Saving the “undoomed man” in "Beowulf" (572b-573)

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Adam Mickiewicz University

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The maxim Wyrd oft nereð // unfagne eorl, / þonne his ellen deah “Fate often spares an undoomed man when his courage avails” (Beowulf 572b-573) has been likened to “Fortune favors the brave,” with little attention to the word unfagne, which is often translated “undoomed”. This comparison between proverbs emphasizes personal agency and suggests a contrast between the proverb in 572b-573 and the maxim Gað a wyrd swa hio scel “Goes always fate as it must” (Beowulf 455b), which depicts an inexorable wyrd. This paper presents the history of this view and argues that linguistic analysis and further attention to Germanic cognates of (un)fage reveal a proverb that harmonizes with 455b. (Un)fage and its cognates have meanings related to being brave or cowardly, blessed or accursed, and doomed or undoomed. A similar Old Norse proverb also speaks to the significance of the status of unfage men. Furthermore, the prenominal position of unfagne is argued to represent a characterizing property of the man. The word unfagne is essential to the meaning of this proverb as it indicates not the simple absence of being doomed but the presence of a more complex quality. This interpretive point is significant in that it provides more information about the portrayal of wyrd in Beowulf by clarifying a well-known proverb in the text; it also has implications for future translations of these verses.




wyrd, Beowulf, proverbs, lexicology, adjectives, word order, translation, Germanic languages


Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, vol. 49.2 (2014), pp. 5-31



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Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu
Biblioteka Uniwersytetu im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu
Ministerstwo Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego