For thousands of years—perhaps for as long as the human race has existed—men have loved to tell tales of heroism. But man’s beliefs change concerning good and evil, honor and shame, piety and impiety; and as his ideas about the universe and his place in it shift, so do the stories he tells. So in The Iliad, Homer tells of a world filled with “The mere endless up and down, the constant aimless alternations of glory and misery, which make up the terrible phenomenon called a Heroic Age.” (Lewis 29-30.) But Virgil, seeing the rise of Augustus and the order of the young Empire, can write a poem in which the world moves from disorder to order, and his hero is filled with more purpose than Achilles could ever have known. Beowulf, however, is in another Heroic Age. From its beginning, Heorot stands “awaiting / a barbarous burning.” (Beowulf lines 82-3), and on Beowulf’s death his lordless people expect slaughter and slavery. But though Beowulf’s time has less earthly security than Virgil’s, something has changed: Christianity has come. Beowulf can be freer than Achilles, freer even than Aeneas; for Beowulf is an essentially Christian hero, with his actions informed by many circumstances around him, but acting with total free will.
Yes, fate is mentioned or assumed in Beowulf. The night before Grendel’s mother attacks Heorot, the poet says that “…one man / lay down to his rest, already marked for death.” (1240-1). But this is not a fate of the same crushing weight as that in the Greek and Roman world in which Aeneas is, from the first line, “an exile driven on by Fate” (Virgil 1.1); this in Beowulf is heavy too, but it is the inevitability of the real, of what does happen, not of what must happen. Unforseen tragedy comes to man, the outcome of battle is incalculable, and all chances rest in the hand of God; but chances and choices are real.
It is also true that the lordship of God is often proclaimed in the poem, and the poet and Beowulf himself give God credit for victories. But this is a Christian, and not a pagan, lordship of God. In The Iliad and The Aeneid, the gods sit in conference deciding the fates of men, or individually wreak their will on those they love or hate. As Achilles says, “So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men / live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.” (Homer 42.613-14) In Beowulf, the characters are quick to give thanks where any humble Christian must: as Hrothgar says after Grendel’s death, “First and foremost, let the Almighty Father / be thanked for this sight.” (927-8). Yet a few lines later, the King says:
“…now a man,
with the Lord’s assistance, has accomplished something
none of us could manage before now
for all our efforts.” (938-41)
“A man, with the Lord’s assistance”: this is the Christian philosophy of battle. It is this St. Thomas Aquinas writes of, when he says, “Those words of the apostle are not to be taken as though man does not wish or does not run of his free-will, but because the free-will is not sufficient thereto unless it be moved and helped by God.” (298)
But to be helped by God does not mean that Beowulf is not independent, and though helped by the true God he receives no security of victory from Him, like the great founder of Rome, who, under Zeus and Venus, is given a promise. He will have much trouble and a long voyage, Creusa’s ghost tells him, but will at last find Italy. “There great joy and a kingdom / are yours to claim, and a queen to make your wife.” (Virgil 2.971-2) Aeneas will suffer much, need much courage, and face very hard choices; his path is harsher than Beowulf’s; and yet he knows what lies at its end. Beowulf does not. As Chesterton writes, “…if he fail or if he win / To no good man is told.” (12). Beowulf can speak from a position of real ignorance, and thus real choice and courage, when he makes his formal boast before fighting Grendel: “…I shall fulfil that purpose, / prove myself with a proud deed / or meet my death here in the mead-hall.” (636-8)
All through the poem, indeed, it is clear that Beowulf is a free agent. He is neither manipulated or ordered about as the heroes of the pagan epics are nor under a tyranny of his own independence, but stands in the freedom only the true God gives. As King Alfred tells Guthrum,
“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight,
That might betray his lord;” (Chesterton 43)
But the free knight Beowulf does not betray his lord; neither in heaven nor on earth; neither under Hygelac, nor abroad serving Hrothgar; not even when he is offered the throne and chooses instead to guard it for the young boy who is the rightful heir. He can say with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my helper and my protector: in him hath my heart confided, and I have been helped.” (Ps. 27:7). Yet at the same time, his choices are his own, for good and not evil, for honor and not shame, for piety and not pride. Beowulf is a Christian, and a free man.
Aquinas, Thomas, Summa of the Summa. Edited and annotated by Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, 1990
Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Chesterton, G. K., The Ballad of the White Horse. John Lane Company, 1911.
Homer, The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1990.
Lewis, C. S., A Preface to Paradise Lost. Oxford UP, 1942.
Virgil, The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking, 2006.