Beowulf Glossary


“Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good.”-- Beowulf

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Anglo-Saxon word “wyrd” means “the principal, power, or agency by which events are predetermined; fate, destiny.” The Anglo-Saxon understanding of fate is not all too different from our modern understanding and applies to both Christian and pagan beliefs. Fate is a force that controls a man’s life regardless of his actions. Fate is usually seen as three women, sometimes blind, who weave the thread of a man’s life and cut it when it is his time to die.

In Anglo-Saxon literature, fate, its power and the doom it can bring are often referred to. In “The Wanderer,” an elegy that laments the narrator’s dead lord, the narrator states that “All earth’s kingdom is wretched, the world beneath the skies is changed by the work of the fates.” The narrator ends with a comment on how “all this earthly habitation shall be emptied.” Clearly, the narrator has a dim view of the world and how it will end as a result of what fate decrees. To the narrator, fate is all powerful and decides the future of mankind. From the poem, it is evident that the narrator has a dark view of the world. This bleak outlook of life is no doubt the result of seeing so much death. After all, the narrator’s ring-giver and all of his comrades are dead. Also the narrator is an exile searching for a home but never finding it. Therefore, his belief that mankind is doomed makes sense and his dismal view of the world extends to the power of fate.

In the epic Beowulf, the great hero, in discussing the outcome of his battle against Grendel with Hrothgar, states that “Fate always goes as it must.” This indicates that Beowulf is not completely foolhardy because he recognizes that Grendel might defeat him and that the decision is all in the hands of fate. A great warrior can fight his best, but if fate is not on his side that day, then he will lose. This is the mindset of the Viking warrior and perhaps of the Anglo-Saxon poet as well.

Despite the dark world view that the Anglo-Saxon concept of fate seems to project, the end is not all dark. After all, if a man has not already been predetermined to die, then his courage might sway the fates that he may live to fight another day. Above all, the Anglo-Saxons were Christians, and unlike the pagans, they did not see the end of the world as endless winter. After the Apocalypse, there will be the kingdom of heaven.

By Renee Yewdaev


Abrams, M.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Beowulf. Trans. E. Talbot Donaldson. Ed. Nicholas Howe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.

“Weird.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.


Definition: Stonehenge- A group of standing stones on Salisbury Plain, England. Dating to c2000-1800B.C., the megaliths are enclosed by a circular ditch and embankment that may date to c2800. The arrangement of the stones suggests that Stonehenge was used as a religious center and also as an astronomical observatory.

By Yesenia Vivar

Source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,

Beowulf Glossary

Comitatus: Warrior code between the lord and his thanes in which the lord provides for his thanes in return for loyalty and protection.

Earnaness: The headland near the place where Beowulf fights the dragon.

Elegy: Poem that laments the dead.

Epic: Long, narrative poem on heroic scale.

Heorot: Golden hall built by Hrothgar,lord of the Danes.

Hrunting: The sword that Unferth (see below for def.) lends Beowulf for his fight with Grendel's mother.

Kenning: Extended metaphor, compound word. Example, whale-road, ring-giver, Earth maker.

Scop: The Anglo-Saxon word for poet, the scop was the one who told the stories of previous warriors in the main hall.

Unferth: Dane who sits in a prominant place in Hrothgar's hall. He is a known kin-killer and makes empty boasts.

Wealhtheow: Hrothgar's wife and mistress of the Danes. She is a peaceweaver and cupbearer.

Wergild: The man price as a payment in money or goods that could be paid instead of enacting vengeance (in death) when a warrior or his tribe have been wronged.

Wiglaf: Young warrior who helps Beowulf kill the dragon on his very first battle. Wiglaf is the only warrior to live up to the comitatus.