Fate, Destiny, and Predestination in Beowulf Essays
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Fate, Destiny, and Predestination in Beowulf
An epic story is one that combines elements of supernatural powers and heroic deeds with plebeian troubles. In Beowulf , the unknown author paints a typical yet magnificent tale that is one of the great epic chronicles of the Middle Ages. Like the poems of Homer, Beowulf possesses terrible monsters, men with supernatural powers, the search for glory, and deadly defeats. However, this medieval account brings a new element into the folds: the association between established religious forces and personal choices. The concepts of predestination and fate intertwine in this work with the idea of free will.
Throughout the poem, characters struggle to understand who and/or what is the guiding…show more content…
Noticeably present, in fact, are references to each important character's ancestors and lineage. With each mention of a character, the father is also interjected (Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow or Wiglaf, son of Weohstan). Destiny initially comes into play when Beowulf arrives at the shores of Denmark and is unknown to the guards. King Hrothgar proclaims, “I used to know [Beowulf] when he was a young boy. / His father before him was called Ecgtheow” (lines 372-3). Clearly, family ties are necessary to succeed in the world of kings. Beowulf is immediately given leave to enter the country and to “follow up an old friendship” (line 376) because the King is certain that the young man is destined to be a great warrior in Denmark. Certainly, past conquests and victories play a part in Beowulf's renown, but ancestry is initially more impressive. Beowulf's destiny is, therefore, partly determined by his father's feats and legacy. The opportunities given to the now famous warrior are a result of the powerful family that he comes from. Thus, destiny plays a prophetic part in shaping Beowulf's future.
While destiny and fate are related, in Beowulf the two ideas play different roles. Destiny is the concept that allows sons to be marked for greatness before they have come of age, while fate is an independent guiding force that does not rely upon worldly interactions (knowledge of lineage,
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.