The Wanderer – If you’ve read or watched The Lord of the Rings you might recognise some lines from this wonderful Old English poem!


This is the fourth of the Old English poems usually referred to as ‘elegies’, and it’s many people’s favourite – J. R. R. Tolkien being one of its fans of course. It has been studied and discussed by Old English scholars for more than a hundred years now, and there are thousands of published articles about it, with different takes on what it means – as a whole poem or even just debating individual words. And it’s not just the British who love it – scholars and enthusiasts from all over the world, from Germany to the US, Japan to Canada – have chosen to spend time studying this poem in the original language.

One of the major discussions centres around when the speeches of the wanderer begin and end – there is no punctuation to guide us in the manuscript, and the actual language does not always make this clear. Is there one person speaking in the poem, who sometimes speaks aloud, and sometimes muses to himself? Or is the narrator telling us the words of another man, a ‘sage’? You will notice that The Wanderer is very much a companion piece to The Seafarer: many themes and images are common to both poems. At the end of The Wanderer a wise man sits apart, remembering his younger years as a warrior. He is an exile, far from home and friends. Soon, we gather, he will set off on the seas again, to continue his search for a new life, a new home. He is constantly sad and lonely, but he keeps his feelings hidden: no one is left alive he can unburden his heart to, but he also believes that it is more admirable to suffer in silence, and that complaining will not change his fate. He lives with his memories and his dreams – of feasting and songs, of gifts and recognition, of companionship – but then came wars and having to bury his Lord.

Like the seafarer, the wanderer spends much time traveling by sea, often in winter, and this experience lives in his mind as if he were still there on the yellow water with the seabirds and the icy waves. Like in The Seafarer the poem jumps from one thought to another, and from one memory to another, so that it is hard to decide whether the wanderer is now on a ship or on land, with people or alone. He links the decline of his own life with the decline of the world – the end of cities and civilisations – and he mourns the loss of all this, including the end of the giants (the immense stone buildings scattered over Britain from the time of the Romans, together with huge monuments such as Stone Henge, were thought by the Anglo-Saxons to have been made by a race of giants who once inhabited the land). The wanderer’s only comfort now is in God, and this has helped him bear his sorrows patiently (hence many scholars argue the old Germanic warrior code becomes the new Christian code).

I’m using the same sources for the original and the translation as in my previous three blog posts on the elegies – just for consistency. I have highlighted the section (in italics) adapted by Tolkien for Aragorn’s song of the Rohan in The Lord of the Rings (The Twin Towers, chapter 6). Note: Tolkien’s version is not meant to be a translation – he changed the words to suit his story.

The Wanderer

‘Often the solitary man enjoys
The grace and mercy of the Lord, though he
Careworn has long been forced to stir by hand
The ice-cold sea on many waterways,
Travel the exile’s path; fate is relentless.’
So spoke a wanderer who called to mind
Hardships and cruel wars and deaths of lords.
Frequently have I had to mourn alone
My cares each morning; now no living man
Exists to whom I dare reveal my heart
Openly; and I know it for a truth
That in a man it is a noble virtue
To hide his thoughts, lock up his private feelings,
However he may feel. A weary heart
Cannot oppose inexorable fate,
And anxious thoughts can bring no remedy.
And so those jealous of their reputation
Often bind fast their sadness in their breasts.
So I, careworn, deprived of fatherland,
Far from my noble kin, have often had
To tie in fetters my own troubled spirit,
Since long ago I wrapped my lord’s remains
In darkness of the earth, and sadly thence
Journeyed by winter over icy waves,
And suffering sought the hall of a new patron,
If I in any land might find one willing
To show me recognition in his mead-hall,
Comfort my loneliness, tempt me with pleasures.
He knows who has experienced it how bitter
Is sorrow as a comrade to the man
Who lacks dear human friends; fair twisted gold
Is not for him, but rather paths of exile,
Coldness of heart for the gay countryside.
He calls to mind receiving gifts of treasure
And former hall-retainers, and remembers
How in his younger years his lordly patron
Was wont to entertain him at the feast.
Now all that joy has gone. He understands
Who long must do without the kind advice
Of his beloved lord, while sleep and sorrow
Together often bind him, sad and lonely,
How in his mind it seems that he embraces
And kisses his liege lord, and on his knee
Lays hand and head, as when he formerly
Received as a retainer in the hall
Gifts from the throne; but then the joyless man
Wakes us and sees instead the yellow waves,
The sea-birds bathing, stretching out their wings,
While snow an hail and frost fall all together.
The heart’s wounds seem to be yet heavier,
Grief for the dear one gone; care is renewed,
When memories of kinsmen fill the mind,
He greets them gladly, contemplates them keenly,
But his old friends swim frequently away;
The floating spirits bring him all too few
Of the old well-known songs; care is renewed
For him who must continually send
His weary spirit over icy waves.
Therefore I see no reason in the world
Why my heart grows not dark, when I consider
The lives of the warriors, how they suddenly
Have left their hall, the bold and noble thanes,
Just as this earth and everything thereon
Declines and weakens each and every day.
Certainly no man may be wise before
He’s lived his share of winters in the world.
A wise man must be patient, not too hasty
In speech, or passionate, impetuous
Or timid as a fighter, not too anxious
Or carefree or too covetous of wealth;
Nor ever must he be too quick to boast
Before he’s gained experience of himself.
A man should wait, before he makes a vow,
Until in pride he truly can assess
How, when a crisis comes, he will re-act.
The wise must know how awesome it will be
When all the wealth of the earth stands desolate,
As now in various parts of the world
Stand wind-blown walls, frost covered, ruined buildings.
The wine-halls crumble; monarchs lifeless lie,
Deprived of pleasures, all the doughty troop
Dead by the wall; some battle carried off,
Took from this world; one the dire bird removed
Over the ocean deep; one the grey wolf
Consigned to death; and one a tear-stained hero
Concealed from daylight in an earthy cave.
Just so in days long past mankind’s Creator
Destroyed this earth, till lacking the gay sounds
Of citizens the ancient world of giants
Stood desolate. He who has wisely thought
And carefully considered this creation
And this dark life, experienced in spirit
Has often pondered many massacres
In far off ages, and might say these words:
‘Where is the horse now, where the hero gone?
Where is the bounteous lord, and where the benches
For feasting? Where are all the joys of hall?
Alas for the bright cup, the armoured warrior,
The glory of the prince. That time is over,
Passed into night as it had never been.
Stands now memorial to that dear band
The splendid lofty wall, adorned with shapes
Of serpents; but the strong blood-greedy spear
And mighty destiny removed the heroes,
And storms now strike against these stony slopes.
The falling tempest binds in winter’s vice
The earth, and darkness comes with shades of night,
And from the north fierce hail is felt to fall
In malice against men. And all is hardship
On earth, the immutable decree of fate
Alters the world which lies beneath the heavens.
Here property and friendship pass away,
Here man himself and kinsmen pass away,
And all this earthly structure comes to nought.’
Thus spoke the thoughtful sage, he sat apart.
Blessed is he who keeps his faith; a man
Must never be too eager to reveal
His cares, unless he knows already how
To bring about a cure by his own zeal.
Well shall it be for him who looks for grace
And comfort from our father in the heavens,
Where is ordained all our security.

