The word â€˜slitherâ€™ is the perfect word to describe a snake, or any reptile. It contains within it the linguistic sounds synonymous with a reptileâ€™s tounge. Both in the first letter â€˜s,â€™ we can hear â€˜sssssssâ€™ and again hear a similar sound if the â€˜thâ€™ 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 â€˜sâ€™:
Â Â Â Â Â Â 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.Â 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 â€œserpentâ€. Following this, the poem contains dense repetition of the â€˜sâ€™ sound I mentioned above:
â€œraised his hand and struck hard / at the enameled scales, but scarcely cut throughâ€¦â€ (2576-77).
â€œThe mound-keeper / went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames: / when he felt the stroke, battle-fire / billowed and spewedâ€ (2580-83).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â This alliterative onomatopoeia allows the reader to visualize the dragon, the serpent, through more than just descriptive words. Â It also serves as a reminder of the origin of the poem. Because Beowulf was written as a poetic epic, itâ€™s author most likely intended to have it read aloud, much like traditional oral epics. When read aloud, the sound of the â€˜sâ€™ itself is alluding to the dragon within the text.Â The importance of an oral reading of this poem is also present in another line from this passage: â€œSwaddled in flames, it came gliding and flexing / and racing toward its fateâ€ (2569-2570).Â The repetitive use of â€˜andâ€™ 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 â€˜sâ€™ 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 â€˜sâ€™ 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.
Beowulf.Â Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.37-80. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed.Â The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle AgesÂ 9thÂ ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.
As a side note, I spent some of my summer learning about and then brewing mead. Itâ€™s just a coincidence that Beowulf happened to enter my life so shortly after. Most of my friends asked the question â€œwhy didnâ€™t you just brew beer?â€ 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.