The Time for Fated Men: Destiny & Free Will in the Northern World

People Linked by Destiny

            Some months ago, I was explaining the Law of Surprise to a friend. The law is a device in the world of Andrej Sapkowski’s The Witcher, and runs like this. Let us say that I am beset by bandits on the road. You hear my cries for help and, skilled knightly combatant that you are, slay the villains with shining steel. I owe you my life, but alas, I am but a poor National Trust employee with a wife and blog to provide for. You may thus invoke the Law of Surprise as payment, claiming either, ‘that which I have but do not know’, or ‘the first to greet me on my arrival home’. This is a risky claim to make, for it could anything from a child, prized horse, inheritance, debt, or a disease. This conversation led me to consider how pivotal ideas around destiny and fate were in the Northern World. The literature and mythology of the early medieval period are rich with patterns of fate and destiny, and how they interact with individual choice and character. My mind also turned to the legacy of this culture in our own; for all the strange antiquity of Anglo-Saxon Britain, the modern English mentality is shaped by these values, and resonates with us still. In the prologue of the 1995 Bond film Goldeneye, Trevelyan says to Bond, ‘Half of everything is luck James’. Bond responds, ‘And the other half?’ At this point, sirens suddenly blare and Trevelyan replies, with a wry smile, ‘Fate’. It is a term with which we are immediately familiar. The sardonic, resigned smile to an unforeseen destiny could have been straight from the pages of Beowulf or The Laxdaela Saga. In this article, I am going to explore the understanding of fate in the Northern World, and then move to considering how it was shaped by the new faith of Christianity, before finishing with an exploration of how these values are, to a large extent, still with us.

Fate in the Northern World

            So what is meant by fate, destiny, doom? These words weave themselves through the chronicles, sagas and folkore of the early medieval period, and their meaning is subtle and complex. The first thing to understand is that doom does not carry its modern meaning, of a terrible fate, but rather it was a neutral word, meaning a future consequence, a course of action laid before us. A good illustration is found in The Lord of the Rings, where the characters must ensure the ring is destroyed. Not only is this quest described as their ‘doom’, but even the destination is named Mount Doom, meaning a place of destiny, the destination towards which they strive.

            A little background will help us understand these values, and their place in the Northern cultures. The Anglo-Saxon word for fate or destiny is wyrd, the source of the modern English ‘weird’, meaning something originally that was hard to understand or unpredictable. Characters in myth cycles, such as The Volsunga Saga, are often troubled by prophetic dreams revealing the fate of other characters, and it is here that the role of women becomes important. They occupied a space as weavers, both physical and metaphorical, and owing to their ability to carry and grow new life within them, were believed to have an intrinsic understanding of the weft of fate, being able to tap into it through a barrier that was, for women, highly permeable. They are often the ones speaking words of doom or destiny through dreams or prophecy. For example, queens arranged marriages and negotiated peace amongst factions that were often all too-ready to plunge into thoughtless conflict. Historically, it was Raedwald of East Anglia’s queen who prompted him to uphold a promise of protection he had made to a fugitive from another kingdom, and by doing so, changed the course of Anglo-Saxon history. When Beowulf has slain Grendel, it is Hrothgar’s queen who, ‘Then spoke, accept this cup my king and lord […] and to the Geats speak words of friendship’. Here she is occupying a diplomatic role, making sure that Beowulf and his men are honoured for their service, while not neglecting her own sons, ‘Hrethric and Hrothmund […] between the two brothers, Beowulf the Geat’. The lady of the hall, cupbearer, is a role I will explore in another post, but it is enough to say for now that they were regarded as having a kind of supernatural power over the weft of fate itself. Curiously, a modern tribute to fate-weaving exists in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. The warp is the name for the nightmarish otherworld of the fickle Chaos gods, through which ships must travel to traverse the galaxy. In traditional weaving, the warp refers to the stationery threads through which the moving threads (called the weft) must pass, echoing the idea that fate is something that is woven and inescapable

