Fate In Beowulf
What is the role of Fate in Beowulf?
In Beowulf, the sense of one's destiny at God's hands is prevalent, but also is the influence of "wyrd."
Fate is referred to as "wyrd." The Anglo-Saxons did not believe that they were controlled or predestined to carry out a pre-orchestrated plan that God had decided upon for them, but that their failure or success was determined by God's will, not their own.
The reader might infer that "undoomed" refers to one that God has not decided will fail. In Chapter 10:
Weird often saveth
The undoomed hero if doughty his valor! (X.15-16)
In other words: if God will allow it, Fortune may smile upon a hero if he remains steadfast in his bravery.
As Beowulf prepares to meet Grendel, he notes that the monster will not use a sword, only "natural" weapons, and so Beowulf will not use any weapon either. They will battle, and once more, the hero points out that God will decide who will win:
“No battle-skill has he, that blows he should strike me,
To shatter my shield, though sure he is mighty
In strife and destruction; but struggling by night we
Shall do without edges, dare he to look for
Weaponless warfare, and wise-mooded Father
The glory apportion, God ever-holy,
On which hand soever to him seemeth proper.” (XI, 20-26)
A reference to God extending his favor is made soon after, identifying the He has chosen a valiant hero to rid Heorot of Grendel, the ravager of the hall.
But the Lord to them granted
The weaving of war-speed, to Wederish heroes
Aid and comfort, that every opponent
By one man’s war-might they worsted and vanquished,
By the might of himself; the truth is established
That God Almighty hath governed for ages
Kindreds and nations. (36-43)
The narrator of Beowulf was influenced by the old pagan beliefs along with those of Christianity that had been introduced by clerics of the Roman Catholic Church. While "wyrd" is used at one point to refer to the "fate" that awaits Beowulf's thanesmen with the unexpected approach of Grendel's dam, at another point Beowulf acknowledges that the Lord delivered him from his battle with Grendel's mother.
The narrator himself demonstrates blended pagan and Christian beliefs . . . The pagan word "wyrd" and God's decree are used interchangeably.
We can assume that this version of the story (which is in fact, the oldest one that survives) reflected changing times as the pagan Anglo-Saxon culture began to reflect the influences of Christianity. If it were in the early or middle stages of this cultural and religious shift, it would make sense that "fate" and "God" might be used as if they were the same.
Regardless of the usage, the Anglo-Saxon hero (such as Beowulf) was quick to recognize that the outcome of one's life did not rest in the hands of the warrior, but in a power greater than himself.
Johnston, Ruth A. A Companion to Beowulf, Pannesbaker Press: Gibsonia, 2005.
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.
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.)