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Fate seems to be an ongoing theme in the works of Boethius and Beowulf. Whether it is a belief of Christian providence or pagan fatalism, the writers of these works are strongly moved by the concept of fate and how it affects the twists and turns of a person?s life. Fate is most often seen as the course of events in a person?s life that leads them to inevitable death at some time or another. Throughout the poem Beowulf, the characters are haunted by fate and acknowledge its strong presence in everything that they do. Fate seems to lurk in the shadows of these characters very being and it is this force in which they acknowledge their mortality as human beings.
Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, which may be very helpful in interpreting the meaning of fate in the epic poem Beowulf. Boethius creates fate as a female character that attempts to heal the mind of a troubled man. Richard Green translates some of Boethius?s work in the introduction and interprets this woman?s role as, ?She represented fate as a random, uncontrollable force, to be feared or courted, opposed or despised? (xvi). Green goes on to identify fate?s role in the cause of events in life. This connection may be made to further understand the role of fate in Beowulf?s life. Green says, ?For the wise man, fortune is a specious identification of fate; the course of events which affect his life may seem random and capricious, and most of them are indeed beyond his control? (xvii). Green is trying to unfold the meaning of fate and Boethius?s intent to illustrate its effects on a man?s life. Boethius himself says that, ?Fate moves the heavens and the stars, governs the elements in their mixture, and transforms them by mutual change, it renews all things that are born and die by the reproduction of similar offspring and seeds. This same power binds the actions and fortunes of men in an unbreakable chain of causes and, since these causes have their own origins in an unchangeable providence, they too must necessarily be unchangeable? (Boethius, Book four, poem five, prose six). Boethius is attempting to identify fate as a force of nature that represents the circle of life and the set sequence of events that are plotted by this unknown force that map out a person?s very existence throughout the course of time. Boethius acknowledges the idea that there is a higher power, which he calls providence that has the ultimate control over fate. This distinction is one that many readers of the poem Beowulf are unsure of.
Beowulf is an epic poem written in Old English and translated by Seamus Heaney. The theme of fate in Beowulf is ongoing and it manifests itself in the minds of the characters, especially Beowulf. The poem begins with an introduction from the narrator that hints at the events of misfortune that are coming in the future for the great hero Beowulf. The narrator says, ?how could they know fate, the grim shape of things to come? (Beowulf, 1233-1234). The opening of the poem is of a funeral for the beloved leader Shield Sheafson. This foreshadows the death of Beowulf and in a sense presents the reader with the mentality of a connection between fate and death. Death is simply the end of a person?s life that is bound to happen, very much like the effect of fate on life.
There is an ongoing conflict in the poem between the Anglo-Saxon idea of fate (wyrd) and the Christian God. This may have caused widespread tension among the readers and interpreters of the poem that lingers to this day. Many translators of the poem have signaled the ?allusions to the power of fate? and its connection to Christianity (Klaeber, xlviii). The fact is that whether or not Beowulf saw a connection to the concept of fate and a divine power is something that we may never know. The theme of fatalism in the poem is so strong that it is evident that fate was a strong force in the lives of the people of this time. Whether or not they had Christian or pagan beliefs that may have been related to their individual views on fate doesn?t really seem to have any bearing on their beliefs in fate. Throughout the poem, Beowulf fights evil demons to protect his people and creates a sense of safety that would surely not exist if it weren?t for his great strength and courage. Fate has something else in store for Beowulf as the poem leads on to the infamous dragon fight. All along in the poem, Beowulf identifies the fact that he believes in fate and many of his actions are ruled by his strong belief in the fact that whatever will happen is meant to be. In the beginning of the poem, he is an invincible leader but now when it comes down to the fight with the dragon, he is old and not so sure of himself. It is at this point in the poem that the reader is clued in to the future events, which don?t look very bright for this hero. All along the narrator and the characters in the poem have hinted at events to come in the future and the idea of fate has remained in the background of Beowulf?s conquests and victories, controlling his every move. Beowulf knows that his time is coming and he sees a likeness of himself in the warriors that have died in the wrath of the dragon.
Beowulf has always seen life and battles as a race to glory with an end in death. He identifies his code of honor and of life in a speech with Hrothgar and says, ?Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for and end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark? (Beowulf, 1384-1389). In this speech, Beowulf is preaching the fight for glory and life in a world where destiny waits for no one. He sees that although his time may come to an end someday, his life will have been well spent fighting in battles, proclaiming his courage, and living each day to its fullest potential (Ogilvy, 61). In the end of the poem, Beowulf has a premonition that his time has come and that fate will not be so kind to him in his upcoming battle with the dragon. Ultimately in a great fight, Beowulf is killed by the dragon and relives the same fate that the man who died there years before in this same situation. Once again there is a visual reference of the cycle of life that began with the death of the great Shield Sheafson and that will end in the death of the great hero Beowulf. Fate takes its final twist and the life of a great hero comes to an end. The people that have valued their lives in the security blanket that was laid by Beowulf soon find themselves in danger. When the life of their great hero has come to an end, so has their life of safety in a land that they once called their own. Their fate like before, is unknown and a sense of doom and misfortune consumes the end of the poem.
Beowulf is one of the oldest European epics. Beowulf is a hero and personalized many important aspects and ideals of this time. He was loyal, selfless, and believed in justice. There are many Germanic elements in the poem that are connected to the ongoing theme of fate. Beowulf lived as a warrior-king figure in feudal society. He lived the Germanic Heroic Code that valued loyalty, strength, and courage. Beowulf also conducted himself with many Anglo-Saxon ideals of conduct that included allegiance to the lord and king, the love of glory that rules the meaning and existence of life, and the belief in the inevitability of fate. Fatalism was a popular mindset of people of this time. Fatalism is the philosophy that all events, actions, or incidents that make up a person?s life are determined by fate. It incorporates the belief that people have little or no control over their destiny because what happens is what is meant to be. In a time when future was uncertain and the lives of people could be taken at any time, fate is an idea that not only kept many people going but that also entangled the minds of people that were once free and took over their every breath and movement as to signal something coming in the future.
There has been research done in the past few years on this epic poem that remains a popular piece of literature to this day. There is a web site of the original Beowulf written in Old English as it offers the reader to view the actual pages of the poem as it exists today in a library. In the up and coming year of 2001, it is amazing that people are still drawn to the mysterious works medieval literature and time.
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Richard Green. New York: The Bobbs-
Merril Company, Inc., 1962.
Klaeber, FR. Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburgh. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company,
Ogilvy, J.D.A., and Donald C. Baker. Reading Beowulf. Oklahoma: University of