Beowulf: Written Oral Literature
Beowulf, transcribed by Christian monks around the eighth century, is originally an oral piece of literature meant to be performed. To keep the listener interested in the piece and to make it easier to remember and retell, Beowulf uses the conventions of kennings, alliteration, and hyperbole to tell the tale of Beowulf. These devices are used to make the tale easier to remember and more appealing to both the performer and listener. The poet who transcribed Beowulf for his Christian audience keeps these conventions intact to preserve the feel of an oral work.
The first of these poetic conventions is a metaphorical compound word or phrase used especially in Old English and Old Norse poetry, called a kenning. This type of metaphor is used as a substitution for the usual name of a person or thing. The epic Beowulf uses two different types of kennings to help prevent constant repetition of names. The first type of kenning simply substitutes a title for the person’s name. So instead of constantly saying Beowulf the orator uses such kennings as “the Geatish hero,” “son of Ecgtheow,” and “the Lord of the Seamen.” The ways in which Beowulf is referred to are simple examples of kennings, but Beowulf also uses more metaphorical kennings to prevent repetition.
The second type of kenning in Beowulf is formed by creating a phrase composed of two nouns, that describe a characteristic of the original noun. These kennings then give quick, vivid descriptions of the original noun without having to restate it. Without over using the word sea or ocean, the poet uses “swan’s-road” (Beowulf ll 200) or “whale-road” (ll 10) to give a clear mental picture of a place where these water creatures would travel. The poet who transcribed this traditional story also keeps many other kennings. The sun is referred to as the “sky’s candle” (ll 1571) or “heaven’s gem,” (ll 2072) both giving clear images of a bright light in the sky. Grendel is also referred to by his own set of kennings, such as “corpse-maker,” (ll 276) and “God-cursed” (ll711) to show his destructive power. In just two words, “steel-hail” (ll 3116) the author quickly shows the danger of being assaulted by incoming arrows.
The second convention used by the author, to make the poem easier to remember and recite, is alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of usually initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables. As well as making the work easier to memorize, alliteration also gives the work its own rhythm and poetic voice. Excerpts like “he had healed” (ll 829), “God-cursed Grendel” (ll 711), “hard helmet, hasped” (ll 2255) all add to the rhythm of the work. In each of these selections, each word begins with the same letter, and the repetitive consonants give the poem a chanting quality when read aloud. This ritualistic, chanting rhythm adds much to the work without adding any extra lines to memorize, as well as making it easier to remember and recite.
The third convention, hyperbole, or extravagant exaggeration, is used to keep the audience interested, by making the story more interesting to the listener. It is more entertaining to state that Beowulf “renounce[s] sword and the shelter of the broad shield” ( ll 436-7) than to say he is brave. When the poet states Grendel “ripped open the mouth of the building, maddening for blood” (ll 723-4) it makes the monster seem even more horrifying, and the encounter becomes even more tense and gripping to the reader. Boasting is a vital part of the warriors’ ritual before doing battle with an opponent; not only does it lift the warriors’ morale, but it also adds to their fame when a boast can be fulfilled. This exaggeration does more than add to the tone of the poem, it also audibly mirrors the hero’s need to boast before doing battle with the monsters. So, the hyperbole is used to solidify the fact that boasting was a major part of the hero’s deeds.
The kennings, alliteration, and hyperbole all serve different functions within Beowulf to add to the poem’s meaning. These three simple devices affect the tone of the poem as much as the poetry itself. Although the monk who transcribed Beowulf adds Christian elements to make it more palatable for his audience, he does his best to keep the original “flavor” of the text intact. Through keeping the traditional elements of this oral epic, the poet has preserved Beowulf’s culture as well as his story. The poet captures many things that would otherwise never be known about the extinct Geat people. Beowulf can be considered to be long and wordy, but if one allows themselves to experience its vivid kennings, chanting alliteration, and fantastic hyperbole the epic comes alive to reader and listener alike.