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This lesson will identify various examples of litotes, or understatements, in the epic poem ‘Beowulf.’ The author uses the litotes when describing parts of the great battles that Beowulf participates in and when his weapons fail him to point out his heroic qualities to readers.

Definition of Litotes

This lesson won’t be terrible. Does this statement evoke excitement in you? Probably not.This lesson opened with an example of litotes.

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Litotes is an understatement that uses a double negative or an element of irony. Irony is when an author highlights something that is unexpected, sometimes for humorous or dramatic effect. These literary elements are common in epic poetry. Have you ever told anyone that he ”won’t regret it?” If you have, then you have used litotes. The epic poem Beowulf uses many litotes that draw attention to Beowulf’s heroic qualities and some of the themes in the poem.

Grendel’s Death

Grendel has terrorized the Danes by entering their mead halls and murdering them.

After Beowulf defeats and kills Grendel, the poem describes the relief and happiness that the Danes experience. The following quotation understates the importance of his death to the Danes:”They gaped with no sense of sorrow, felt no regret for his suffering.”We would not expect the Danes to mourn the death of someone who has been terrorizing them, so this statement understates their relief at the death of him with irony. This draws attention to the feelings of the Danes and shows how heroic Beowulf was when he murdered Grendel.

Grendel’s Mother

After Beowulf kills Grendel, he is also asked to kill Grendel’s mother by the Danes. When they are asking him, they use an understatement to persuade him: ”It isn’t far, nor is it a pleasant spot!” In this quotation, they are describing where Grendel’s mother is located in an ironic manner.

Unfortunately, Beowulf finds himself in a distressing situation in the ”unpleasant spot,” but manages to find a sword and kill Grendel’s mother. When the poem uses this understatement, it draws attention to the place that Beowulf is supposed to go and demonstrates the great feat he overcame in defeating Grendel’s mother.

Failed Weapons

One common thematic topic in Beowulf is the failing of man-made weapons. This serves a few purposes. Beowulf is supposed to be an epic hero, so this highlights his superhuman strength. Another purpose is to show that technology is not always something we can rely on.

Let’s look at two quotations that are litotes, but draw attention to the sword and show Beowulf’s bravery.The first quotation is about Beowulf’s helmet. When he’s battling Grendel’s mother, she is able to damage it: ”And that too failed him; for the first time in years of being worn to war it would earn no glory.” In this ironic understatement, we can see that the helmet has been protective of him up until this battle. Instead of calling it worthless, the author understates the failure of the helmet to call attention to the glory that Beowulf will win after he defeats Grendel’s mother. Unfortunately, Beowulf has to rely on his weapons as he ages.When Beowulf decides to battle a dragon that is harming his people, the dragon wins the battle because Beowulf’s sword and shields do not hold up to the dragon’s power.

Instead of capitalizing on the defeat, the author chooses to downplay Beowulf’s loss: ”And the Geats’ ring-giver did not boast of glorious victories in other wars: his weapon had failed him.”This is an obvious understatement because Beowulf is in tremendous agony during the battle with the dragon. One can assume it is understated to show that the weapons have failed him, and that he is not primarily responsible for his defeat, which leaves him a hero.

Lesson Summary

The litotes, or ironic understatements, are placed in the poem to draw attention to Beowulf as a hero and to draw attention to themes in the poem. The litotes show up in the poem after Grendel’s death, after the death of Grendel’s mother, and after Beowulf’s weapons fail him. When these litotes happen, we see they are used to highlight Beowulf’s heroic qualities. So, the next time that someone tells you that he is ”not an English expert,” be sure to let him know that he used litotes.

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