To check the commentary volume of Bernard J. Muir’s magisterial The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501 (1994) one might be forgiven for concluding that the primary issue with this gnomic, gnarled half-line is a matter of grammar: “Mitchell-Robinson (p. 271) translates, ‘Fate is wholly inexorable’.” And to many readers the main issue is one of construing its unusual construction, as we don’t often use “full” as an intensifying adverb any longer in Modern English. But this is really a story of how critical trajectory insists upon a meaning and determines a direction for all future work to follow. Often, this work is laudatory, allowing each generation a foundation upon which to build their own vanguard work. In this case, however, tradition has circumscribed the thoughts that are possible, standing in the way of innovation. Thinking anew about our phrase here is difficult, but several scholars have tried to do so. Mark S. Griffiths puts the issue plainly, “Crudely torn from its roots and quoted in isolation, it sounds like a simple fatalistic cliché; viewed in context, it jars, intrigues, and baffles” (1). But bafflement does not translate well, and mastery is often what a scholar seeks to demonstrate in a translation. The question remains, what does this phrase mean, and why are editors in such a hurry to dissipate its jarring power?
The brief half-line is the ending of the opening excursus of one of the most provocative and allusive dramatic monologues ever written in the English language. I agree that this moment is particularly difficult and powerful, and to interpret it in an innovative manner is to overcome many generations of critical conclusion, beginning with Benjamin Thorpe’s 1842 rendering “His fate is full decreed,” starting a trajectory that has tended to shut down possibilities in its hurry to resolve this important moment. The implication of the entire poem hinges on these few words, the whole lyric hangs in the balance.
Critics generally agree that the word “aræd” (an emendation, written “ared” in the Exeter Book, with an e-caudata) is tricky, but they usually skip right past the even more slippery beginning of the passage, “wyrd.” Few words in any language have so much ethical and ideological power impacted into four tiny letters. Scholars from very early in the history of Old English literature constructed the idea of “wyrd” as a link between Germanic pagan fatalism and the illustrious legacy of “Fortuna” in Classical letters, often rendering it in English as “Fate.” The idea of inexorable destiny in the surviving Old English poetry is often personified in much the same way as its Classical relative, something like Boethius’s goddess that rules the vicissitudes of the world—a reading supported by the feminine gender of the noun “wyrd,” and solidified by the importance of the Ælfredian circle translations of the Consolation of Philosophy (and a versified adaptation of its poetry, the Metres of Boethius) into Old English in the late ninth century. The critical attitude towards “wyrd” is exemplified by its usage at an important moment in Beowulf: when the hero recounts the results of his swimming contest before the Danish court, saying “Wyrd oft nereð / unfægne eorl, þonne his ellen deah” [often translated as “Fate often spares / the noblemen undoomed, when his courage avails”] (572-73).
“Wyrd” is almost always rendered by translators and critics as “Fate,” as if there is no question about its meaning. But even a hoary old resource like Rev. Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (originally published in 1838) provides numerous alternative meanings, including “what happens,” “an event, occurrence, circumstance, incidence, fact,” “what happens to a person,” and “chance, accident” as well as the commonly used personified sense in “Fate.” The word is related to the preterite and past participle forms of the weak verb weorðan, “to become, to happen” (wurdon, worden), and even its cognate relationship to the Old Norse name of the one of the Norns, Urðr, communicates the sense of “what has happened.” Incidentally, the other two Norns, Verðandi and Skuld, clearly continue this sense of ongoing occurrence, meaning “Happening” and “Must [Become]” respectively — and this paranomastic relationship to time as process complicates any easy expression of a Northern Germanic sense of “Fate” as solely fatalistic, a fait accompli. Most likely there is some cross-pollination evident in the native concept of wyrd with Classical fortuna and Christian providence throughout the Old English period, and this amalgamation only accelerates in the nineteenth century when Classically trained philologists (and Anglican Church-trained theologians) were reclaiming ancient Northern Germanic languages. (2) A hybrid sense of wyrd suits scholars arguing for a native dignity to their ancient pedigree, comparable to the much-higher status languages and literatures of the Classical Mediterranean (as well as seeking the deep English roots of their own theological assumptions).
