Literary Devices in Beowulf

Literary Devices Examples in Beowulf:

I 1

"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.