The use of ironic understatement in Beowulf
This paper will describe the use of litotes and meiosis in Beowulf, discuss the functions that have been ascribed to these linguistic features and consider why it has proven problematic to assign a specific function to understatement in the poem.
Several commentators have identified litotes, ironic understatement and negation as characteristic features of Old English poetry. Patterson (2000, p. 135) states that litotes is the 'characteristic mode of Beowulf '. Mitchell and Robinson (2012, p. 281) in a footnote to The Wanderer, refer to 'the Anglo-Saxons' predilection for understatement', while Bracher (1937), in an early study of understatement in Old English Poetry, describes its use as 'frequent' and 'striking'. In the same study Bracher suggests that Albert Tolman may have been the first to identify this feature in Old English poetry, when he asserted that 'the rhetorical device known as "denying the opposite" is more frequent in A.-S. than in later English poetry' (Tolman, 1887). Bracher (1937) finds that understatement occurs in Beowulf with a ratio of one occurrence per 34 lines and that this ratio is exceeded in several other poems, up to a ratio of one occurrence per 17 lines in The Riming Poem. Bracher (1937) cites this high occurrence of understatement, along with its rarity in prose, as evidence that it was a characteristic linguistic feature of Old English poetry. Bracher also points out that in the rare occurrences where it is possible to compare prose and poetic versions of the same material, understatement is restricted to the poetry.
Frank (2006, p.61) points out that not all forms of understatement extant in Modern English, or hypothetically possible, are represented in the Old English corpus, rather that the 'severely restricted' (ibid) types found, are often constructed through negation, used as 'denials of the contrary' (ibid, p.64). Bracher (1937) also finds that 'denial of the opposite' is the common means of achieving understatement in Old English poetry.
This 'denial of the opposite' is often achieved by negating a verb or adjective as in: Nalæs hī hine lǣssan lācum tēodan 'they adorned him no less with gifts' (44) or Nē hūru Hildeburh herian þorfte / Eotena trēowe 'Hildeburh had no cause to credit the Jutes' (1071). Examples such as these seem to constitute litotes, as context suggests that the opposite should be the case, i.e. that Scyld Scēfing's body was abundantly adorned and that Hildeburh had every cause to denounce the Jutes. Similarly, when the poet says ne gefeah hē þǣre fǣhðe (109), context - God's exiling of Cain - ensures we understand that far from 'not being glad of' the feud, it made Cain 'anathema' - in Heaney's translation.
Something similar is observable when adjectives are formed with negative prefixes and these are sufficient in number in Beowulf for Shuman and Hutchings (1960) to have studied them in isolation. Shuman and Hutchings (ibid) find that un - is often prefixed to adjectives with a negative meaning, with the result that the negative connotation is tempered, citing examples such as unfǣcne 'without deceit, malice' and unwāclīcne 'unweak'. Un - also combines with and negates positive adjectives as in unlēofe 'unloved' and unblīðe 'unhappy'. Here understatement is achieved because, as Shuman and Hutchings (ibid) point out, such words are seldom extreme in their degree of meaning.
Bracher (1937) points out that the use of explicitly negating words such as nē or the prefix un- are not required to achieve denial of the opposite, providing as an example l ȳ t swīgode / nīwra spella sē þe næs gerād ' (2897) which Heaney (1999) translates as 'and did not balk, the rider who bore / news to the cliff-top', where the continuation ac hē sōðlīce sægde 'but he truthfully said' makes it clear that l ȳ t swīgode is litotic. Bracher (ibid) states that negation like this employing l ȳ t and fēa is frequent in Old English poetry. Another example from Beowulf is l ȳ t aénig mearn 'little did anyone mourn' (3129) where the context - the slaying of the dragon and the looting of treasure - makes it clear that the men could have been in any way prone to mourn.
Sometimes negative statements in Beowulf are simply factual negatives. Bracher (1937) gives an example of such with nōðer hȳ hine ne mōston... bronde forbaernan (2124-6) where the fact that Grendel has made off with his body, means the Danes cannot cremate their compatriot. Harris (1988) also points out that negative affixes such as un- and -lēas do not necessarily indicate litotes. So while explicit formal negation or implied negation with words such as l ȳ t do characterize understatement, it must ultimately arise in context and be construed by an audience.