Do the extant appearances of wyrd in the literature support its invariable rendering as “Fate”? Even the paradigmatic Beowulf quotation given above troubles the sense of “wyrd” in its absolute, Homeric-inflected sense. The hero implies that the course of events will spare “the nobleman undoomed” IF “his courage avails” indicating that human effort can change the outcome, that what will happen is not fixed and adopting a fatalistic attitude means failure. Taking wyrd as something already decided is what slays the brave warrior. Such thoughts are not indicative of an impersonal, relentless force of fortune in the world, and that probably means that modern scholars should not overstate the puissance of “Fate” in the Northern Germanic imagination at the time the great Old English poetic codices are compiled.
Let’s read the phrase in a less fatalistic manner, hearkening to the suggestion followed by R. F. Leslie’s edition of the Ruin and its opening “Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon” [These wall-stones are wondrous — / calamities crumpled them]. After B. J. Timmer, he opts for the nonpersonified “man’s lot” for the plural wyrde rather than “the Fates” suggested by previous editors (a similar situation is found in Solomon and Saturn’s “feowere rapas” riddle solved in 355: “Gewurdene wyrda” [Outcomes bound to befall]) expresses a similar idea: that the sense of happening in the word wyrd need not be keyed in every case to a personified deity of Fate or the Fates.
It is this sense of non-fatalistic fate that I want to read the opening moments of the Wanderer, of wyrd as the “course of events” as these events have already occurred, and fit the past perfective sense inhering in the word’s roots. I would go one step further, to create a mini-gnomic sentence in the word, but without deified fatalism: I often translate wyrd as the “way of the world.” Impermanence is certainly the condition of the mortal world, but one does not have to get wrought about it, or need to constantly harp on the vanity of human endeavor as opposed to another world of eternal stability. Wyrd just is — it is a fact of human existence, a condition Beowulf acknowledges in his own gnomic statement.
“Bið” need not vex us here. It is the form of “beon” (to be) often used for either the future tense or in epigrammatic statements for a state of being that is and always has been and always should be, as it appears dozens of times in Maxims I & II. This tense usage simply reminds us that we are in the epigrammatic mode, the sense of the “ever true.”
However, the Exeter Book’s “ared” is surely cause for consternation. Usually emended to “aræd” to match forms found elsewhere in the extant literature, the word is usually described as either an adjective or past participle based on the weak verb “arædan.” (3) Bosworth-Toller gives the definition of this verb as “to take counsel, care for, appoint, determine” and “to conjecture, guess, prophesy, interpret, utter,” to which Toller supplements, “to determine, fix,” “to read a riddle,” “to read what is written,” and finally, “to prepare.” Only one of these definitions would appear to fit the idea of “inexorable.” Bosworth himself gives “resolute” as a questionable definition and cites this passage, perhaps reading it as a misspelling of “anræd” or “of single counsel” or “resolute.” (The Exeter Book scribe does have a tendency to drop n’s throughout the book, lending credence to this possibility.) Still, a doubtful reading of “resolute” does not come even close to the preferred sense of “inexorable” or even “determined.” (4)
Griffiths concludes that “‘wyrd bið ful aræd’ is not an expression of a miserable determinism, and not a simple expression of an optimistic one either.” However, there are other possibilities than the simple binary between optimism and pessimism. Perhaps it is instead an invitation to a grim, possibly ironic pragmatism? The poem certainly supports this sense by its continuous invocation of ways to respond intellectually to transience and disaster. Kathleen Davis has recently argued for the non-elegiac aspects to the so-called “Elegies,” pointing out their common attention to intellectual and philosophical reactions to the tragedies and miseries described in their lines. This focus on cognition moves these poems into a more sophisticated realm—something much more in line with the Alfredian translations of the Consolation of Philosophy—from mere acknowledgment of disastrous events into a more active participation in their response and possibly remedy. The tag of “elegy” has always been worn uncomfortably by these poems anyways, and Davis makes a radical suggestion to avoid it from now on. (5)
Davis, in her discussion of “ared” prefers its cognitive definitions of reading, determining, interpreting, citing the Old English Daniel, “þæt he him bocstafas / arædde and arehte, hwæt seo run bude” [so that he would read and relate those book-staves / for them, what mystery dwelt there] (739b-740) and the translation of Apollonius of Tyre, “mid Godes fultume he þæt soð arædde” [with the aid of God, [Apollonius] discerned that truth](Goolden, ed., IV.19). In both of these instances, one poetic, the other prose (forms of the word appears only three times in the extant poetic corpus [but twice in Daniel, according to the ASPR Concordance]), the sense of “aræd” is clearly one of figuring things out, interpreting the signs presented to the mind, and determining a course of action from that information. Davis states, “This clause references the relation between the anhaga’s exceptional status and his grasp of wyrd; by virtue of his experience and wisdom, he has come to terms with wyrd, and can decipher what to others may seem mysterious, like a riddle.” (6) One that has “ared” the circumstances around them have taken some degree of control of the world around them, much like a scholar might be seen to control thought itself through the technology of literacy.
