Telling Beowulf


Telling Beowulf Essay, Research Paper

Telling Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf, written in Old English by Christian

monks around 750 AD, is a wonderful adventure story about a warrior who

kills ferocious monsters. The use of description and imagery enlivens

the story, making it possible for a reader to really see in his or her

mind the characters and events. Metaphors, exaggeration, and

alliteration are three devices that together allow the reader to

experience this poem which is quite different than most other poetry.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that

ordinarily means one thing is applied to another thing to suggest a

likeness between the two. Metaphors are used extensively throughout the

poem to paint a more colorful picture in the listener’s mind. These

metaphors are used in phrases called “kennings”. A kenning is a

descriptive, poetical expression used instead of a simple name for a

person or thing. Beowulf is hardly ever called by his actual name.

Instead there are many kennings referring to him, such as: “Prince of

the Weders”, “The Son of Ecgtheow”, “The Geatish hero”, and “The Lord of

the Seamen”. These kennings describe Beowulf to us in a more interesting

way than just stating the hard facts. Without these kennings Beowulf

would be less interesting and we would learn less about him. Anybody

would say that describing or referring to a person by his or her name

over and over again is boring. So the use of kennings and metaphors is

very important in this long epic poem.

Exaggeration is another device to make Beowulf a more

interesting, entertaining, and dramatic poem. For example, even though

this story is a fantasy, it is hard to believe that the character of

Beowulf would be able to kill a monster like Grendel with his bare

hands. Exaggerating Beowulf’s bravery makes the story more exciting.

Another exaggeration used to convince us how great our hero is, is the

passage, “Over all the world, or between the seas, / Or under the

heaven, no hero was greater.” (671-672). This dazzles the listener with

Beowulf’s bravery. His bravery is again exaggerated when he jumps in the

swamp wearing heavy armor to fight and kill Grendel’s mother. It’s

unlikely even a strong warrior could win a battle with a she-monster in

an underwater cave with a broken sword. But it adds to the excitement.

In the line “The head of Grendel, with heavy toil; / Four of the

stoutest, with all their strength, / Could hardly carry on swaying spear

/ Grendel’s head to the gold-decked hall.” (1109-1112) exaggerations are

made concerning the size and weight of the monster’s head. Again, it

portrays a more gruesome and dramatic scene to the listener’s


Alliteration, which is repeating the same sound, usually a

consonant, at the beginning of words or in accented syllables, gives

this story a more poetic sound. Alliteration also helped the scops or

storytellers in memorizing the tales. Examples of alliteration can be

found throughout the poem such as, “The Hall of the Heart”, “His pledge

and promise”, “Dragging the dead men home to his den”, “Fitted and

furnished”, and “Showed sea-cliffs shining”. This device adds creativity

and rhythm to the poem. It makes it more entertaining to read, speak, or

listen to such a long story.

Metaphors in the kennings, exaggerations, and alliteration all

help in developing vivid descriptions and imagery to entertain and

beautifully tell the story of Beowulf. Imagery, figures of speech that

help the mind to form pictures, are throughout the poem. One of the

strongest examples was found where it reads, ” The demon delayed not,

but quickly clutched / A sleeping thane in his swift assault, / Tore him

in pieces, bit through the bones, / Gulped the blood, and gobbled the

flesh, / Greedily gorged on the lifeless corpse,” (558-563). This is the

image of Grendel killing one of the soldiers before his fatal fight with

Beowulf. Great descriptive passages are found about Grendel’s swamp-home

describing it as, ” ^?a dismal covert / Of trees that hung over hoary

stone, / Over churning water and bloodstained wave.” (926-928), ” ^?The

water boiled in a bloody swirling” (933) ” ^?The swimming forms of

sea-dragons, / Dim serpent shapes in the watery depths”. These are the

pictures that nightmares are made of.

In comparison to our modern fiction, Beowulf might seem wordy

and lengthy but when a reader takes time to savor the graphic

descriptions, vivid imagery, clever alliteration, and fantastic

exaggerations one can understand how this thirteen hundred-year-old epic

poem has lasted through the years. It is beautifully and creatively

written and has therefore stood the test of time for the reader or the


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