Wyrd in Beowulf

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Wyrd is an important concept in ''Beowulf,'' and also the subject of much debate. Sometimes translated as 'fate,' the concept of wyrd is often discussed in connection with Christian and pagan belief systems in ''Beowulf.''

Wyrd in Cultural Context

Beowulf: Old English epic

How much control do we have over our lives? Does everything happen for a reason? Early medieval people were no less interested in these questions than we are, and these questions are prominent - sometimes implicitly - in Beowulf. Some of the answers to these questions are suggested in the complex cultural concept of wyrd, which appears throughout Old English literature. The Old English word 'wyrd' can be translated in a variety of ways: fate, or doom, or destiny.

Susanne Weil has suggested that wyrd can be thought of as a shaping. Old English often used tactile imagery. Thinking of wyrd as working with existing material, like a sculptor or a potter, may help us to understand the complex ways in which wyrd works with the lives of the characters in Beowulf. As J.R.R. Tolkien noted, wyrd has sometimes affected the reception of Beowulf, as wyrd was held to be less sophisticated than hamartia, the concept of the fatal flaw that drives classical tragedy. Wyrd can be seen as present in Beowulf even when it's not explicitly mentioned. One way of understanding wyrd is as a force deriving from the cumulative power of past actions. This view provides a method of reconciling the importance of wyrd as an apparently impersonal force in Beowulf, and the heroic values extolled by the poem.

Wyrd and Religion

Wyrd was a concept central to the pagan belief systems of the Germanic cultures in which Beowulf was first transmitted. Scholars have debated the question of whether or not wyrd in Beowulf is essentially opposed to a Christian worldview. After all, if wyrd is all-powerful, what role is left for the Christian God? Kevin J. Wanner has noted that wyrd appears to have a variety of functions in Beowulf, and suggests that its influence becomes less prominent in the sections most worked over by the poem's Christian scribe. Other scholars, however, have noted that Beowulf need not represent a totally coherent set of beliefs. Even as early medieval Europe became Christianized, deep cultural beliefs in the power of wyrd could persist.

Wyrd, Character, and Free Will in Beowulf

Beowulf talks about wyrd

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