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Literary Devices in Beowulf

Literary Devices Examples in Beowulf:


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"we have heard..."   (I)

Beowulf has been translated into both prose and poetry versions. Regardless of version, the epic poem shares events from the point of view of an unnamed poet. Throughout the piece, the poet will use inclusive pronouns, as done here, call to the audience directly, and comment on aspects of the story, as shown later.

"Unferth spoke up, Ecglaf his son,           Who sat at the feet of the lord of the Scyldings,           Opened the jousting..."   (IX)

In the original Old English, the phrase “opened the jousting” translates literally as unlocked his word-hoard or unlocked his battle-speech, which are kennings which indicate to the audience that formal speeches are coming up. Unferth, whose name may be a play on the Old English word unfrith, which means un-peaceful, seems to be the designated challenger of Beowulf among Hrothgar's retainers.

"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.

"as the story is told me..."   (XIV)

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.

"racing on roadsters..."   (XIV)

Note that this chapter is unified by horse racing. This is a device commonly used in Old English poetry, often referred to as the envelope, to provide unity or symmetry in sections in which major or minor digressions occur.

"The fire devoured them..."   (XVII)

This line is an excellent example of personification. The poet uses it to give the fire human qualities which add to this emotional scene in the tale. Additionally, personifying the fire as a demon is much closer to the pagan than the Christian belief system.

"Sure Hildeburg needed not mention approving..."   (XVII)

This sentence exemplifies the literary device litotes, or understatement. In this case Hildeburg, Hoce's daughter, actually had every reason to hate 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.

"Uncanny the place is..."   (XXI)

This statement represents an 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.

"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.

"Early this noticed..."   (XXIV)

The poet interrupts Beowulf's scene by returning to the men on the surface waiting for his return. This style helps provide perspective on what Hrothgar's and Beowulf's men are doing during this time and how they respond to the coming of night, creating a mood of apprehension and anxiety. Shortly, the poet will very quickly transition back to Beowulf.

"The flood slew thereafter the race of the giants..."   (XXV)

The mention of a flood removing the giants from the world represents an example of an allusion. The poet alludes to the biblical story of the flood and Noah's Ark, in which God flooded the earth to purge it of sin and evil. Since this story would not have been known to those in Beowulf or Hrothgar’s time, this is another example of the poet’s reminding his audience of the power of God and the punishment of heathen creatures.

"Thrytho nursed anger..."   (XXVIII)

By placing descriptions of Hygd and Thyrtho near each other in the tale, the poet juxtaposes the virtues of Hygd with the vices of Thyrtho, a queen of an earlier period who exhibited all the worst traits of someone whose power has gone to her head. When characters and juxtaposed in such a way, it makes their respective qualities more pronounced; it is easier to see Hygd’s positive qualities when they are shown next to Thyrtho’s negative ones.

"Hygd..."   (XXVIII)

Higelac's young queen and mother to Higelac's heir, Heardred, Hygd plays an important role in the development of Beowulf's future later in the poem. Notice how shortly here Hygd's virtues are juxtaposed with Thyrtho's to emphasize Hygd's positive qualities.

"Till the point of his word piercèd his breast-hoard..."   (XXXVIII)

The poet uses this phrase to indicate how weak Beowulf is and how he barely manages to speak. In this metaphor, Beowulf’s word, or attempt to speak, is like a weapon that has to struggle to break out. The resulting impression is that this is difficult for him and that Beowulf's commanding voice has softened as he prepares to give his final words.

"Then heard I..."   (XXXVIII)

Notice how once again the poet uses this phrase to give the impression that he is not inventing this story; rather, he claims that he has heard it from many others, which adds credibility to his story.

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