Beowulf Attacks the Dragon

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During the Anglo-Saxon era, the figurative use of language was a common characteristic in many literary works. Kennings can be defined as two word Anglo-Saxon metaphors, used to symbolically identify creatures, objects, and phenomena, as a type of expressive imagery, which avoids naming the subject directly. Kennings express important and valuable words in the Anglo-Saxon culture that may have more than one name. The use of a “kenning” stresses a word’s importance and defines its meaning. Kennings can also be used to avoid excessive repetition of names and to create an elaborate set of images in the reader’s mind.

The proper definition of the word “kenning,” according to The Oxford English Dictionary is “One of the periphrastic expressions used instead of the simple name of a thing, characteristic of old Teutonic and especially Old Norse poetry” (Oxford 387). The Oxford English Dictionary also gives two examples of a kenning. The first kenning is “oar-steed.” In examining this example, one can identify an oar as an object used to propel a ship or boat of some kind. Thus we would conclude that the meaning of this kenning is ship. The second kenning is “storm of swords.” The combination of these two words clearly identifies a battle. The word “swords,” in the plural tense, refers to a setting where many warriors are present, in connection with a storm. Together this produces an image of a battle.

In the story entitled “The Wanderer,” we see a warrior who has lost his tribe and is describing his desolate life, using many kennings throughout the text. The first use of a kenning can be found in the opening: “So spoke the earth-walker, remembering hardships, fierce war-slaughters--the fall of dear kinsmen” (Abrams 100). The kenning that can be identified in this excerpt is “earth-walker,” a person who is walking the earth aimlessly with no specific purpose. Instead of the author just stating that the narrator is a wanderer, he creates a kenning. Other kennings used in this work of literature are the following: “gold-friend,” referring to a lord who distributes riches to loyal men of his land; “earth-pit,” a ditch in the ground, probably a grave; “water-way” referring to the sea; and “dwelling-place,” the earth in which we live.
The text of Beowulf also contains many kennings, including “ring-giver.” According to one website, the “ring-giver” is defined in a similar way to the term “gold-friend” in “The Wanderer” (Grendel, Beowulf’s Most Famous Enemy Website). When retainers or thanes (soldiers) returned from battle, they were expected to turn over their bounty to their chief, who would then redistribute it according to the performance of each retainer during battle. This authoritative figure was referred to as the “gold-giver” or “ring-giver.” Other examples of kennings in the text of Beowulf are: “whale-road” describing the sea; “swan-road” also describing the sea; and “hall-troops,” referring to Danes and the Geats.

A final example of a kenning, which I found on the Internet, refers to the secret language called runes. The website states that “An Anglo-Saxon phrase from the Nine Herbs Charm which is sometimes thought to be a kenning for runes is ‘glory- twigs’” (Writing and Working Rites Website). Runes are the secret language of the Celts, established by the Druid Priests.

So, as you can see, the word “kenning” is an Anglo-Saxon metaphor commonly used to refer to a simple subject in a more allusive manner. The use of kennings in “The Wanderer,” Beowulf, and The Nine Herbs Charm, transforms certain subjects in the text into a more interesting and compelling forms. The use of kennings in Anglo-Saxon literature, I believe, was a way medieval poets, could engage their audience by presenting them with a form of a verbal riddle. The audience would then have to pay closer attention to the text or story so he or she would be able to find out the definition of each particular kenning. A kenning is an old metaphor that contributed a great deal to the ancient style of Anglo-Saxon literary works. In the present day the use of kennings is not as common as the medieval era, mainly due to the modernization of the English language. The “kenning,” however, will remain part of Anglo-Saxon literature forever, making the text live on as interesting and compelling.

-Joseph Demma