The question of which has ultimate sovereignty in dictating the course of one’s life – fate or free will – is one that has disconcerted scholars and thinkers for centuries. Quotes like “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on men unless they act” (Buddha), do not do much by way of alleviating the inherent confusion that lies between adhering to one of these two equally defendable and provocational doctrines.
The exploration of this conundrum, however, isn’t limited to the pages of the bibles of philosophy and stoicism. The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid, arguably the most quintessential examples of epic literature, all in some manner instrumentalize their protagonists in an attempt to offer an answer to the age-old question: when it comes to fate or free will, which prevails? A piece of heroic epic literature that also dives into exploring that answer is the poem Beowulf.
The poem, one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, dedicates itself to examining the role of fate in determining the destiny of its titular protagonist who, through his displays of unprecedented valance and bravery, becomes the King of the Geats. Deified as one of the greatest warriors to have ever lived, Beowulf conquers mighty beasts and brings peace and prosperity to his people before ultimately losing his life in an epic battle with the dragon. Throughout the poem, fate is presented to the readers as more of a character in the story as opposed to an intangible abstract.
A close reading and analysis of the text, however, reveals two diverging strands of the understanding of fate: one Pagan, held by the characters in the poem, and the other Christian, held by the poet. While these understandings might otherwise be seen as inconsistent and oppositional, a deeper analysis of the way the poet weaves the two schools of thought within the stanzas leaves the reader with a more nuanced, multi-faceted understanding of the text as the perfect marriage of the ideals of the heroic warrior code and the traditional Christian conception of fate.
In the epic poem Beowulf, fate is capable of both: elevating and destroying. Beowulf attributes both his victories and his defeats to the Gods and surrenders himself wholly to what he believes is written as his divine destiny. His character is a paragon of a disciple of the warrior code, the perfect hero. Through various instances in the poem, he has displays of matchless strength, remarkable courage and unfaltering loyalty. Before his confrontation with Grendel, an evil monster feared by all in Heorot but himself, Beowulf has a conversation with King Hrothgar in which he says his one request is that he be allowed to battle Grendel “with my own men to help me, and nobody else” (Anonymous 31), in order to engage in a fair fight with the monster, who will not use weapons. That Beowulf, after all a mortal, is unwilling to use the one advantage he may have had in battle against a mighty beast because of his strict adherence to the values laid down by the warrior code is highly telling of his unparalleled courage and integrity, even in the face of death. Through the lines “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgement by God” (Anonymous 31), Beowulf acknowledges the possibility that Grendel may be triumphant and “carry me away as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied” (Anonymous 31), but like a true warrior, he doesn’t allow that fear to manifest and stop him from carrying out his mission. Despite all his bravery and bravado, Beowulf and the other characters in the poem see themselves as powerless when it comes to events in their life, and believe they are vulnerable to their all-pervading, inescapable fate, or wyrd (the Pagan conceptualization of fate or personal destiny). As the cornerstone of Paganism, wyrd is held as the ultimate decider of one’s life and death. Beowulf, Hrothgar and the other characters are, simply put, fatalists: though they believe in the existence and power of a God strikingly similar to the Christian conception, it is ultimately wyrd that controls their destiny when it is a matter of life and death. Beowulf, showing complete submission and surrender to his destiny, concludes his speech to Hrothgar by saying “Fate goes ever as fate must” (Anonymous 31). Although Beowulf is aware of his might and ability in battle, he believes his defeat or triumph will not be dependent on his actions, but rather on his fate.
In his final encounter with the dragon, Beowulf’s fate finally catches up with him when he is killed in battle. “He had scant regard for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all of its courage or strength” (Anonymous 159), writes the poet, showing that up until his last battle in his old age, Beowulf remained a strict adherent of the Pagan warrior code and a true fighter. He believed he was the only one who stood a chance against the dragon, and so it was his duty to enter into battle. The battle with the dragon was bloody, but Beowulf fought with bravery – “Unyielding, the lord of his people loomed by his tall shield, sure of his ground, while the serpent looped and unleashed itself” (Anonymous 173) writes the poet, illustrating his courage and unrelenting warrior spirit even in the face of death. Further on in the stanza, the line “That final day was the first time when Beowulf fought and fate denied him glory in battle” (Anonymous 173), implies that there was no amount of bravery or valour he could have displayed to change the ultimate outcome of the battle: it was fated to be against him. Beowulf believes in honour in battle leading to honour in death, and that ultimate triumph and defeat lie in the hands of fate.
While Anglo-Saxon culture is inextricably woven into the characters’ minds and behaviour and its presence in the world of Beowulf made evident through various harkens to the Pagan warrior code, the poem also consists of several classic Christian elements. Owing to the fact that the poet was presumed to be a Christian Monk writing from a historical perspective about a time when Pagan Old England was in the process of converting to Christianity, there are several instances in the poem that strongly suggest it to be an amalgam: A Pagan epic with a Christian gloss. Throughout the poem, the poet blends the Pagan concept of fatalism and the Christian conceptualization of God’s will into the stanzas of the poem. On numerous occasions, Beowulf and characters like Hrothgar attribute his triumphs in battle to the grace and benevolence of God. “Past and present, God’s will prevails” (Anonymous 71) writes the poet, expressing the Christian belief in God’s providence and all pervasiveness.
At a point in the poem before he faces Grendel in battle, Beowulf says “Often, for undaunted courage, Fate spares the man it has not already marked” (Anonymous 39), expressing his immense belief and surrender to the pagan concept of fate or wyrd. However, later in the poem during his final battle with the dragon, he asserts “So may a man not marked by fate, easily escape exile and woe, by the grace of God” (Anonymous 155), thereby marking another instance of the poet’s usage of Christian elements in the poem. Although there are several more examples of the same, it is ultimately the pagan concept of fate that is held as being responsible for Beowulf’s pre-destined death as he declares his acceptance of his fate before he dies. The masterful intertwining of both these doctrines creates a chronicle that pays homage to both Anglo-Saxon and Christian cultures.