Fate in Beowulf, Grendel, and Macbeth
Fate plays a significant role in the Old English epic poem Beowulf and William Shakespeare's play Macbeth.. The major events of the poem, such as the three killings by Beowulf and his own death, are said to have been predestined. In Macbeth, fate is so significant that it is personified by the Weird Sisters, who drive the action of the play. But if predestination exists, then there must be an agent that determines destiny. In Beowulf, God plays this role, and fate is generally accepted as God's will. In John Gardner's Grendel, a novel which serves as a commentary on the poem, fate is totally predetermined, and is the will of no being. By contrast, Macbeth's agents of fate are the Witches, who generally go against God's will.
In all three works, fate plays a powerful role, as it did in many prescientific cultures. Fate is a necessary element in these people's lives so that they can have some means of justifying aspects of their existence. However, the fatal agents in the works differ; in looking at this, one must keep in mind that the three works were written in vastly different time periods, for different audiences, and for different purposes. Beowulf was intended to convert people to Christianity. It cannot be a true story, since it takes place in the sixth century (Raffel, 150), four centuries before Christianity came to Scandinavia. (Creed, 141) Most scholars agree that it was written by a Christian, in order to show how the belief in God can overcome evil. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 for a Christian audience, perhaps in an attempt to impress the new king, James I. Since King James was an expert on witchcraft, Shakespeare gave the Witches a significant role in the play. Finally, Grendel was written in 1971, in an era where fate was not acknowledged as being important, and thus, fate is not very significant in the novel. However, the work still includes an interesting commentary on "fate."
The three works, Beowulf, Grendel, and Macbeth have differing views on how fate is predetermined. Fate, in Beowulf, is not totally determined ahead of time:
How Shild made slaves of soldiers from every
Land, crowds of captives he'd beaten
Into terror; he'd traveled to Denmark alone,
An abandoned child, but changed his own fate,
Lived to be rich and much honored. (Beowulf, 23)
Shild could not have "changed his own fate" if it was totally determined ahead of time. But the poet of Beowulf says this, implying that fate was acknowledged in Anglo-Saxon culture as a very important force in the events of people's lives. Yet fate is not totally predetermined.
In Grendel, the dragon tells us that fate is, in fact, totally decided ahead of time:
"I know everything, you see," the old voice wheedled. "The beginning, the present, the end. Everything. You now, you see the past and the present, like other low creatures: no higher faculties...