In the thrilling epic Beowulf, the theme of fatalism is very apparent throughout the poem. “Fate will go as it must.” (Line 455) The Anglo Saxons believed that people lived life as an everyday struggle against undefeatable odds and that a man’s “wyrd” or fate would be what it would be (Chickenring 269). The Anglo-Saxon’s understanding of fate is that it is a force that controls a man’s life regardless of his actions. Beowulf is a valiant hero in this poem; he has fought many battles and won many wars. He understands that his life is in the hands of fate. Beowulf knows that no matter how well he fights or how many weapons he uses, if wyrd is not on his side he is therefore doomed. In the beginning of the poem Beowulf is introduced as a fearless hero who has the might and strength of thirty men. As the story unfolds, Beowulf slowly loses his vitality until he is fatally defeated. He cannot escape his deadly fate. The author demonstrated the power of fate by showing Beowulf’s gradual decline of strength through the outcomes of his three battles with the monsters.
Beowulf’s voyage brings him to the land of the Danes where he is first confronted by a guard who immediately upon seeing him, remarks on his impressive appearance. “Never have I seen a mightier noble, a larger man than the one among you a warrior in armor.” (Lines 247-249) Once he and his men are allowed in Denmark, Beowulf reunites with his deceased father’s old friend Hrothgar in the mead hall. Hrothgar tells Beowulf that he is desperate to get rid of the ferocious beast, Grendel. He says, “It gives me great shame to have to reveal/ disaster Grendel has brought me in his persecution. / my men are less. Fate swept them off.”(Lines 473- 477) Beowulf promises to help Hrothgar and pledges to fight till his death if need be. He says “that I would entirely fulfill the desire of the Danish nation or else fall slaughtered in the grip of the foe. Tonight I will do a heroic deed or else I will serve my last day of life here in this mead hall” (Lines 632-638). His speech to Hrothgar shows Beowulf’s courage and confidence in his abilities. So, confident of his incomparable power, he chooses to not use any weapons or armor of any kind. When Beowulf fights Grendel he simply grabs onto the monsters arm and rips it off. Grendel goes back to his liar and dies. Beowulf returns to the Danes and with Grendel’s arm and is thanked profusely by the people and Hrothgar.
This fight illustrates how strong and brave Beowulf is at this time. Fate has brought him success in his battles and he is at the peak of his life. He may be strong and powerful, but without fate on his side he is damned. He says, “Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good.” (Lines 572-573) Unfortunately the death of Grendel brings another battle for Beowulf, Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother becomes enraged by the death of her son and wants to avenge his death. Before going into the water to fight Grendel’s mother, Beowulf shows that although he “has no care for his life” (Line 1443) he knows that there is the possibility of death. Beowulf approaches this battle with confidence as before, but this time he covers himself in armor and uses a sword for protection. “Across his chest lay the iron net; it saved his life as she hacked and stabbed” (Lines 1547-1549) Beowulf’s original sword proves to be useless against this beast. He sees an ancient sword in the monster liar and slays her. Had there not been a sword in the liar, Beowulf may have not been victorious.
Beowulf’s wyrd was to defeat Grendel’s mother, but he may not have succeeded if fate did not allow him to find the other sword. “Not very easily did I save my life in battle under water/ at once the fight was decided against me, except that God saved me. In that battle I could not use Hrunting, though that weapon is still good/ the ruler of men granted the favor that I see on the wall a bright sword hanging, gigantic heirloom / so that I found the right weapon to draw.(1655-1665). Compared with the defeat of Grendel, where he only needed his bare hands to finish off the monster, Beowulf seems to be slowly becoming weaker. Hrothgar warns Beowulf that his strength will not last forever. “Oh brave champion! Your fame lives now in, one strong time. Soon in their turn sickness or war will break your strength, or the grip of fire overwhelming wave, or swords swing, or hateful old age the lights will darken that were your eyes death overcomes you all at once warrior. “(Lines 1762-1769) Hrothgar shares his wisdom to remind Beowulf not to let pride overcome him for everything in life is eventually defeated due to the power of fate.
