What is the role of Fate in Beowulf?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The anonymous author of “Beowulf” uses the Old English term “wyrd” to signify fate. It seems a blend of the older concepts of fate or necessity with Christian Providence or design and acts as a regulative force to restrain excess and keep the world in balance. It can also function as a form of natural law. It serves, for example, to limit the number of people Grendel killed (lines 1055 sq.) In line 572, wyrd functions to save a hero, but only if he is courageous (rather along the lines of God helping those who help themselves.)

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Wyrd, in Anglo-Saxon, is often defined as fate or destiny and, in Beowulf, we see it used in a variety of contexts to mean both one's death and one's allotted fate, which may or may not be related to death.  Some literary critics see the references to Wyrd in Beowulf to be holdovers from the poem's pagan roots, but the concept of fate is still strong in modern cultures and lives alongside many religious belief systems.

In Beowulf, for example, Wryd may refer to one's death.  When Beowulf is about to spend his first night in Heorot in the hope of encountering Grendel (and defeating him), Beowulf clearly believes that his wyrd might be death:

Send to Hygelac [Beowulf's uncle and chief of the Geats] if slaughter overtakes me,/the best of battle-shrouds that protects my breast,/the finest of mail shirts . . . Weyland's work.  Fate always goes as it must (ll. 452-454).

Even though Beowulf is supremely confident in his physical ability to fight Grendel, he understands that his destiny may not allow him to succeed, so he asks Hrothgar to send his most valuable piece of armor to Hygelac.  This is analogous to a modern soldier saying something like this--"if a bullet has your name on it, you are a dead man."  

In a later speech--when Beowulf is defending himself against Unferth and describes his fight with the sea dragons in the Breca episode--Beowulf articulates the belief that Wyrd can also work for, rather than against, a man of courage:

With light from the East . . . the blow subsided/so I could see the the sea-nesses [the sea dragons attacking him],/the windy cliffs.   Wyrd often spares/ the undoomed earl, when his courage holds (ll. 569-573).

In this case, Wyrd works in a beneficial way to save a man who deserves to be saved because of his courage, but Beowulf is also careful to point out that Wyrd can only work this way if the man is "undoomed," that is, not fated to die at this time.

Most references to wyrd in Beowulf involve one's death--one's allotted destiny--but there are times, as in the Breca episode, when fate can intervene to help a deserving warrior.  In this warrior society, courage is a prime virtue, and a courageous man, if he has not yet reached the end of his time in Middle-Earth, can bring fate to his aid.


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