Literary Devices in Beowulf

Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House 1
"HARK!..."   (Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House)

Although this version of the tale is written in prose, the story of Beowulf is typically shared as an epic poem from the point of view of a poet. Throughout the piece, the poet will call to the audience directly, as done here, and comment on aspects of the story, as shown later.

"and this thane soon sang quite cleverly of Beowulf's quest..."   (Chapter XIII)

Crafting stories from the heroic exploits was expected at the time for sharing in the mead-halls. The poet sharing this story is possibly commenting on his own skill, and having some fun, when he describes this thane as singing "quite cleverly".

"he was a good king!..."   (Chapter XIII)

Recall that the poet used the same phrase at the beginning of the poem to refer to the great king Scyld Scefing. While it's possible that this line might be slightly ironic considering Hrothgar's inability to protect his own territory, it's more likely that this is meant in earnest considering Beowulf's praise and loyalty to Hrothgar.

"AS MEN tell me the story..."   (Chapter XIII)

The poet takes this opportunity to remind his audience that this tale has been told and handed down from one generation to another in an effort to add credibility to his story by clarifying that he is relating the story as it happened and not inventing it.

"Hildeburh had no cause to value her enemies' honor!..."   (Chapter XVI)

This sentence exemplifies the literary device litotes, or understatement. In this case Hildeburh, Hôc's daughter, actually had every reason to hate intensely her enemies because they killed her son. However, the use of this device downplays the overall meaning because it uses a negative word in an affirmative sentence instead of a negative verb in a negative sentence.

"That is no happy place!..."   (Chapter XX)

This statement represents another example of the literary device understatement (or litotes). The place Hrothgar has described is clearly one of the worst places imaginable, yet the phrasing used does not say this outright.

"the hall's visitor..."   (Chapter XXII)

The cave in which Beowulf battles Grendel's mother is referred to as a "hall," implying that this underwater cave is meant to mirror Heorot in the world above. The contrasting yet similar features between these two places further shows how Grendel and his mother possess some human characteristics.

"She did not show the pride of Thyrth,..."   (Chapter XXVII)

By placing descriptions of Hygd and Thyrth near each other in the tale, the poet juxtaposes the virtues of Hygd with the vices of Thyrth, a queen of an earlier period who exhibited all the worst traits of someone whose power has gone to her head. As a result, Hygd's positive qualities are more pronounced.

"and he ruled it well for fifty winters...."   (Chapter XXIX-XXXI)

The poet frames Beowulf's life with the battles against Grendel and his mother at the beginning and with the dragon at the end. Note how the poet compresses fifty years between the fight with Grendel and the emergence of the dragon. By doing this, the poet implies that nothing of significance happened and that Beowulf's reign as king has been very successful.

"Scylding..."   (Chapter XXXVI)

The poet uses scylding as a metonym for Swedish since the Scyldings were the ruling clan in Sweden at the time. The poet tells the audience how Wiglaf's father, Weohstan--a Swede of the Wægmunding clan--joined the Geats and swore loyalty to Beowulf.

"I THEN HEARD tell..."   (Chapter XXXVIII)

Notice how once again the poet uses this phrase to give the impression that he is not inventing this story; rather, he has heard it from many others, making it a credible story.

"And so is the feud and the foeman's grudge..."   (Chapter XLI)

The messenger recounts this tale to as evidence for the prediction that the Swedes will retaliate against the Geats. In addition, this section also provides the audience with the details of what happened during this conflict.