Back To CourseBeowulf Study Guide
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Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.
Your dog dies, you lose your job, and your wife leaves you in one day. What do you attribute your bad luck to? Some people would argue that it is your fate, circumstances beyond your control, and that you could have done nothing to stop it. Others think that your previous decisions and free will impact the consequences of your actions. The epic poem Beowulf provides a confusing stance on fate and God's will. It seems that Beowulf could have avoided his death, but his heroism and bravery ultimately lead to his fate. Maybe by the end of the lesson, you'll have come to your own conclusion about the fate of Beowulf.
In the poem, Beowulf attributes his wins and losses to both God and the inanimate concept of fate. This can be somewhat confusing, and it raises the question: Did the anonymous author believe that fate was a separate entity to God? While it's most likely that we'll never know for sure, let's explore some examples which highlight Beowulf's unique way of thinking.
Prior to his battle with Grendel, Beowulf has a conversation with Hrothgar in which he proves that he is worthy of killing Grendel. Beowulf asks that he take only his men with him, and he explains that he will engage in a fair fight with the monster: he will not use weapons because the monster will not use weapons. He further states: 'And if death does take me, send the hammered mail of my armor to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrethel, and he from Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!' Beowulf's reliance on fate is interesting, because while he boasts of his bravery and victories, he also states that it is fate's decision of whether he will live or die in his battles. This leaves us curious because he does not give fate credit for his previous battles. He praises God and boasts of being a great warrior.
Beowulf's fate finally catches up to him when he battles the dragon in his final battle. He enters the battle with the mindset that he is the only man who can destroy the dragon, so it is his duty to fight. Once the battle ensues and he finds himself in danger, we see this quotation: 'And for the first time in his life, that famous prince fought with fate against him.' With these words, it seems that the author is implying that it was Beowulf's fate to die in the battle, and that there isn't anything he could have changed in order to win. Sadly, entangled in this fate is the knowledge that his troops have deserted him.
In another example, Wiglaf, a kinsman who did not run away from the battle with the dragon, is mourning his king's death and is angered that the young soldiers did not come to their king's rescue. Wiglaf seems to have a conflicting view on fate as well. He seems to think that the actions of people should not lead to a painful and lonely death: 'I swear that nothing he ever did deserved an end like this, dying miserably and alone, butchered by the savage beast.' This quotation aligns more with the idea of free will. Wiglaf feels that the soldiers are responsible for Beowulf's death because they have avoided the battle with the dragon. This contrasts with Beowulf's idea that fate is responsible for his demise.
Beowulf finally attributes his death to fate in his final speech: 'My days have gone by as fate willed, waiting for its word to be spoken.' It seems that he has been waiting to discover what fate has in store for him, and he feels that his death was predetermined. He is content to die.
In another interesting twist, we should note that the credit for Grendel's death is given to God instead of the impersonal entity of fate: 'Now he discovered -- once the afflictor of men, tormentor of their days -- what it meant to feud with Almighty God.' This quotation shows a contrasting view to the earlier quotations. Grendel is dying because of his previous bad deeds. This is notable because of the previous quotation by Wiglaf, in which he explains that Beowulf should not suffer because he does not deserve it. Keep in mind that Beowulf dies trying to save the Geats and suffers, whereas earlier in the poem, Grendel dies as a consequence of his previous actions. Can you see the differences in theories as the poem progresses?
Later in the poem, Beowulf is saved from Grendel's mother by finding a sword that he uses to decapitate her: 'He'd have traveled to the bottom of the earth, Edgetho's son, and died there, if that shining woven metal had not helped -- and Holy God, who sent him victory, gave judgement.' It seems that Beowulf blames fate for his death, but when he is victorious in battle, he praises God and feels that God is assisting him in his battles. Again, somewhat confusing, but perhaps this might have been the author's intent. What do you think?
Before Beowulf dies, he asks to sees the wealth that he has earned from his final battle with the dragon. Wiglaf brings him some of the treasure to view. Beowulf thanks God for providing this bonus to his people: 'For this, this gold, these jewels, I thank Our Father in Heaven, Ruler of the Earth -- for all of this, that His grace has given me, allowed me to bring to my people while breath still came to my lips.' God is again given credit for a positive event in the poem; Beowulf does not see it as fate bringing this wealth to his people.
Though the ideas about fate and God seem to conflict in Beowulf, when we look at the evidence presented above, it seems to make sense. For instance, the idea of an all-powerful and merciful God is presented in the Old Testament of the Bible, and in Beowulf God is presented as a gracious entity that provides for his hero and the people of his hero. Fate seems to be responsible for the death of Beowulf because it's a negative consequence. In other words, it seems that the author may have been trying to preach the goodness of God in his text, while allowing people to see that fate is inevitable. This is also interesting because Christians typically believe in the concept of free will. Beowulf does not allow for that concept, because the hero would no longer be a hero if he were to avoid dangerous situations.
The idea of fate in Beowulf is a complex topic because it contrasts with the idea of an omniscient and powerful God. It seems that the author used the idea of fate to make sense of the death of Beowulf, and used the power of God to provide positive outcomes for our hero and negative consequences for our villains. If we were to look at life like the author of Beowulf does, this might certainly give us a different perspective when we witness senseless acts of violence and death in our everyday society.
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Back To CourseBeowulf Study Guide
8 chapters | 99 lessons | 3 flashcard sets