            The inescapability of fate is also explored in Norse mythology. Firstly, there are three maidens, called Norns, who spin at the roots of Yggdrasil, the world-tree, weaving the fates of men. They are Urđr, Verđandi and Skuld, corresponding to fate, becoming, and obligation. We see here the relationship pictured as a threefold cord of what shall come to us, the choices we make, and the responsibilities that we see ahead. Returning to Beowulf, at the climax of his contest with the monster Grendel, we are told that, “To Beowulf, was the glory of this fight granted”, but against the terrible dragon, the aging Beowulf realises that, “He must now dispute this space of time, the first in his life when fate had not assigned him the glory of the battle”. He knows that victory shall not be his, but he knows he must fight on; how he meets destiny shall be a test of his character. Similarly, across the storm-cold reach of the North Atlantic, the Scandinavian settlers in Iceland had remarkably similar attitudes. In Gisli Sursson’s Saga, the titular hero stands beside a burial mound, in conversation with his brother. Troubled by dreams of murder and revenge, he says, “I have not told either dream until now because I did not want them to come true.” He is expressing a belief in the intractability of a fate, once in motion, and the power of prophetic words, once spoken. This links with the fascinating fatalism of Norse mythology. All roads, all paths and destinies, lead to Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. Odin’s use of Valkyries to claim the greatest warriors for his halls are part of his doomed attempt to stave off an inevitable end. Even for their gods, destiny was inexorable, and the real test was how to face it.

            Ultimately, the beliefs of fate in the Northern World defy a simple explanation. The Anglo-Saxons understood that some events had been pre-ordained, both pagans and Christians, but that choice was given to mankind as to what they made of their fate. This is aptly expressed by Tolkien in the The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf comforts Frodo, who laments the arduous task and fate assigned to him. He says, ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time’. Gandalf replies, ‘So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All that is left for us to decide, is what to do with the time that is given us’.

God Shall be in Heaven: Christianity & the Anglo-Saxons

            As Christianity gained momentum in England in the 7th and 8th centuries, there was conflict between the new faith and existing pagan traditions, but the spread and adoption of the new faith was remarkably fast. I believe this success is partly due to the ease with which Christian beliefs about fate, the will of God and the afterlife mapped onto the pre-existing worldviews. An example of this can be found in the work of Alfred the Great. As part of his educational reforms, he ordered that certain texts were to be translated into Old English, to be circulated amongst learning institutions in England. One of these was Beothius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, in which the woman Philosophy (meaning wisdom in this case, or true understanding) comforts and instructs the theologian and statesman Boethius, who is despairing during his imprisonment. It is no accident that Philosophy is realised as a woman, again underlining the relationship between women and the workings of fate. Book IV is especially relevant here because Beothius asks Philosophy how free will and providence, or Divine Will, can possibly co-exist. Philosophy’s answer is an enlightening one, for when, ‘This plan [of the world’s happenings] is thought of as in the purity of God’s understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things, whose motion and order it controls, it is called by the name the ancients gave it, Fate’. It is easy to understand why Alfred found such solace in the work. Boethius’ insight and understanding of the role of fate, human will and the question of evil, were immediately relevant to the long struggles of Alfred’s reign to restore and expand his kingdom’s strength and learning, carried out in the face of violent oppression and the frustrating limitations of his own ill health.

Ancient Values, New Stories

            The slogan of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series is Wyrd bið ful aræd, meaning ‘fate is inexorable’, and is a direct quotation from the Old English poem The Wanderer, a complex exploration of the interactions of choice and destiny. The tagline’s popularity is arguably due to its resonance with our understanding of destiny and choice, and the inexorability of fate is a staple of so many heroic stories. In Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the Rohirrim are his own tribute to the Anglo-Saxons, and as they ride to the aid of Minas Tirith, facing insurmountable odds, we are told that, ‘Doom hung over them, but they faced it silently’. These ideas are powerful and resonant ones, and Tolkien knew that when crafting his tale.

            This attitude has carried forward through history. From Nelson’s ‘England confides [his intended signal, rather than ‘expects’, shortened due to signaling constraints] that every man shall do his duty’ at Trafalgar, to Tennyson’s ‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do, or die’, there is an admiration for courage in the face of peril. This stoic, sardonic attitude was a staple of previous generations of British fiction, particularly in military situations. Watching Zulu the other day with my wife, I was reminded of just such a moment. In the face of destruction at the hands of King Cetshwayo’s Zulus, a nervous private asks the impassive Colour-Sergeant Bourne, ‘Why is it us? Why us?’ The sergeant’s reassuringly sensible answer is, ‘because we’re here lad. Just us, nobody else’. Similarly, in The Great Escape, when Bartlett is asked, ‘have you thought what it [a large scale escape attempt] might cost?’ he replies, ‘I’ve thought of the humiliation if we just, tamely submit”. Bartlett’s goal is not to succeed, but to cause “Such a stink in this Third Reich of theirs, that thousands of troops who could be at the front will be stuck here, guarding us”. Like the Anglo-Saxons at Maldon or Beowulf before the dragon, the goal is not success, but a brave act, a show of defiance against an inescapable fate.

            As enjoyable as these moments are as good cinema, there is a relevance to the attitude they convey. The trend in recent years has been to denigrate these values. Stemming from a necessary desire to counter the emotional rigidity of past generations, it is a reasonable observation that we have carried a good point to an unhealthy extreme. The discussion about the need to face what is before us with courage and an even temper has become mired in increasingly petty debates about ever more obscure redefinitions of language and values to suit current-year sensitivities. Such unwelcome and obfuscating baggage is nowhere more obstructive than in the debate around gender roles. The traditionally lauded male characteristics of stoicism, courage, duty and self-sacrifice, have been labeled as ‘toxic traits’, in a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A growing body of evidence backs up employers’ concerns around the emotional immaturity and lack of resilience among new entrants to the workplace, and the phenomenon of ‘emotional incontinence’ is evident in recent film and media productions. Where stoicism, courage, endurance, sacrifice and duty were the watchwords of the Northern Spirit, a slew of recently produced dramas seem to be nothing but protagonists shedding tears at the slightest provocation. The protagonist who pursues their own whims, at the expense of public or familial duty, is the hero/ine of the hour, particularly in children’s films, in contrast to the heroes of old. Such media is openly disdainful of the hero who shoulders as much responsibility as they can bear, to stand alone unbowed before seemingly insurmountable opposition. In the face of this disparagement, the Northern World has much to teach us. Ignoring ancient wisdom rarely yields good fruit.

            Finally, examining early medieval literature and mythology reveals a significant truth. Underpinning the modern veneration for personal and emotional fulfillment at the expense of all else, is the idea that we can control our lives. But this is a fiction. One has only to walk to the shop to buy a pint of milk to see just how little control we actually have over what happens to us. Most of us are not in a position to manipulate the events of our lives beyond those things under our direct daily control, but the Anglo-Saxons understood that the complexity of life makes such control an unobtainable illusion. Rather, how we face our fate, what we make of our wyrd, is what should really be our focus. And that, as Gandalf would say, ‘is a comforting thought’.

Further Reading

            This has necessarily been a short exploration of the topic, but below are recommendations and sources for all that I have covered:

  • A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, translated by Richard Hamer
  • Beowulf, a verse translation by Michael Alexander
  • Gisli Sursson’s Saga and the Saga of the People of Eyri, translated by Judy Quinn and Martin S. Regal
  • The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
  • The Consolation of Philosophy, by Beothius, translated by V.E. Watts
  • The Anglo-Saxon Age, by Martin Wall
  • Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources, translated by Simon Keynes
  • The Last Wish, by Andrej Sapkowski
  • The Elder Edda, translated by Andy Orchard
  • The Prose Edda, translated by Jesse Byock

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