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KenningsBy Gerald Paradine
In poetry, there is often the use of many words that may seem a bit strange to the average reader. These words are often more complex than what is actually meant, but are used to enhance the reading and make it more enjoyable to the reader. Other words would make the poem less smooth, and that is why such complexity arises. These words shape a type of metaphor, which is referred to as a kenning.
A kenning is a metaphorical circumlocution, signifying a person or thing by a characteristic or quality (Skill 10). It is used quite often in Anglo Saxon poetry and is used at great length in Beowulf. The language of Beowulf has use of four-beat alliterative line and this allows the use of a variety of kennings.
The use of kennings had such an effect on poetry that many phrases often became cliches. For example, there are many kennings that are used over and over in the story Beowulf. Some examples are: “mail-shirt” for armor, “dwelling place” for residence and “mail armor” for helmet. On the other hand, when the kenning was used with originality, it served the purpose of a metaphor and often had great variety and complexity.
There are many examples of kennings in Beowulf and they are used with great variety throughout the story. Some more examples include: “helmet bearers” for warriors, “earth-hall” for burial mound or barrow, “stone-cliffs” for rocks, wall, cliffs of stone, “stout-hearted” for bravery and “shield-warrior” for fighter behind the shield. Many of these words appear in other readings of Anglo Saxon poetry.
Kennings may seem to be a bit complex to the average reader, but when they are at work, they enhance the reading and make it more enjoyable. They also help stimulate the mind, opening up whole new worlds of knowledge never before explored. Kennings are a powerful tool, and when used properly, they can help turn a literary work from ordinary to extraordinary.
Abrams, M.H. “The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume One.” New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.
Skill, Elaine Strong. “Cliffs Notes on Beowulf.” Lincoln: Cliffs Notes Incorporated, 1990.