In my translation of The Wanderer, appearing on this site, I reject the overly pious, pessimistic view of its most famous phrase, swimming against a current set to flowing back in 1842 in Thorpe’s very first translation, though doubted by Bosworth in his dictionary. It is my view that we should have listened to the reverend and thought more carefully about the implications of “ared.” Rather, each successive translation states the questionable reading even more firmly (although Greg Delanty’s simple “fate dictates” threads a fine needle between traditional determinism and something else [in The Word Exchange, 57]). Instead, I take Davis’s suggestion of experiential possibilities even further, rendering the half-line as “the way of the world is ever an open book.” No doubt, this radical deviation from critical piety has caused many potential audience members, both in and out of the academy, to reject the entire website and all its translations as spurious and fanciful. But it is defensible, as I have shown in this post. I fail to see why all translators must follow the herd off the cliff of tradition, especially when that cliff does not tower upon a secure foundation of philology, but instead a presumptive reading-backwards of a mixture of Classical importation with nineteenth-century Anglican piety.
The fate of the entire poem does indeed hang upon this vital moment. Are we to assume the anhaga is ready to give up his struggle out of a recognition of its futility? Or do we read instead a Beowulfian sense of potentiality, to fight on when the earl is unfægne, trusting that his strength avails? Even if the poem is to be read homiletically as an affirmation of a Christian path out of pagan limitation, accessing that Providential road does not entail abandoning effort in favor of contemplation and faith. (This traditional reading does seem possible by the poem’s final invocation of a speaker who sits “sundor æt rune,” invoking the “fæder on heofonum,” but even here this subject position nonetheless depends upon him being an “eorl mid elne gefremman” [an earl practicing his courage] (114), grappling with the world around him, grasping firmly onto the wisest course.) Effort, toil, labor are the mortal lot—our “way of the world.” Even the rules of cloistered contemplatives are marked by habitus, daily routine, bodily practice, and resistance against what the world lacks. The lives of the Desert Fathers, exemplars of the monastic and eremitic worlds, were never characterized by placid acceptance of worldly change, but their active endeavors in this world to achieve a Godly life and gain an understanding of the Eternal.
My rendering is indeed over the top—avowedly affronting, laughingly violative, a thumb in the eye of tradition—intended to open up the strictures of crabbed fatalism into a refreshing seizing of its possibilities. The structure of the clause is largely the same, though I metonymically substitute the act of reading for the object being read. I adapt the intensifier “ful” by rolling it into the sense of gnomic perpetualism inherent in the verb “bið,” giving it as “ever” (though some of that intensifying sense comes across in the phrase “open book” as well). I see my translation’s use of the cliched idea of the “open book” communicates the irony of its revelation. This is not meant to be entirely optimistic—but neither is it darkly fatalistic—but it comes instead out of the same grim irony that pervades the entire poem. This is not meant to urge a miserable resignation in the face of trouble, but wise activity and measured resistance, a lyric growth into productivity. Interpreting “ared” finally as something active and useful, after important and contrary critical urgings, will reboot our contemporary understanding of this ancient and very important poem, liberating it at long last from the pieties of previous scholarship and allowing it to breathe freely once again in its verbal glory and majesty.
1) Mark S. Griffith, “Does wyrd bið ful aræd mean ‘Fate is wholly inexorable’?”, Studies in English Language and Literature: “Doubt wisely,” Papers in Honour of E. G. Stanley. Edited by M. J. Toswell and E. M. Tyler. (London: Routledge, 1996). page 137.
2) I owe this observation to Larry Swain, who is currently writing an article on just this subject.
3) “Arædan” is an interesting weak verb in Old English that has since become strong: “to read” → “read” (past tense). The form appearing in the Exeter Book makes me wonder if this process was not already underway in the late Old English period (usually it’s described as occurring during the Middle English period). If this pattern is indeed evident this early, recorded in the Exeter Book version, here we have a possible phonetic record of the vowel change in the past participle.
4) The “determine” of Bosworth’s definition is more in the sense of “to deliberate” or “to think about” — hardly “fixed” or “predetermined” — in fact, quite the opposite.
5) Following Davis, “I prefer the term “Poems of Contemplation.”
6) Kathleen Davis, “Old English Lyrics: a Poetics of Experience” in The Cambridge History to Early Medieval English Literature, ed. Clare Lees (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2013), 344.
(All translations are my own, most found here on this website)
Appendix (in progress) of extant translations:
Thorpe, 1842: “His fate is full decreed”
Gollancz [coming soon]
Hieatt, 1967 (prose): “Fate is inexorable”
Kennedy, 1936: “Homeless and helpless he fled from Fate” *
Gordon, 1936: “settled in truth is fate!”
Raffel, 1960: “Fate has opened / a single port: memory” (same in 1998) **
Alexander, 1970: “Wierd is set fast”
Rebsamen, 1971 (prose): “Fate is full determined”
David (in Pope, 1981, appears in the NAEL 9th ed.): “Fate is firmly set”
Bradley, 1982 (prose): “Fate is inexorable”
Crossley-Holland, 1983 (prose): “fate is inflexible”
Mitchell-Robinson, 1983 “Fate is wholly inexorable!”
Liuzza, 2009 (in Broadview’s anthology): “Wyrd is fully fixed!”
Williamson, 2011: “His fate is fixed”
Delanty, 2013: “fate dictates
Bjork, 2014: [on order]
The best line here seems to be R. K. Gordon’s (with Delanty’s a close second), but you can easily see the extent to which each successive translator has basically refused to stray from Thorpe’s original “party line.” I’ll add more translations to this list as I find them. If you know of any, that should be added, especially from pre-1960s versions, drop me a comment or email.
In gathering these different translations together, and seeing how closely the bulk of them adhere to the same reading, it makes me wonder why people bother to make new translations at all if they are not bringing new insights to the poetry. Do we do it just to prove that yes we know what we’re talking about? There must twenty-five translations of Beowulf out there right now, and only two of them, Heaney and Meyer as far as I know, that even try to do anything different with that hoary text. (Mine may not either, but I’d like to think it tries to…) I wonder if this critical concatenation of traditional reading actually crushes new approaches and dissuades newcomers from challenging established tenets. Are we painting ourselves in a corner with our translation practices? (Questions like this inform an article that I am currently drafting on the problematic reception of translations by Old English scholars.)
* This passage comes from Kennedy’s later attempts to render selected Old English poetry into something like alliterating lines, which necessitates in almost every case a looseness with the word and sense of the original text. His example provides an important caution to me in my efforts to create a contemporary, poetic rendering that respects but does not adhere to the alliteration and rhythm.
** It is intriguing that the furthest these translations stray from the traditional, fatalistic critical line is in the rendering by the translator whose work has avowedly cared little for scholarly consensus. See his reports of epistolary exchanges with Beowulf scholars in The Forked Tongue (1971).