Lavoie 1 Jason L. Lavoie Jr.

Wyrd: The Grim Shape of Things to Come Within the original Anglo-Saxon text of Beowulf there are a total of eleven of the word 'wyrd;' while there exist alternative spellings of the word, Beowulf contains this single spelling. Although Seamus Heaney is usually consistent in translating 'wyrd' as fate within his text, it is of great importance to note that every appearance of the word fate within his text does not correspond to the word wyrd within the source text, nor do all of his translations of the word wyrd from the source text appear as fate in his translation. Compare, for instance, the appearance of the word fate in lines 831, 1076, 2076, and 2291 in Heaney's translation with the original text; one will notice that the word wyrd does not appear in these lines nor in any of their surrounding lines and yet Heaney freely uses fate within his translation. Again, out of the eleven references to wyrd within the original text, ten of them are translated as fate within Heaney's translation while one of them is translated as doom1. This one instance of wyrd's translation as doom is one of the most important references to wyrd as it clearly juxtaposes Wyrd and God's providence. Thus, in order to discern with greater clarity the meaning of wyrd within Beowulf, it is of great help, and perhaps even of great necessity, that the source text along with a second english translation be used which make the word more clearly discernible and understandable. In studying all eleven uses of the word wyrd it becomes clear that there is a consistent use of the word which is very unique and outside the realm of other concepts in the text, such as the continual providence which God shows, but which is very close to Boethius's concept of fate. Of the eleven instances of wyrd's use two make a clearest distinction between God's providential work and wyrd; these can be found in lines 476-479 and in lines 1055-1056. Hrothgar, in
1. While Heaney's translation reads, “...he (Grendel) would have killed more, had not mindful God and one man's daring prevented that doom. Past and present, God's will prevails.” (Heaney 1055-1056) Gummere's reads, “...and fain of them more had killed, had not wisest God their Wyrd averted, and the man’s brave mood. The Maker then ruled human kind, as here and now.” (Gummere XVI), corresponding with the Ango-Saxon source which reads, “swa he hyra ma wolde, nefne him witig God wyrd forstode ond ðæs mannes mod.” (1055-1057).

whereas..” (Heaney 1055-1056) “. had not wisest God their Wyrd averted.he (Grendel) would have killed more. God's will prevails. as opposed to fate. God's will prevails. reflects on the deaths of his household guard and attributes their demise at the hands of Grendel to the workings of wyrd.. There is a great sense that this intervention (what could very well be seen as providence) is something 'other' than wyrd in one way or another. While one might say that Hrothgar means God will use wyrd as a tool to stop Grendel's attacks. a clear divide between the 'will' of God. without a doubt. God's providential intervention on behalf of the Thanes is written as preventing and averting wyrd's deadly occurrence. fate (wyrd) sweeps them away into Grendel's clutches—but God can easily halt these raids and harrowing attacks!” (Heaney 476-479) . had not mindful God and one man's daring prevented that doom. Being the passage that Heaney translates Wyrd as doom. “My household guard are on the wane.” (Gummere XVI) Here there is.. which make this distinction far clearer than any other passage in the text.and fain of them more had killed. This passage not only clearly demonstrates a difference between God's providence and wyrd but also reveals the negative and deadly connotations that are generally associated 2.he (Grendel) would have killed more.. overwhelmingly views God's active intervention as something positive.. as will be demonstrated. The Maker then ruled human kind. Past and present. he proclaims his firm hopes that God will intervene to stop these raids and attacks: “. not using wyrd to avert some deadly happening as would be the case if wyrd were providence.Lavoie 2 lines 476-4792. and the man’s brave mood. both his and Gummere's translations will be used to demonstrate this: “.” (Heaney 1055-1056) It is quite clear from this text that God's intervention is something which Hrothgar expects to working against wyrd or at least change wyrd in some way.. To strengthen the assertion that wyrd is something other than providence one need only study lines 1055-1056. as here and now. his active 'ruling' of man and the workings of wyrd. had not mindful God and one man's daring prevented that doom. in as much as wyrd is also the cause. this would be outside the character of the rest of the text which. Past and present.