Old English original of The Wanderer (untitled in manuscript)

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aręd!
Swa cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre:
“Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan. Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille.
Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman.
Forðon domgeorne dreorigne oft
in hyra breostcofan bindað fæste;
swa ic modsefan minne sceolde,
oft earmcearig, eðle bidæled,
freomægum feor feterum sælan,
siþþan geara iu goldwine minne
hrusan heolstre biwrah, ond ic hean þonan
wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind,
sohte sele dreorig sinces bryttan,
hwær ic feor oþþe neah findan meahte
þone þe in meoduhealle min mine wisse,
oþþe mec freondleasne frefran wolde,
weman mid wynnum. Wat se þe cunnað,
hu sliþen bið sorg to geferan,
þam þe him lyt hafað leofra geholena.
Warað hine wræclast, nales wunden gold,
ferðloca freorig, nalæs foldan blæd.
Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste. Wyn eal gedreas!
Forþon wat se þe sceal his winedryhtnes
leofes larcwidum longe forþolian,
ðonne sorg ond slæp somod ætgædre
earmne anhogan oft gebindað.
þinceð him on mode þæt he his mondryhten
clyppe ond cysse, ond on cneo lecge
honda ond heafod, swa he hwilum ær
in geardagum giefstolas breac.
ðonne onwæcneð eft wineleas guma,
gesihð him biforan fealwe wegas,
baþian brimfuglas, brædan feþra,
hreosan hrim ond snaw, hagle gemenged.
þonne beoð þy hefigran heortan benne,
sare æfter swæsne. Sorg bið geniwad,
þonne maga gemynd mod geondhweorfeð;
greteð gliwstafum, georne geondsceawað
secga geseldan. Swimmað eft on weg!
Fleotendra ferð no þær fela bringeð
cuðra cwidegiedda. Cearo bið geniwad
þam þe sendan sceal swiþe geneahhe
ofer waþema gebind werigne sefan.
Forþon ic geþencan ne mæg geond þas woruld
for hwan modsefa min ne gesweorce,
þonne ic eorla lif eal geondþence,
hu hi færlice flet ofgeafon,
modge maguþegnas. Swa þes middangeard
ealra dogra gehwam dreoseð ond fealleþ,
forþon ne mæg weorþan wis wer, ær he age
wintra dæl in woruldrice. Wita sceal geþyldig,
ne sceal no to hatheort ne to hrædwyrde,
ne to wac wiga ne to wanhydig,
ne to forht ne to fægen, ne to feohgifre
ne næfre gielpes to georn, ær he geare cunne.
Beorn sceal gebidan, þonne he beot spriceð,
oþþæt collenferð cunne gearwe
hwider hreþra gehygd hweorfan wille.
Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas.
Woriað þa winsalo, waldend licgað
dreame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,
wlonc bi wealle. Sume wig fornom,
ferede in forðwege, sumne fugel oþbær
ofer heanne holm, sumne se hara wulf
deaðe gedælde, sumne dreorighleor
in eorðscræfe eorl gehydde.
Yþde swa þisne eardgeard ælda scyppend
oþþæt burgwara breahtma lease
eald enta geweorc idlu stodon.
Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,
frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
“Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.
Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma, þonne won cymeð,
nipeð nihtscua, norþan onsendeð
hreo hæglfare hæleþum on andan.
Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice,
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!”
Swa cwæð snottor on mode, gesæt him sundor æt rune.
Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ, ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene
beorn of his breostum acyþan, nemþe he ær þa bote cunne,
eorl mid elne gefremman. Wel bið þam þe him are seceð,
frofre to fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð.