Medieval Literature

Abstract

            The purpose of this paper was to give evidence to the notion of predestination in two texts: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as shed light to the consistency of the religious/philosophical world views found in each of these texts. Upon researching these two subjects, the texts show that predestination is the only thing that shapes the destiny of humans. As mentioned previously, these texts also revealed evidence of consistent religious/philosophical world views. Evidence was found within the stories of these characters themselves, as it was intertwined in the works of text. This research was important because one needs to realize that free will was not something that can be proven in medieval literature, as this was the original hypothesis before deep analysis. Free will did not have an impact on the lives of these characters (Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Sir Gawain) as much as preordination did. The research also allowed this conclusion to come about strongly, as the studies primarily came from the The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, which contains in-depth material and background of the medieval time period, including the history and background knowledge of both the texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the history of the possible time period that each text was calculated to have been written in. The order of this paper is as follows: predestination found in Beowulf, consistent world views found in Beowulf, predestination found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and lastly, consistent world views found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This paper covers these topics in-depth because of the research that was put into this paper. 

Predestination in Medieval Text

The authors of the works displayed during the medieval time period approach various topics throughout their texts. Among such topics are the notions of predestination and free will, as well as the religious ideology of an existing God. These topics can be discussed in the works of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By definition, ‘predestination’ is “the doctrine that God [or fate] in consequence of his foreknowledge of all events infallibly guides those who are destined for salvation (Merriam).” In contrast, ‘free will’ is the “freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention (Merriam).”  Upon studying Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both texts have evidence proving predestination, as well as maintaining consistency among the religious/philosophical world views of each work of text.

In argument that predestination is prevalent in the work of Beowulf, one would determine the notion of ‘fate,’ or ‘wyrd’ is utilized frequently throughout the text. This ideology of fate preordaining the life of Beowulf himself is found when the author wrote, “that fate was too great which impelled the king of our people thither (3085-6).” This is Wiglaf speaking to the Geats when they were in preparation for the burial of Beowulf. Wiglaf is making a statement that Beowulf could not change is destiny, as the power of fate was too strong for him to overcome, which resulted in his ultimate death. However, fate’s influence on Beowulf was found not just in his death, but throughout the life of Beowulf as well. Beowulf’s first mention of ‘wyrd’ is found in line 455, “Wyrd always goes as it must!” Here, Beowulf is succumbing to the influence of fate itself. He knows that everything is a result of fate. In his argument that he will be able to defeat this monster [Grendel], he acknowledges the power of fate in his life. Beowulf also recounts when ‘fate’ saved his life, “Wyrd often spares an undoomed man, when his courage endures (572-3)!” Arguably, Beowulf is boasting of his courage when he shares the story of defeating monsters in the sea (530-606) and is attempting to use this story to convince Unferth that he is indeed able to defeat Grendel. However, Beowulf makes a connection of courage being evident in his battles, therefore ‘fate sees’ this courage and ‘allows’ him to defeat such monsters. Here, ‘wyrd’ is being personified as a person, but it still has power over Beowulf’s life, nonetheless. This power is what Beowulf acknowledges in his boast. Upon further reading of Beowulf, one is able to learn another time Beowulf recognized the work of fate in his life. In lines 2525-7, he mentions, “but for us it shall be at the wall as wyrd decrees, the Ruler of every man.” In this situation, Beowulf and his men are preparing to battle the dragon that burned their buildings. Fate is something that actually rules the lives of men, including Beowulf. As one can see, the notion of ‘fate’ and predestination is undoubtedly found in the work of Beowulf’s life.

The idea of fate is also seen with other characters, such as the lives of the monsters, Grendel and his mother. There is a moment of foreshadowing in lines 734-6, “But it was not his [Grendel’s] fate to taste any more of the race of mankind after that night.” The author is telling the readers that Grendel will no longer be able to taste the blood of humans after this night because this is when Beowulf will defeat Grendel. However, when first reading these lines, one may not understand the foreshadow of Grendel’s death right away. With further study, one can understand that this was Grendel’s last night that he was going to be alive. As a result, fate is the causing agent of Grendel’s death because fate needed to be at work in order for this death to occur. This is further shown in lines 1055-7, “he [Grendel] would have done more, if wise God and one man’s courage [Beowulf] had not prevented that fate.” This reiterates the fact that Grendel was not able to kill more humans because of fate, as well as Beowulf’s courage that is connected to this fate, as mentioned earlier. The predestination of Grendel was that he was going to die before he was able to kill any more. As a result of Beowulf’s courage and God, the fate of Grendel, his inevitable death, came to pass. Foreshadow plays a role in Grendel’s mother’s life as well because after the celebration of Grendel’s death, those feasting “did not know wyrd, the cruel fate which would come to pass (1233-4).” This is mentioned briefly that another terror that is Grendel’s mother was going to appear in the hall. It is the fate of Grendel’s mother to appear and cause chaos among these people again for revenge because they killed her son, Grendel. Fate plays a significant role in the lives of the characters of Beowulf, where predestination can be found with Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother.

Throughout the reading of Beowulf, there is a consistent religious/philosophical world view of God, as the text mentions God multiple times. One of the first mentions of God is found in lines 106-10: “the Creator had condemned him [Grendel]…the Maker forced him far from mankind for his foul crime.” There is an acknowledgement of the Bible and God as the lines refer to the story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis. This is the author’s note in the work of the text, that shows that these people believed in stories told in the Bible; additionally, they believed that Grendel was a creature that came from this story who needed to be punished by God. The world view of God remains consistent as figures in the story of Beowulf refer to Him frequently. A reference by Hrothgar is found when he mentions that the “Holy God in His grace has guided him [Beowulf] to us…against Grendel’s terror (381-4).” Here, Hrothgar gives credit to God for bringing Beowulf to them to help fight against Grendel. As a king, he is telling Wulfgar that Beowulf would not have arrived had it not been for God. This creates a general consensus that there could be a ‘God’ that exists and works in their world. Evidence of this world view is shown in lines 700-702: “It is a well-known truth that mighty God has ruled mankind always and forever.” They know that a higher power must exist, and this higher power must know everything about them and their world. Because this ‘higher power’ is God, it further shows the consistency of the religious/philosophical world view of the text. This world view is explained again when the author mentions, “Surely the Geatish prince greatly trusted his mighty strength, the Maker’s favor, (669-70).” Beowulf is under the favor of God, which is shown by his marvelous strength in the way he battled Grendel. Beowulf could not have gotten this strength on his own, so there had to have been some other ‘figure’ [God] helping Beowulf defeat the monster. The reader sees this point being made again when Beowulf gives God credit for coming out of the battle against Grendel’s mother safely when he says, “indeed, the battle would have been over at once, if God had not guarded me (1657-8).” Even Beowulf realizes that he should not have been able to defeat a monster, this time being Grendel’s mother, yet, here he is telling the story of his victorious battle because of God’s help in the matter. In conclusion to the study of Beowulf, destiny is preordained, or predestined, and the religious/philosophical views are consistent throughout the entire work of text.

Similarly, the work of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives evidence to predestination, particularly in Sir Gawain’s life. Right after the meeting with the Green Knight, Gawain, as one of the knights of the Round Table, immediately takes upon the challenge. In his decision, Gawain defaults to a new ‘fate.’ As the Green Knight mentions in lines 452-3, “Such a blow as you have dealt, rightfully given, to be readily returned on New Year’s Day.” Now, Sir Gawain has something he is required to fulfill, his fate of receiving a blow from the Green Knight in a year and a day’s time. When this time comes closer, Gawain gives warning, “But if the outcome prove troublesome don’t be surprised; (496).” Here, Gawain is preparing to leave and begin his search for the Green Knight and the Green Chapel. However, he also understands that a blow to his head would inevitably result in death, as he is human and would not be immortal to a beheading. This further shows that Gawain was ready to accept his fate, no matter what the outcome would turn out to be. Interestingly enough, this knight also realizes that there could be a possibility that this outcome could be a positive one; he says, “‘For whether kind or harsh a man’s fate must be tried’ (564-5).” Here, there seems to be an acknowledgement that maybe fate could be changed for Gawain as he searches for the Knight and receives the returning blow. Yet, at the same time, Gawain is also challenging his fate of death simply by rising to the challenge the Green Knight gave out the previous year. As the day drew closer, though, one could see the human nature of Gawain overcome his thoughts, “Like a man overburdened with troublesome thoughts; how destiny would deal him his fate on the day when he meets the man at the Green Chapel, (1751-3).” Here, it is evident that Gawain began to worry of the fate that was upon him, as he began to mentally panic that he may not survive this challenge that he accepted. Despite this fear, Gawain continues to set out and complete his task, regardless of the outcome. He reiterates this when he’s talking with the servant right before his departure; Gawain says, “Whether good or ill come of it, as destiny decides (2134-5).” As mentioned earlier, Gawain had a mental panic, however, his words are the complete opposite as seen here. Gawain is convinced that ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ will have the last say during the beheading. It is at this point that the servant simply lets him go “that you [Gawain] will deliberately bring harm on yourself (2141).” The ideology of fate has a strong impact on Gawain and his life because, ultimately, Gawain believes that his fate will happen regardless. He believes that he is predestined to die as a result of this beheading, unless fate determines that he is going to live by some miraculous circumstance. Still, it is at this point that Gawain accepts the possible finality of his life, as decided by fate. He also accepts the fact that he is not going to be able to change what fate has in store for him.

Just like the text of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has consistent religious/philosophical world views. Other than the fact that the math found in the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contributes to this society’s belief of a ‘God’ (Thiede), the characters within the text directly give reference to God. In spite of the fact that Sir Gawain was strongly influenced that fate would have its way in his life, he still gave some attribution to God as found in lines 548-9, “I set out for the blow, to seek this man in green, as God will direct me.” Fate is not the factor that will lead Gawain to where he needs to be, it is God who is in control of the journey. Even in the midst of his journey, Gawain had “no one but God to talk to on the way, (696).” This further shows this knight believed in deity and had communication with Him. The author of this text references God during Gawain’s travels once more when he mentions that if Gawain “had…not been valiant and resolute, trusting in God, he would surely have died or been killed many times (724-5).” This talking about the battles that Gawain faced as he was making his trip to the Green Chapel, and that he came out victorious due to his trust in God. It is not possible to trust in something that one does not believe in, therefore proving the religious/philosophical world views were consistent throughout the text because Gawain was not the only one who had this world view. When he came to a certain house of which the host welcomed Gawain with open arms, giving gratitude to God for his arrival; the host says, “Truly, God has been gracious to us indeed, in allowing us to receive such a guest as Gawain, (920-1).” This host, as readers later find out is the Green Knight, is honored that Gawain had shown up to his place, that he should be able to host Gawain, yet, it is all God’s doing. Another example of giving credit to God for the way things work is found in line 1999, “the dawn presses against the darkness, as the Creator bids,” meaning God controls the weather and the sky. He does whatever He pleases with the appearance of nature. What humans see happening at sunrise, sunset, or daylight is a work of God. One last example of how the religious/philosophical world view is consistent is found when Sir Gawain confesses his sins (1880). Gawain recognizes his need to be cleansed of sin, and believes that there is a higher power that allows him to walk free. This reference of church and repentance of sin is evidence that this society, particularly Sir Gawain, had consistent world views religiously/philosophically.

As mentioned earlier, there is math involved in the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the calculations have proven that there must have been a divine order (Thiede). This math begins with an irrational number, and thus connecting this idea to that fact that “God also is impossible to know” (Thiede). This contributes to the religious/philosophical world view of this time period, in that people in this era believed there was something greater than themselves involved. It was believed to have divine order, divine qualities, and a divine God since math is the “language of God” (Thiede). Considering that math and God are correlated in this manner, there is evidence to show this consistency because the math comes from the text itself (Thiede). An example of this is found with the ideas of purity (1812), pearl (1212), patience (531), and Sir Gawain (2531), and how these add up to look like a cross (Thiede). This further shows that the cross was only seen by God, and this pleased Him. Upon finishing the study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there is evidence to prove that the life of Sir Gawain was predestined, or controlled by fate, as well as evidence to show that the religious/philosophical world view of this text was consistent throughout.

In conclusion, there are similar ideas found between Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as the deep analysis showed evidence in both texts to prove the notion of predestination, or fate, having a large impact on the characters’ lives. There is no control in the humans’ part to shape their destiny, as all of it is preordained. All the characters of Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Sir Gawain had seen how fate worked in their lives, as well as the outcome of their fates. The study of both these works also revealed the similar religious/philosophical world views, as they both mention God and notion that He is in control of the world and refer to Him frequently, and the consistency of these views within each of the texts, separately.

 

 

References

Black, Joseph. "Beowulf." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Third ed. Vol. One. N.p.: Broadview, 2014. N. pag. Print.

Black, Joseph. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Third ed. Vol. One. N.p.: Broadview, 2014. N. pag. Print.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Theide, Ralf. “the math of Sir Gawain.” 2016. PowerPoint Presentation.