The Power of Fate or One’s Own Will?

‘Cuchulainn’s Boyhood Deeds’ brings into question how influential the ideas of fate and destiny are in one’s life through the example of Cuchulainn himself.

At the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to the prophecy that stands at the core of this story, “…if a warrior took up arms for the first time that day his name would endure in Ireland as a word signifying mighty acts, and stories about him would last forever”(129). It is from this mention that the reader is introduced to the hero of this story, Cuchulainn, who overhears the telling of this prophecy and decides to go and claim his own weapon. This leads one to begin to question the role that fate plays in the lives of mortals in connection to Irish beliefs. Was Cuchulainn fated to hear this prophecy, was he fated to go on from here to become the hero of the legend? Or was it his own choice- did he hear this prophecy and automatically decide of his own will that he would be the one that this prophecy applies to?

Cuchulainn goes on from this situation to Conchobor to request his own weapon and ends up breaking fifteen sets of them in an amazing show of strength. Was this strength something given to Cuchulainn at birth? Is it something that was bestowed upon him due to his acceptance of the prophecy? Or is it due to him building up this strength through other means throughout his life? The answer to this is unclear in a kind of ‘chicken or the egg’ argument. Did the prophecy lead to Cuchulainn’s strength or did Cuchulainn’s strength and choice lead to the fulfillment of this prophecy? The prophecy does not specify who exactly it applies to; anyone throughout time could have found this prophecy and fulfilled it. Is it the fact that Cuchulainn of his own free will chooses to follow this obscure prophecy that shows his power and agency over his own destiny? Or was this all meant to happen?

Of course, this wonderfully motivating prophecy takes a turn for the somber when the reader finds out there is more to it, “…he who arms for the first time today will achieve fame and greatness. But his life is short”(130). Cuchulainn’s acceptance of this prophecy comes with the consequence of his own death being near. Yet, Cuchulainn stands by his choice, seeing this imminent end as an equal price for what he will gain: a great legacy that will live on past his own mortal years. Cuchulainn seems to grasp his own future here with a great strength and acceptance. Yet, he also seems to be controlled by the words of fate as shown shortly after when he learns that “Whoever mounts his first chariot today…his name will live forever in Ireland”(130). Once again at these words, Cuchulainn charges ahead ready to further push his own fame and legacy in the minds of all Irishmen and women. 

This racing to follow any prophecy he hears really distorts the view of the power of fate in one’s life in comparison to their own choices. Why is Cuchulainn so intent to have these prophecies at his back? Why is he so determined to fulfill them; does he truly believe in their power or is he more focused on the path that they show to him, the fame and legacy that they promise? Does Cuchulainn truly believe in the power of these prophecies or is he merely using them to his advantage due to the fact that others around him believe in them? Just how in control of his actions is he? Of course, much of this is mere speculation as it may never be truly clear which is true. But it is clear that the idea of free will is battling against the power of fate in this story through the actions of Cuchulainn as he pushes forward to cement his place in Irish history.

From the start of this story, the words of fate are immediately introduced and it is those very words that causes the main character, Cuchulainn, to reach out and claim these words as his true destiny. Two other times in this story, Cuchulainn is faced with other prophecies that determine what the fate of such a hero will be; he will be remembered forever in Ireland, yet will die young. Were these prophecies intended for Cuchulainn or has Cuchulainn chosen to apply them to himself? Whichever the answer may be, it is clear that an important theme in this story is the distinction between destiny and one’s own decision in life. The story is unclear on which one win’s out over the other, but that is perhaps the point. One can never know in life how in control they are in their own destiny. Perhaps the point of this story is not to ponder the power that fate has in your life, in controlling your decisions, and instead is about each individual forging ahead despite such questions, confident in their own actions and decisions regardless of the possible control of fate and destiny. The possible lesson of this story is that if people live the lives they choose then, when all is said and done, they can sit back and be content due to all that they have achieved regardless of what fate has deemed.

Link to the story which is a part of ‘The Táin Bó Cuailnge’

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.