Alliteration in Beowulf

In stories such as Beowulf that have a strong, oral-storytelling tradition, alliteration is often very prevalent. The repetition of sounds not only creates an effect that is pleasing to the ear, but it also serves a key function when relating story events orally: hearing similar sounds in succession helps listeners better remember the information they hear.

Alliteration Examples in Beowulf:

VIII 1

"For fear of a feud were forced to disown him...."   (VIII)

The theme of being cast out of one's society for having committed a crime or politically incorrect action is present from Homeric through Anglo-Saxon literature. Usually, distant relatives or family friends take in the fugitive, as Hrothgar takes in Ecgtheow. The weight of such an exile is conveyed through the three alliterative f words of the line.

"came from the moor then           Grendel going..."   (XII)

In Anglo-Saxon, Grendel com ("came… Grendel") is repeated three times for alliterative effect and suspense as the monster approaches Heorot. Many translators, however, have chosen to translate com as "journeyed," "approached," "trod," or other verbs indicating deliberate forward motion.

"The hell-spirit humbled..."   (XX)

The repetition of all the initial h sounds is a good example of alliteration. A commonly used device in Old English and other poetry, some believe that techniques like this help both the poet and the audience remember the words.

"Grisly and greedy, that the grim one's dominion..."   (XXIII)

This line demonstrates another good example of alliteration, an expected literary device in Old English poetry. Repeating the initial consonant sounds can help the audience to remember lines and important images, particularly if the story is shared out loud. In this case, the repeated g sound even calls to mind the sinister Grendel.

"He bound to the bank then the broad-bosomed vessel..."   (XXVIII)

This is another fine example of alliteration, the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Common in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and other styles as well, alliteration such as this is done with deliberate purpose: it not only helps the audience memorize the image and the words but also it adds power to the statement—particularly with a strong voiced consonant like b.