In "The Seafarer," the poet names “Fate’s three threats."  What are they?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Seafarer, found in the Exeter Book and probably composed around 725 CE, is about the seafarer's voluntary exile on the sea, his sufferings, a belief in a Christian God, and his sense of loss when he considers the pre-Christian world:

All that old life has fled/the celebrations are done--/the weak people now reside/and control the world. . . .Glory has flown,/the nobles of this life/grow old and dry. . . . (ll. 86a-89b)

In this section of the poem, exhibiting the ubi sunt (Latin for where is) motif, the seafarer laments the passing of the older, pagan, world, and his reflection on this loss is often seen as conflicting with the explicitly Christian sentiments that close the poem.  When he speaks of "weak people," he refers to those who are not warriors, those who now plow the earth and are not part of the pre-Christian warrior society that has passed away.

A few lines earlier, just after the seafarer refers to "the joys of the Lord" (l. 65a), he again reverts to a pagan belief system in which fate, not God, determines the length of man's life:

Always and invariably,/one of three things/will create uncertainty/before [man's] fated hour:/disease, or old age,/or the sword's hatred/will tear out life/from those doomed to die. (ll. 68a-71b)

The important words here are uncertainty and warfare, which sum up the Anglo-Saxon view of life: death may come before one's fated time by sickness, age, or warfare, and there is no way, in a pagan belief system, to prepare for that end.  Warfare is included here because warfare is not only a constant element in Anglo-Saxon (Scandinavian) life but also, after disease, the most common way to die.   Life in Anglo-Saxon times was, as Thomas Hobbes said about life in the 17thC., "nasty, brutish, and short."  Even those who are tempted to see The Seafarer as primarily a Christian poem acknowledge that lines like these--which refer to the role of fate and doom--hark back to the seafarer's pagan belief system.  More important, though, is the seafarer's articulation of life (and death) in the Anglo-Saxon world, which reduces itself to death by sickness, age, and warfare.    

The seafarer certainly ends the poem with his belief in a Christian afterlife, but his firm belief in, and many references to, the power of fate is a reflection of his pre-Christian world, a very common motif in Anglo-Saxon poetry, including its greatest poem, Beowulf.

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The concept of "Fate" is first introduced when the narrator of "The Seafarer" describes the hardships of sailing, the quiet desire to remain on land—with its comforts and companions—and the call to the sea that he cannot, even in the face of all of these distractions, ignore. His heart comes to life as the ship breaks through the crashing and often threatening waves to travel to distant ports. He points out that even with the thrill of a new adventure on the horizon, there is a sober presence that all men of the sea, regardless of age or accomplishment, must face:

But there isn't a man on earth so proud,

So born to greatness, so bold with his youth,

Grown so grave, or so graced by God,

That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl,

Wondering what Fate has willed and will do.

Because a man does not know what Fate holds for him, he must experience some sense of fear even amidst the excitement that overwhelms him. There is no guarantee of safety when traveling across the ocean pathways.

As the narrator continues to speak to the capricious nature of the sea, he suggests that there are three fates a sailor will face:

The wealth 

Of the world neither reaches to Heaven nor remains

No man has ever faced the dawn

Certain which of Fate's three threats   

Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's

Sword, snatching the life from his soul.

He points out that with the dawning of each day, the man of the sea cannot know what will happen that day: he might fall victim to illness, old age or attack by an enemy and death by the sword.

However, in all that the narrator describes, even these fears that he must confront daily will not deter him: for as the sea summons him, so must he answer in the affirmative and place his future in the hands of Fate. 

It is interesting to note that the concept of Fate is a pagan ideology, and that later in the poem, the influence of Christianity is strongly present. It was not unusual for the poetry of the time (even as limited as the pieces that have survived are) to include both cultural aspects.

Fate is also given human characteristics, as seen when the narrator notes that one can only wonder what "Fate has willed and will do." This is just another example of an element in the seafarer's life that is beyond his control.

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two things to consider in your question.  First, the role of Fate and the mortality of man. 

The speaker says:

...The wealth
Of the world neither reaches to Heaven nor remains
No man has ever faced the dawn
Certain which of Fate's three threats
Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's
Sword, snatching the life from his soul.

What we have here, then, is what is known as fatalism.  Fatalism is the idea that humans are powerless to change the fact that they will one day die.  You've heard the saying, "you can't take it with you," right?  It doesn't matter how successful one has been in life.  The grave awaits both the just and unjust.  Furthermore, none can be sure if today is his last on earth.  Your body may wear out due to age.  You may contract a deadly illness that will end your life, or you may be killed by an enemy (or a drive by shooting).  You just don't know.  All that is certain in life is death.

Cheery, huh? 

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The three things that the Seafarer most fears from Fate are:

"illness, or age, or an enemy's Sword, snatching life from his soul." (ll 70-71)

In other words, the three things that men die from are illness, old age, and a human enemy in battle.