How War was Portrayed in Beowulf

How War was Portrayed in Beowulf

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How War was Portrayed in Beowulf

The anonymous author of Beowulf can easily be construed as either arguing for or against war in its basic form. However, on a deeper level, the author is giving a profound and perhaps comforting view of war during this time period. The author we know has a great respect for wyrd or fate. We know that the outcome of any engagement of war is already pre-ordained by the Almighty so how could one argue for or against war when the general consensus was that there was really nothing to be done about it? The author is trying to say that war is a fact of life and no more in the command of man than the weather storms or rising and falling of the tides.

In “The Wanderer” the author says of the warrior that “fully fixed is his fate”(Norton 100). There can be no meandering on the path of one’s fate, no matter his mindset or resolve. Beowulf also echoes this sentiment in the line “Hrothgar was given success in warfare, glory in battle”(Donaldson 4). Glory in battle is not something that is won or achieved. The virtues of success in battle and glory are not given out by lords, save but One. Only the Almighty may bestow the honor and glories of battle. Another passage in Beowulf further reveals this idea. “Then may Almighty God assign glory on whichever hand seems good to him.” This reinforces the idea that fate controls all things but further asserts that the strength of both combatants has no real relevance to the outcome of battle which is decided by the Almighty.

This is not to say that any man on any day who is favor of God may achieve glory and renown by haplessly throwing himself into battle. We are shown in Beowulf that the only part of the battle left up to man is his courage and bravery. These virtues, which were held in such high esteem, can bring a man to the brink of victory and glory. His steadfastness seems a prerequisite to God’s favor. God does not reward cowardice as we see in the case of Unferth and the thanes of Beowulf save for Wiglaf in his final battle with the dragon. God rewards those who stand tall in the face of evil. Here is a passage to illustrate this point found in Beowulf.

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“May it be granted by fate that one who behaves so bravely pass whole through the battle-storm” (Donaldson 8).

Now the thought of fate guiding a man’s life is comforting to those about to engage in battle however it is not without its consequences. We see in the wanderer that in war we are exposed to hardship and sorrow. That with the opportunity for greatness lay the bodies of dead friends and compatriots. “So spoke the earth-walker, remembering hardships, fierce war-slaughters- the fall of dear kinsmen.”(Norton 100). In Beowulf we see the great king of Hrothgar sorrowful for his fallen thanes. “The famous king, hero of old days, sat joyless; the mighty one suffered, felt sorrow for his thanes (Donaldson 5). We see that even great men of courage and honor are not safe from the arrow of grief through their hearts. War often has a hefty price to be paid by any who wish to enter its throes.

Lastly, sages of the Geats in Beowulf give the final piece of the puzzle. Shortly before his journey the Geats “examine the omens,” (Donaldson 7) to examine the opportunity brought forth to Beowulf. By examining these omens they are consulting wyrd. We can infer that any opportunity for war is brought by fate. In this culture men do not start wars. Men are often acting out the will of fate in their wars and thus have no control over the provocation of war nor the outcome. So we can see that the author given the context of Beowulf and The Wanderer cannot really be construed as arguing for or against war when men have utterly no control over it.
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