If the poet intended to achieve understatement, he presumably expected it to form a part of the reader or listener response to the contexts he establishes in his text. There are several reasons to think that the Beowulf poet did intend understatement to function as a rhetorical device, and as one contrived to have particular effect on his audience.
Firstly, while the use of understatement is restricted to poetry, it does not seem to have been used to fulfil any technical requirements of that genre. Shuman and Hutchings (1960) point out that although the adjectives formed with the prefix un - frequently take part in alliteration, as in Þæt is undyrne, dryhten Higelāc 'It is no secret, Lord Hygelac' (2000), it seems unreasonable to assert that the poet could not have conveyed meaning and achieved alliteration without the use of such adjectives. Something other than technical requirements of poetry underlay the frequent use of litotes.
Understatement in Beowulf also contrasts so pointedly with certain other elements in the poem that the contrast may well seem deliberately rhetorical. Specifically, the numerous, lengthy speeches in the poem, the technique of variation and hyperbolic description all contrast with the restraint of understatement.
Orchard (2003, p. 203) discusses the choreographed, lengthy speeches and verbal exchanges in Beowulf, with around forty speeches constituting around 40% of the text. Lines 2000-2151 in the poem are a 152-line speech by Beowulf, the longest speech in the text. According to Orchard (2003, p. 208) the sophistication of the Danish court milieu is established by the 200 or so lines and ten speeches, which separate Beowulf's arrival in Denmark from his first speech to Hrothgar. Two of Beowulf's speeches, before his battles with Grendel and Grendel's mother, are formal boasts, where Beowulf declares himself the equal of Grendel in battle and renounces weapons. This courtly verbosity and warrior braggadocio contrast starkly with such pithy observations by the poem's narrator as þæt wæs god cyning! (11).
Another textual feature of Old English poetry that seems to contrast with understatement is that of variation, whereby synonyms, kennings and other compounds are used so liberally to contrast or emphasise particular motifs or characters, that the effect can seem tautologous to modern readers. Orchard (2003, p. 70) has quantified this textual feature also and found 103 war-related compounds deriving from just the five words wig, hild, guð, beadu and heaðo -, which produce compounds such as guðbill 'war-blade' (= sword) and heaðogrim 'battle-grim'. Just as narrative elements such as warfare or journeys are described in multiple ways, so too are important characters, who may be described using a succession of epithets within a few lines, such as when Beowulf addresses Hrothgar as brego Beorhtdena, eodor Scyldinga, wigendra hleo and freowine folca within four lines (427-50). Using such variation increased the alliterative possibilities the poet had at his disposal, but as Orchard (2003, p. 74) points out, the numerous epithets do not impart more information but rather seem to be different ways of saying the same thing and this suggests they represented a rhetorical device, which may have been used to focus attention on particular elements in the text.
In addition to the fullness of such description, the hyperbolic account of character and deeds in Beowulf also contrasts with understatement and serves to make it conspicuous. Before he declares that he will fight Grendel, Beowulf gives an account of his own heroic deeds, claiming to have emerged from grievous battles in which he has slain giants and sea-monsters (419-22). Once he defeats Grendel, Beowulf's heroism is subject to frequent re-tellings: monig oft gecwæð / þætte sūð nē norð be sǣm tweonum / ofer eormen-grund ōðer nǣnig / under swegles begong sēlra nǣre / rond-hæbbendra 'Many often said that north or south, between the two seas, over the earth or under the sky, there was no better shield-bearer' (857-61). And at the end of the poem Beowulf is said to be mourned and remembered as the most generous and gracious of all the kings of the world (3180-83). This kind of extreme description is not restricted to Beowulf. Heorot has been designed as a hall that þone yldo bearn ǣfre gefrūnon 'the sons of men will hear of forever' (70), Beowulf is presented with a golden torque, which the narrator says is without parallel on earth (1196-97) and so massive is Grendel's head that it can only be carried to Heorot by four men (1637-39).