Beowulf: Fate, Faith and Fatalism- The Hero’s Way

From the beginning of Beowulf, fate plays a large role. Nothing that happens to the hero is truly by chance or even by his own will. The mysterious force known as fate guides Beowulf’s every experience and adventure. From Hrothgar’s payment of money to settle a blood-feud for Edgetho, Beowulf’s father, fate directs the entire narrative until the final ending of Beowulf.

Without Hrothgar’s intervention, Edgetho would not have been permitted to return to his homeland. Beowulf likely never would have been born, and certainly would not have been born into the proper position and family to come to Hrothgar’s aid.

A Dragon, Beowulf and Fate

From before the epic begins to the very end, Beowulf’s path is guided by fate. He goes to fight Grendel with confidence, knowing he is fated to win this battle. He returns to his own people a revered hero, and when the time comes, rises to engage in one final battle- against a dragon, to meet his final fate. Beowulf does not shrink from what he knows is to come. He has chosen to move with fate rather than fight it, and he continues on this path throughout the poem.

Fate moves in the very first lines of the poem, as the passing of Scyld is described.

…At the hour that was fated,

Scyld then departed to the All-Father’s keeping.

The great king of the Spear-Danes has died. At his request, his body is placed on a small boat, and he is given the honorable burial at sea that is common to warriors of the race. Fate takes the body where it will, and no one knows where his remains will travel.

Scyld is not only the king of the Spear-Danes, a beloved leader. He is the great-grandfather of one of the other main characters, King Hrothgar. Beowulf’s role in coming to Hrothgar’s aid was decided before he was even born. From the payment Hrothgar made on his father’s behalf, to the king, his father served as the great grandfather of Hrothgar, all the threads tied together to draw Beowulf to his destiny.

Faith and Fate Beowulf has Both

From the first verses of the poem, “God-Father” is credited for Beowulf’s birth. He was given to the Scyld’s line as a comfort. The “God-Father” has seen Spear-Danes suffering the loss of their king, and so sends Beowulf. He is raised up as a Hero, a champion whose task is to lift their fortunes and protect their people. J.R.R. Tolkein once referred to Beowulf as a “long, lyrical elegy” rather than a poem, referring to how Beowulf’s life is laid out throughout the epic.

A son and heir, young in his dwelling,

Whom God-Father sent to solace the people.

He had marked the misery malice had caused them,

That reaved of their rulers they wretched had erstwhile

Long been afflicted. The Lord, in requital,

Wielder of Glory, with world-honor blessed him.

Famed was Beowulf, far spread the glory

Of Scyld’s great son in the lands of the Danemen.

According to fate, Beowulf’s purpose is to redeem the grief and suffering of his people. He was given to them as a comfort and source of hope. From his birth onward, Beowulf is fated to be the protector and comforter of his people. He could have chosen to fight Fate and tried to go his own way, as characters in other poems had done. Beowulf chose to bow to Fate, to accept with dignity whatever experiences, triumphs and failures came his way.

By contrast, Hector in the Odyssey tempted fate, going out against Achilles after the death of Patroclus, inviting his own destruction. Patroclus himself died because he ignored Achilles’ instructions, seeking glory for himself and his followers. In the case of Patroclus, the interference that guided his fate was that of the gods, Zeus and others. For Beowulf, the Judeo-Christian God seems to be the influencing factor.

Hrothgar’s Appearance

In the line of the Scyldings, Hrothgar was one of four children, three sons and a daughter, who were born of his father, Healfdene. As Hrothgar enjoyed growing success and fame as a strong king, he built a mead-hall, a place for his followers to gather and celebrate. He wished to reward those who supported and served him, and celebrate his wealth and success. The mead-hall, Heorot, was a tribute to his reign and his people.

Fate, however, had it in for Hrothgar. Having completed his hall, and named it Heorot, he rejoices. Unfortunately for Hrothgar, a monster lurks nearby. Grendel is said to be an offspring of the biblical Cain, who murdered his own brother. Filled with hatred and jealousy, Grendel vows to attack and torment the Danesmen. For twelve long years, Hrothgar’s place that was meant to provide gathering and celebration is nothing but a hall of horrors where Grendel attacks, killing and tormenting all who dare come. This is what Fate has been preparing Beowulf for.

Beowulf to the Rescue

When Beowulf hears of Grendel’s attacks and Hrothgar’s suffering, he is determined to go to his aid. His own people encourage him, knowing that he is strong and brave. He chooses 14 companions to accompany him. They travel for twenty-four hours, in a boat that sails “like a bird” over the seas, before coming to Hrothgar’s shore.

There they are met by the Scylding’s guards, the Danish equivalent of the coast guard. At the shore, he is challenged by the guards and is asked to explain himself and his mission.

Beowulf wastes no time, giving the name of his father, Ecgtheow. He speaks of the monster Grendel and announces that he has come to help Hrothgar rid himself of this bane.

The guard’s leader is impressed with Beowulf’s speech and appearance and agrees to lead him to the palace, further promising to look after his ship. Together they go to Hrothgar to discuss what must be done.