After slewing the two monsters, Beowulf gains great respect from the Danes and returns to his home land, Geatland. He and his men are reunited with their king and queen, Hygelac and Hygd and tell them of his adventures in Denmark. Over time, the great King, Hygelac is killed in a battle against the Shylfings. When Hygelac’s son dies, the queen offers Beowulf the throne of the Geats. Beowulf becomes a wise and noble king. He rules for fifty years, bringing wealth to Geatland. However, when a thief disturbs a barrow, where a dragon lies guarding a pile of treasure the dragon becomes infuriated and begins killing the Geats and causing havoc all over the land. After Beowulf received news of the angered dragon his reaction was expected to be similar to how he responded to Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Nevertheless, his reaction to the news was a sense of something bad to come. He is not completely sure of himself. “To the great king it was great anguish, pain deep in mind.” (Lines 2327-2329) At this point the narrator warns the reader that Beowulf will die in the upcoming battle. “The king long good, was to read the end of his seafaring days, his life in this world together with the serpent though long it had rules the wealth of the hoard.”(Lines 2341-2344) Beowulf puts aside his fears and gathers his men to fight the dragon. Before embarking on his fateful mission, he tells the Geats a sad story of the death and the sorrow it caused the Geat people. This story is an indication that Beowulf is aware of his old age and diminished strength and seems unsure of his fate. “His spirit was sad, restless, death ripe; immeasurably near the fate that was coming to the old man to seek out his soul parting the two, his life from the body” (Lines 2419-2423).
Beowulf prepares himself for the fight against the dragon by protecting his body with armor, realizing that it is unlikely he will defeat the dragon without protection and weapons. When he fought Grendel so many years ago, Beowulf was sure of his abilities and fate and chooses not to use weapons. Beowulf fights the dragon with all his might and succeeds in killing the dragon. Unfortunately Beowulf’s time has come and dies by the dragon’s venomous bite. Beowulf’s tragic death signifies the great role of fate in life for the Anglo Saxons. No matter how great the warrior, fate prevails “He could not in the world, much as he wished, keep any life in the old spear-leader nor change the course of the Ruler’s will. The judgment of God then ruled the deed of every man as He still does now.” (Lines 2855-2859)
The author of Beowulf used the Anglo Saxon concept of “wyrd” to exemplify how each battle that Beowulf fought would affect how he fought the others. The author also showed how a person’s fate is death and how each battle that Beowulf fought brought him closer to his dying day. During the first battle, Beowulf is strong, powerful, and very confident. He fights and kills Grendel without a weapon and is very proud of his glory. He knew that fate was on his side, but always stated that he was aware that the end of his life will one day come. In the second battle, this time against Grendel’s mother, Beowulf chooses to use a weapon, but the weapon fails. Thankfully, fate allows him to see a sword in the monsters liar and Beowulf decapitates the monster. Beowulf knew after his first battle that fate was on his side, but would he have the power of “wyrd” again while fighting Grendel’s mother? This is why he may have chosen to use a sword. Beowulf’s last brawl was against a dragon that was terrorizing the Geatland. Beowulf was very unsure of himself. His tone had completely changed since the beginning of the poem. He therefore, protects himself with armor and weapons, so that he feels more secure while battling the dragon. Beowulf’s feeling of uncertainty and fear indicated that his death was near and that it would end with the dragon. As the story ended Beowulf’s fate was to overcome and kill the dragon, but was not to live another day.
Paul Bauschatz and James Earl both confirm in their writings that the use of the word “wyrd” suggests the deciding power of all past actions on present events. It is then reasonable to say that the hero’s death is directly connected or predetermined by his earlier actions. The Christian religion states that God determines whether a hero will live or die. In Beowulf, it appears that it is no longer God who determines whether the hero will succeed or perish. It is wyrd, the collective pressures of Beowulf’s previous actions, which makes his death inevitable.
In the poem Beowulf, wyrd, the eternal power of all past actions on present events, determines Beowulf demise. It was Beowulf’s fate to fight the two monsters and the dragon. It was also his fate to die a hero. Throughout the story it seemed like Beowulf constantly tested fate. He did not appear to care whether he lives or dies. He knew that he could not control his destiny. Although, Beowulf did know, on his dieing day, that through courage he can live on in the memory of those who will live after him.
Chickenring Jr. Howell D. Beowulf A Dual-Language Edition New York: Random House Inc. 2006.