The Beowulf Dragon Comes to Life Through Onomatopoeia

The word ‘slither’ is the perfect word to describe a snake, or any reptile. It contains within it the linguistic sounds synonymous with a reptile’s tounge. Both in the first letter ‘s,’ we can hear ‘sssssss’ and again hear a similar sound if the ‘th’ is exaggerated.

The dragon within Beowulf has been depicted, as most dragons have, with that same reptilian tongue that inspires the onomatopoeia in the letter ‘s’:

            For this first blog post, the passage I picked for close reading is from lines 2565-2585. It is in this passage that Beowulf first encounters and begins to battle with the dragon. Within the passage are several examples of alliteration, but the most interesting occur with relation to the dragon itself. The dragon is described in line 2568 as a “serpent”. Following this, the poem contains dense repetition of the ‘s’ sound I mentioned above:

“raised his hand and struck hard / at the enameled scales, but scarcely cut through…” (2576-77).

“The mound-keeper / went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames: / when he felt the stroke, battle-fire / billowed and spewed” (2580-83).

            This alliterative onomatopoeia allows the reader to visualize the dragon, the serpent, through more than just descriptive words.  It also serves as a reminder of the origin of the poem. Because Beowulf was written as a poetic epic, it’s author most likely intended to have it read aloud, much like traditional oral epics. When read aloud, the sound of the ‘s’ itself is alluding to the dragon within the text. The importance of an oral reading of this poem is also present in another line from this passage: “Swaddled in flames, it came gliding and flexing / and racing toward its fate” (2569-2570). The repetitive use of ‘and’ instead of inserting a comma here adds to the tension and action present in the poem. This is especially true when read aloud with upward inflections on each verb.

Close reading upon this passage is problematic when focusing on literary devices and sounds instead of the content itself. The text is, of course, only a representation, or a translation from its original West-Saxon dialect. Therefore, it is hard to know if the alliteration with the letter ‘s’ was present in the original poem, and, if it is an intentional dragon onomatopoeia. Who deserves praise for this beautiful connection between sound and text? The original author or the translator, Seamus Heaney? If Heaney did take the artistic liberty to add many ‘s’ sounds into this passage, how does this change (if at all) the readers perception? These are questions that can certainly be asked throughout Beowulf, but seem especially important during passages such as this, where the literary device and the context within the passage can be so closely linked.

Works Cited

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.37-80. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle Ages 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.


As a side note, I spent some of my summer learning about and then brewing mead. It’s just a coincidence that Beowulf happened to enter my life so shortly after. Most of my friends asked the question “why didn’t you just brew beer?” Maybe the English 340 class will find it more interesting. This particular bottle will be ready to open in November (although like most liquors, the older the better) and will have a taste and alcohol percentage similar to white wine.

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One Response to The Beowulf Dragon Comes to Life Through Onomatopoeia

  1. Dane Thibeault says:


    I commend you for your meticulous focus on detail in your provocative analysis of this passage from the text of Beowulf. It is fascinating to consider how language itself, and the implementation of various poetic devices, may develop what one might call “an image in words”(such as in the case of the dragon you described). With regards to your insightful speculation as to whether Seamus Heaney or the original author should be attributed credit for the alliterative and rhythmic language manifested within the translated Beowulf text, however, I have this commentary of my own to offer: the verbal artistry employed within the passage from the poem that you evaluated is most likely entirely a product of Heaney’s stylistic decisions, as, when one considers the nature of verbally derived poetic epics—such as Homer’s The Iliad or The Odyssey—they are relatively deprived of alliterative elements, as the concepts of poetic form and style were not among the priorities of the respective authors. However, I do agree that such translations as Heaney’s, saturated with onomatopoeia, alliteration and enticing rhythmic qualities are optimally suited to verbal renditions of poetry. Therefore, my opinion, regarding your passage of assessment, is that Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Beowulf text effectively ascribes value to the verbal recitation of the text, thus celebrating the oral traditions of the time period in which it was first produced. An interesting question to contemplate then, regarding Heaney’s stylistic decisions, would be: Did Heaney render the text with such emphasis on the quality of sounds and images under the motivation of considering the value they would have in oral recitation? Did Heaney himself intend to produce a work conducive to enticing poetic reading, or are the euphonic qualities of his translation merely incidental? Regards,

    -Dane Thibeault

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