Beowulf is again challenged at the palace, this time by a prince and Hero of the Danes. He repeats his intention to assist Hrothgar and mentions his lineage again. He is slowly making his way toward his ultimate goal- speaking with Hrothgar and gaining his leave to fight Grendel.

Impressed with Beowulf and his entourage, the Hero goes to the King and encourages him to welcome Beowulf warmly. Hrothgar remembers Beowulf as a child and his family as well. He is pleased to have the assistance of such a sturdy warrior.

I remember this man as the merest of striplings.

His father long dead now was Ecgtheow titled,

Him Hrethel the Geatman granted at home his

One only daughter; his battle-brave son

Is come but now, sought a trustworthy friend.

A friend has been sent by fate in Beowulf and his companions, and Hrothgar is no fool. He will accept the assistance.

Beowulf’s Boasting

When he comes to the King, Beowulf knows that fate is on his side. His lineage, his training, and his adventures to this point have prepared him for this fight. He’s ready, but he has to convince Hrothgar of his prowess.

He tells Hrothgar that he heard of the monster and the trouble he’s been having from sea-farers. When he heard of the trouble, he knew he would have to come and assist. Fate has provided him with previous experience fighting monsters. His battle with the nickers left the giant-race decimated, and he believes Grendel will be no real opposition to his might.

Beowulf proclaims that if he is defeated, he knows that Grendel will devour him as he has so many before him, and asks only that his armor be returned to King Higelac. He acknowledges Fate and declares that his victory or defeat will be at its mercy.

One of Hrothgar’s retainers, Unferth, tries to shoot down Beowulf’s boasting by pointing out that he swam a race against another, Becca, and lost. Beowulf tells him he is “befuddled with beer” and that Becca and he swam together, until the currents parted them. When he was separated from his companion, he fought sea monsters and destroyed them, with fate intervening one more time giving him victory. He turns Unferth’s argument against him, telling him that if he were half as brave as his words, that Grendel would not have ravaged the land for so long.

Hrothgar, encouraged by Beowulf’s boasts, retires, trusting in fate Beowulf will succeed.

Beowulf Boasting of Fate on his Side

Beowulf intends to go against Grendel without weapons, trusting in God to look after him:

“Weaponless warfare, and wise-mooded Father

The glory apportion, God ever-holy,

God may decide who shall conquer

On which hand soever to him seemeth proper.”

Grendel, unimpressed with the warrior and his boasting, comes to seek the battle. He snatches up a soldier, devouring him on the spot, then comes forward and grabs Beowulf. They engage and do battle, with Beowulf recalling his promises to beat the monster and his calling on fate to aid him.

They battle, and though Grendel has lived, til now, a charmed life, he fails. No weapon may touch him, and Beowulf’s overconfidence in attacking him without one proves fortunate. Fate smiles on Beowulf in this, as he attacks the monster and mortally wounds it. Grendel runs off to the marshes, returning to his lair to die.

The Rejoicing of Hrothgar

With Grendel defeated, people and warriors come from miles around to help celebrate the victory. It is suggested that Beowulf may even succeed Hrothgar in the lineage, taking his throne when the older man retires. Through the working of Fate, Beowulf has become an honor to his race.

Hrothgar announces that Beowulf is now like a son and praises fate again for Beowulf’s success.

Thou hast gained for thyself now that thy glory shall flourish

Forever and ever. The All-Ruler quite thee

With good from His hand as He hitherto did thee!

He goes on to praise God for the defeat of Grendel, admitting that he himself could not have succeeded against the monster. It was fated that Beowulf would destroy him. The following verses continue the celebration and Hrothgar showering Beowulf with gifts and treasures. The soldier that was murdered by the monster is paid for in gold. His family will not suffer for his loss. Old grudges were forgiven and gifts were shared freely.

Grendel’s Mother Appears

Like the parents of Human folk, Grendel’s mother seeks vengeance for her fallen son. She sets out and comes to Herorot, seeking the one who murdered her son. Beowulf is sleeping in another part of the palace when she comes and lays hold of one of Hrothgar’s favorite liegemen, killing him. At Hrothgar’s request, Beowulf comes to face a new threat.

Beowulf sets off, trusting in fate again, to fight the new threat. He takes the sword of Unferth, the one who tried to make fun of him when he boasted earlier. Beowulf will bring glory to the weapon that its owner was unable to gain.

It takes him a full day to reach the bottom of the sea, but he immediately engages in battle with the beast’s mother when he does. Having killed her, he finds the body of Grendel and removes his head as a trophy, returning to the surface. The water is so gory, and he is thought to be lost.

Beowulf’s Final Fate

After Beowulf’s return, and the recounting of his adventures, he is called upon one final time, to do battle with a monster. A fire-breathing dragon has come to plague the land. Beowulf fears that fate has turned against him for this final battle, but he is determined to defend his homeland and his people. He gives himself up to fate, and is determined that the Creator will decide the outcome.

I’ll not flee from a foot-length, the foeman uncanny.

At the wall ’twill befall us as Fate decreeth,

Let Fate decide between us.65

Each one’s Creator. I am eager in spirit,

In the end, Beowulf is victorious, but he falls to the dragon. The Hero’s journey has come to an end, and fate has provided him both fame and glory. He goes to meet the holder of fate, content.

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