refers to a sword as "filed leavings." This makes sense when thinking of how metal is sharpened and shaped into a sword: it is what is left (the "leavings") when all the unnecessary metal is honed away.

A battle is called a "sword storm," and that too paints a vivid picture of what a medieval battle must have been like, with swords flashing like lightning and crashing like thunder.

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zykistewart23 | Student

bear of wolves

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A kenning was simply a compound metaphor of two or more words. In theory, kennings can be multiple words, but in practice, they were usually two or sometimes three word combinations. The poem is replete with examples. Beowulf's name itself is a riddle in the form of a kenning: Beo=Bee+wulf=wolf (the wolf of bees, i.e. a bear)

Kings are called ring givers, swords are called battle gleams, the sea is called the whale road or the swan road, the sun is called sky candle and heaven's joy.

There are literally hundreds of examples.

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