” (Heaney 445) 7. “Fate goes ever as fate must. sensing his death. While wyrd is universally attributed to death and doom. with the Lord's assistance. This should be no surprise as the author offers as a definition of wyrd: “the grim shape of things to come” (Heaney 1234) or “destiny dire” (Gummere XVIII). Hrothgar attributes wyrd as the cause for the demise of the prideful Hygelac4. eight are directly associated with death and doom while the ninth refers to wyrd as sparing one from death and doom. unsettled yet ready. “Fate swept him away because of his proud need to provoke a fued with the Frisians.” (Heaney 1205-1207) 5. Of those considered to be monsters God takes an active role in their demise but of men God passes judgement7 and does not seem to have an active role in their death. “. the Ruler of Heaven.” (Heaney 2524-2527) “Yet his shield defended the renowned leader's life and limb for a shorter time than he meant it to: that final day was the first time Beowulf fought and fate denied him glory in battle. part life from limb.” (Heaney 939-941) 9.” (Heaney 2421-2423) “I won't shift a foot when I meet the cave-guard: what occurs on the wall between the two of us will turn out as fate. to redress the balance once Beowulf got back up on his feet. It is with the active help of God that Grendel was defeated in Hrothgar's halls8. (Heaney 2570-2575) 6.” (1554-1557) 10. “But now a man. “But his fate that night was due to change. The coming of Grendel's mother and consequently the coming death of many Thanes is referred to as an act of wyrd. has accomplished something none of us could manage before now for all our efforts. Beowulf attributes to wyrd the death of all but one of his clan to their doom. his mother was defeated beneath the lake9. his days of ravening had come to an end.” (Heaney 733-745) 4.Lavoie 3 with wyrd. “God who ordains who wins or loses allowed him to strike with his own blade when bravery was needed. “He was sad at heart.holy God decided the victory. overseer of men. this change clearly attributed to the presence of Beowulf amongst the Thanes who 'the King of Glory posted as a lookout' (Heaney 665666) and for whom 'the Lord weaved a victory' (Heaney 696-697). and the dragon met its demise at the end of the story10 but no help is said to 3. It is said that Grendel's wyrd was due to change and his days of ravening had come to an end3. the role of God in these events is different depending on who wyrd takes victim. decides.” (440-441) 8.” (2874-2875) . His fate hovered near. his own death thrice declared an event determined by wyrd5 and once prematurely accepted as being in the hands of wyrd6. “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgement of God.. Of the nine remaining references to wyrd.. It was easy for the Lord. unknowable but certain: it would soon claim his coffered soul.

Ignatius Critical Edition. Beowulf is not inherently stronger than any of his three foes because of any natural ability. Boethius. without Him we are nothing more than subjects of fate and through fate death. 132 . rather they are said to be cursed by God11. that is God. he constantly mentions to the reader than it is God who aids him. In this way God's will both prevails over wyrd (Heaney 1055-1056) in his changing and using of it. his mother and the dragon—will inherently be able to destroy those who are of a lesser power if they so choose unless acted upon by a greater force. Without the intervention of God on behalf of the people.12” Thus those who have greater power—Grendel. thus wyrd is attributed to its conquering of the strongest of men and monster alike. It is only through God's intervention that fate is changed on behalf of the weaker within the epic story of Beowulf. This is why Beowulf is overtaken by death at the end of the story. Death is also naturally stronger than any of the characters. since it is only when God does not actively work that men fall within the text. a death which would be because of wyrd and. pg. The first reference to wyrd in the whole of the text takes a proverbial form: “Fate goes ever as it must” (Heaney 455). having just described what would happen were he to fail killing Grendal. should be counted as a “just judgement by God. that without God man is subject to nothing but the doom and death which comes from wyrd. 11.” While God is at times seen working against wyrd this example shows that he will passively allow wyrd to work its ways as a form of His judgement. “banished and accursed” (Heaney 1266) 12 The Consolation of Philosophy. Beowulf uses this phrase to accepting the possibility of his death. Here. wyrd becomes a vehicle of death throughout the whole story.Lavoie 4 be given to any of these to kill men. What then is wyrd if not the providence of God? It seems that wyrd is very close to Boethius's understanding of fate: “the arrangement inherent in whatever is set in motion. as he says. If Beowulf does not remind us of this then the narrator will. and if not the narrator then Hrothgar. This is really the heart of the story. God only gives Him help to defeat the dragon but not to defend himself.

E-book Medieval Sourcebook: Beowulf (in Old English). Boethius. New York 2000 Beowulf. Project Gutenberg. . Norton & Company Inc. W.Lavoie 5 Sources Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Ignatius Critical Edition. Seamus Heaney. W. Gummere. Fordham University Website The Consolation of Philosophy.

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