Wyrd in Beowulf
The Concept of Wyrd in Beowulf In the ancient Anglo-Saxon culture, there existed the belief in Wyrd. Wyrd is most easily described as continuous events happening around those that believe. It is also understood that the notion of wyrd meant that all of the events that occured in one’s life affected the others [events]. Throughout the epic, Beowulf, wyrd appears to be a great influence. In some aspects wyrd is slightly similar to fate or destiny and incorporates free will, but the concept, as a practice of heathens, seems to contradict some Christian beliefs.
Fate is defined as the development of events that are beyond control; events predetermined by a “supernatural power”. Destiny, similarly, is defined as a sort of “hidden power” that chooses what will occur in the future. Wyrd is similar to both of these terms in that is has much to do with the course of events in one’s life and what the future has in store for them. However, the ideas of fate and destiny seem to be unstoppable while wyrd seemingly allows individuals to make their own choices knowing that their past and present choices will affect their future.
Another contradiction with fate/destiny, is the fact that wyrd permits the alteration of predetermined occurrences through courageous deeds. Unfortunately, this is only permitted if a person is not already doomed (l. 572). If doomed, it is said that no amount of courage could save an individual from the course of events that he has made for himself; in this instance one must just reach acceptance of their future. With the idea of wyrd being that the events one chooses for themselves affect their future choices and therefore their future altogether, it is obvious that free will is a big part of wyrd.
Yes, maybe wyrd has put you under the circumstances that it wants you to be in, but how you handle those circumstances is entirely up to you; this is where free will comes into play. It is analogous to the idea that aspects of intelligence are inherited—you may have been “given” great intelligence, now you get to choose what you’re going to with it all. This is seen in Beowulf when Beowulf receives his “call to adventure” to journey to Denmark and fight Grendel for the Danes (l. 195). In this instance, Beowulf was given, perhaps by wyrd, an event in which he could choose to stay at home and not help or go fight for the lives of Danes.
If this is the case, maybe wyrd had also given Beowulf his immense strength—it was up to him to choose what he did with that strength. Wyrd, being a belief of heathens, is clearly going to contradict with some aspects of Christianity and the belief in God. In Christianity, the beliefs are based around God and his willingness to forgive, love, and protect his followers. One strong belief being that individuals are “saved by grace alone”, meaning that God can deliver people from punishments and forgive them of sinful actions even if they are undeserving.
This obviously contradicts with the element of wyrd that states although one may alter their life course, if they are “doomed” they cannot. Although different in ways that are quite obvious, there is one similarity between Christian beliefs and wyrd. This similarity is the idea of free will. Wyrd allows people to make their own choices, just knowing that in turn their future will indefinitely be affected by that choice and others. In the same way, Christianity says that God allows people to make choices for themselves—he doesn’t influence their decisions.
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In a way it makes sense that wyrd would incorporate some aspects of Christianity since Christian beliefs were beginning to spread during the time that wyrd was an accepted idea. To make it even more acceptable at the time, some Christian elements were probably added in so that the idea (of wyrd) could appeal to larger audiences. In Beowulf, there are constant elements of Christianity, one being on line 1657, where Beowulf states that his fight with Grendel’s mother could have gone badly if it weren’t for God’s help. This obviously contradicts with wyrd because wyrd doesn’t believe in God or God’s power over events.
Overall, wyrd almost seems to be a curse on those who believe in it. This said because once one knows that their every choice is going to affect every aspect of their future and sometimes those around them, they are going to be consumed by the thought of whether or not they are making the “right” choice. Wyrd, similar to fate/destiny, accompanied by free will, and different yet similar to Christianity, is a quite complicated concept, but seems to have ruled the lives of many a warrior in the Anglo Saxon culture and also clearly influenced character’s choices in the epic, Beowulf.