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Analysis

Kenning or Compound Words

Symbol Analysis

You know when you play Taboo and you have to describe a certain word without saying it? A kenning is like an extremely poetic kind of Anglo-Saxon Taboo that uses figurative language to dress up a plain ol' noun. Instead of writing "the sun," for instance, a medieval English poet might go with "the sky-candle." "Fire" might become "sun of the houses" and the ocean "a whale-road."

Kennings are often hyphenated compound words, but they can also get way more elaborate. Case in point: "the home fields of the hair-parting" which, in non-kenning English, means "the head." Plus, not all compound words are kennings. A "doghouse" is exactly that: a house for dogs—nothing figurative there.

You can see how a sprinkling of kennings can really liven up a poem, condensing a whole array of striking and beautiful images into the space of one word. When you read "ocean," you probably think of a large body of dark-blue salty water. But when you read "whale-road," all of a sudden there are herds of belugas in that water, swimming to exotic oceanic destinations. It gives "ocean" a whole new dimension.

Caedmon's Hymn showcases five kennings, each one designed to add complexity to the single noun it replaces.

  • Line 1 ("heaven-kingdom's Guardian"): Here heaven becomes a kingdom as well as a religious place, similar to the earthly realms ruled over by Anglo-Saxon kings. It makes sense, then, for God to be called a "Guardian" of heaven, since kingdoms require military protection. (For more on images of kings see "Imagery: The Kingly.")
  • Line 2 ("mind-plans"): Instead of "thoughts," God has "mind-plans," or, in other words, plans that originate in his mind. The rest of the poem makes clear that these plans relate to the creation of the world and its inhabitants. The emphasis on God's mind suggests that he devised these plans himself with particular aims in mind; they weren't just some random ideas bouncing around the universe. This God is deliberate.
  • Line 3 ("the Glory-Father"): God is described here as the father of glory, the origin of all the wonders in the world.
  • Line 7 ("middle-earth"): Is Gandalf really God? Well, the jury is still out. He was totally resurrected in the second movie. This middle-earth, however, is definitely our world. It's most likely designated as "middle" because heaven is above and hell is below.
  • Line 7 ("mankind's Guardian"): Now God is described as being the protector of humanity, reinforcing the association of God with a military king.
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