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Barron's Booknotes-Beowulf-Free Chapter Summary Synopsis
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STYLE

The Anglo-Saxon term for poet was scop, or "maker." His role was to travel around from court to court, entertaining the warriors and kings with stories of heroes and their adventures. Often he composed these stories very rapidly, choosing from a reservoir of formulas that had been developed by other poets over a long period of time.

The poet depended on a number of stylistic devices, most notably alliteration, the repetition of the same sounds or syllables in two or more words in a line. Here's an example of alliterative verse from the Prologue:

Him oa Scyld gewat to gescaep-hwile fela-hror feran on Frean waere. When his time was come the old king died, Still strong but called to the Lord's hands.

26-27


Notice that the first line has two alliterative words, gewat and gescaep. What are the alliterative words in the second line? The poet also used a stylistic device called the kenning, a method of naming a person or thing by using a phrase that signified a quality of that person or thing. A warrior might be described as "the helmet-bearing one," or the ocean might be called "the riding place of the whales." By means of the kenning the poet was able to vary his language, and create new and dazzling word combinations. (Describing every king as a "ring-giver" is an example of the overuse of a particular kenning.) The poet was always aware that his audience knew the outcome of the story he was telling. In order to make the story interesting he had to tell it in a new way.

Another characteristic of the poet's style is his use of litotes, a form of understatement, often with negative overtones, which is intended to create a sense of irony. An example of a litote can be found in the poet's description of Beowulf after he returns to Geatland and presents his treasures to Higlac: "Beowulf had brought his king/Horses and treasure-as a man must,/Not weaving nets of malice for his comrades,/ Preparing their death in the dark, with secret,/Cunning tricks" (2165-69). By telling us what Beowulf hasn't done, the poet creates a stronger sense of his heroic nature.

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