The Concept of Fate in the “Beowulf”
Fatalism is a philosophy that seems to dominate in the Anglo-Saxon epic literature, and “Beowulf” is not an exception. A character fights not just dragons and beasts, he fights against fate itself, and it is fate, but not the free will, that determines the outcome of the battle. “Fares Wyrd as she must” (Beowulf, 455), so a protagonist can either follow his fate or rise for a hopeless struggle in which he is going to be defeated.
In this paper I am going to research the text of the “Beowulf” in order to illustrate such concept of doom. My final conclusion shall be that in the “Beowulf” destiny dominates undividedly over free will of a character, and he is successful as long as he follows his fortune and dies as soon as his fortune is to die. Throughout my research I am also going to compare the attitude towards fate in the “Beowulf” to the one in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, and “Morte Darthur” in order to demonstrate similar ideas of fate in the Medieval Anglo-Saxon literature.
A dominating fatalist concept in the “Beowulf” is the idea of a Dyre – something roughly similar to karma or, more closely, to Clotho’s thread in the Greek myths. The warriors wane for “Wyrd hath swept them into Grendel’s grasp” (Beowulf, 477), a character perishes in battle because “Wyrd denied it, and victory’s honors” (Beowulf, 2574), etc. After all, Wyrd is “all mankind’s master” (Beowulf, 2527).
Wyrd is not merely an eyeless lot, it often acts as an independent character, it has own rules and “oft saveth earl undoomed if he doughty be!” (Beowulf, 573). It is able both to favor and to deny or forbid, being a kind of supreme deity. In case a hero acts in a way that is pleasant for Wyrd, he is successful. Yet sometimes Wyrd has own reasons, and can ruin even the most virtuous character, as it happens to Beowulf at the end of the poem.
He wins his ultimate battle, because Wyrd so decided, yet he is mortally wounded, because Wyrd so decided. There is a direct explanation of this idea in the text: “For Wyrd hath swept them, all my line, to the land of doom, earls in their glory: I after them go” (Beowulf, 2816). Wyrd can also be compared to the Greek Chronos, as it devours heroes when their time comes.
Beowulf is assured that he can not avoid his fate, and he will not die before it is written to die. His convenience is o deep that he needs “no weapon, no sword to the serpent, if sure I knew how, with such enemy, else my vows I could gain as I did in Grendel’s day” (Beowulf, 2520-2521).
Fate is basically unknown to the characters, until it reveals in the outcome of the endeavor. At the beginning of the poem “Wyrd they knew not, destiny dire, and the doom to be seen by many an earl when eve should come” (Beowulf, 1233-1235). More than that, the characters are playing a game and they are unwilling to know their fate before it takes place. As Beowulf himself puts it, “When his days are told, that is the warrior’s worthiest doom” (Beowulf, 1389). This can be illustrated by the attitudes of secondary characters like Cain or Higlac, who carry their fate, but not create it.
There are two things that a virtuous hero can win from fate: glory and death. Before fighting the dragon Beowulf notices: “Each of us all must his end abide in the ways of the world; so win who may glory ere death!” (Beowulf, 1387-1389). Eventually, destiny is embodied in death and death is a measure of destiny.
A poem opens with a funeral of Scyld Scefing and end with a funeral of Beowulf himself, thusly making a kind of circle of life. Beowulf is a newborn hero at the beginning, and his circle of life ends with a birth of another hero who is to live after him. Wyrd remains to be single and ultimate for all, while fate is embodied in individual life of a character from the funeral of a previous hero to his own funeral.
It can be asserted, that fate is inherited by one character from another either through mystical act of funeral as in the “Beowulf” or through accepting a magic thing like a sword of Arthur. As soon as it occurs, a character becomes fated, meaning that his actions are now directed by a particular fate, leading to a particular outcome.
Although Beowulf has not wished to know his fortune, he predicts it before his last battle, as he is aware that many years ago another great warrior has died in the same situation. This is an another analogy of the life circle in the poem. Fate is unknown, but characters do have a sense of a doom, which comes from their own experience and mystical intuition.
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They do receive prophecies and prediction. Perhaps it would be wrong to believe that they really do not want to know the destiny, this is rather a demonstration, but not an actual desire, What they really do not want is to attempt to change destiny, firstly because such attempts would be futile as Wyrd is always stronger, and secondly because their virtue is to obey fate and win their glory or their death, while remaining virtuous. Facing fate is itself a virtue.
This can be compared to Sir Gawain’s famous claim “I, Sir Gawain, have come to meet my fate. If this be the Green Knight, show yourself now or it will be too late.” Gawain awaits for his final stroke in the same manner as Beowulf awaits for his final battle. They both know that they will die, and they accept it, not because they want to die, but because this is their destiny.
Mitchell, Bruce, Robinson, Fred C. Webster, Leslie. Beowulf. Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.
Stone, Brian. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Penguin Classics, 1959