Fate, Destiny, and Predestination in Beowulf
An epic story is one that combines elements of supernatural powers and heroic deeds with plebeian troubles. In Beowulf , the unknown author paints a typical yet magnificent tale that is one of the great epic chronicles of the Middle Ages. Like the poems of Homer, Beowulf possesses terrible monsters, men with supernatural powers, the search for glory, and deadly defeats. However, this medieval account brings a new element into the folds: the association between established religious forces and personal choices. The concepts of predestination and fate intertwine in this work with the idea of free will.
Throughout the poem, characters struggle to understand who and/or what is the guiding force for actions and events. Although this answer remains a mystery, many proverbs and traditions hint at the proper way to live and act. The advice, "Let whoever can/ win glory before death" (lines 1387-8), exalts the idea that champions are the most likely to live a bountiful life and are the ones who uphold the highest ideals in society. Bravery and wise choices create circumstances that cannot determine a future, but can help to lead a man to his predetermined best end. A specific incident in Beowulf exemplifies this connection among free will, glory, and predestination. Beowulf's fight with the dragon and dying words demonstrate the overarching idea that although fate, destiny, and God work to direct a man toward his death, free will and the glory acquired because of it determine how a man is remembered and honored during his life.
In a society like Beowulf's, ruled by kings and noblemen, destiny is the most common indication of greatness; accordingly, destiny itself is measured most often by examining the heritage of a young man or soldier. It is obvious in King Hrothgar's court that sons of magnificent warriors are destined to participate in great acts of heroic proportions. Noticeably present, in fact, are references to each important character's ancestors and lineage. With each mention of a character, the father is also interjected (Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow or Wiglaf, son of Weohstan). Destiny initially comes into play when Beowulf arrives at the shores of Denmark and is unknown to the guards. King Hrothgar proclaims, “I used to know [Beowulf] when he was a young boy. / His father before him was called Ecgtheow” (lines 372-3). Clearly, family ties are necessary to succeed in the world of kings. Beowulf is immediately given leave to enter the country and to “follow up an old friendship” (line 376) because the King is certain that the young man is destined to be a great warrior in Denmark. Certainly, past conquests and victories play a part in Beowulf's renown, but ancestry is initially more impressive. Beowulf's destiny is, therefore, partly determined by his father's feats and legacy. The opportunities given to the now famous warrior are a result of the powerful family that he comes from. Thus,...