Recently, I found myself wandering around the pages of one of my textbooks. I stumbled upon the poem, The Wanderer.
The Wanderer is a beautiful and ancient poem that details the themes of grief, acceptance, and struggle. Indecisiveness, lament, nature, and paganism also make a strong appearance in the poem. The poets of the Middle Ages were skilled at writing and creating poems and verses that were impactful without having to overshare details or overuse words. This technique is found in The Wanderer, making it a perfect piece of medieval literature to examine and analyze. The version of the poem that I specifically refer to in this article is from the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Tenth edition.
The Wanderer falls into the genre of elegy and is expressed by lament. These literary devices were common in Germanic-inspired Anglo-Saxon poems. “The lament of The Wanderer is an excellent example of the elegiac mood..” (Greenblatt, 2018). Readers of this poem are able to recognize lament and elegiac tones throughout The Wanderer, and also in other epic poems, such as Beowulf (Greenblatt, 2018).
After analyzing The Wanderer it was exciting to see many elements of mythology, paganism, nature, and religion all combined. Throughout the poem, the tone remains somber and reminiscent. As “the wanderer” recalls memories; nature, elegy, and paganism are found throughout. What is striking is the similarity of this poem to the concept of Ragnarok found in Norse Mythology. This is a personal theory of mine after the examination of the poem and of Norse myth. The connection to Ragnarok seems evident as Ragnarok was said to have been the end of days for men and the gods. The connection between The Wanderer, Ragnarok, and nature and paganism are intertwined tightly within the poem’s verses. The Wanderer describes elements of death, mentions nature, and appears to be struggling overall with the concept of death, as well as the concept of leaving his pagan ways behind him which is a symbol of elegy. Lament and elegy within The Wanderer include the death of family, friends, traditions, humankind, and personal beliefs.
Based on personal analysis there appears to be a direct link between The Wanderer and the Germanic god Odin. Though there are several examples, line 80 of The Wanderer shows the connection well:
“Battle took some, bore them away; a bird carried on above the high waves; the gray wolf took another, divided him with death; dreary spirited an eorl buried in an earthen pit. “Mankind’s Creator laid waste this middle-earth..” (Lines 80-85)
The mention of battle resembles Odin, due to Odin depicted as god of war. Associated with ravens and Valkyries; the bird carrying the spirits on high waves could be a symbol for the ravens or Valkyries which Odin is deeply connected with. Mention of “the gray wolf”, as personal theory, is symbolic of Fenrir, who is one of the direct causes of Ragnarok in Norse myth. The gray wolf taking “another” represents death. As Larrington mentions in her Poetic Edda translation, Fenrir is who takes Odin down. Another tale of Norse myth is The Binding of Fenrir which is a widely popular story that explains why and how Fenrir contributes to Ragnarok or the end of the world.
Prior to Ragnarok taking place, the Norse myths say that a great winter would take place and would last for several years (Fimbulwinter/Fimbulvetr). The last bit of The Wanderer, specifically in lines 95-115, mention the darkness, the cold, and the winter that is symbolic of an end of ways and days, such as Ragnarok. The world serpent in Nordic myth also plays a key role in Ragnarok and line 97 of The Wanderer poem references only walls being left that have serpents on them. This is a foreshadowing of Ragnarok thus demonstrating heavily pagan viewpoints in The Wanderer. By the end of line 115, paganism has vanished, a new world or kingdom is born, and “middle earth” is no longer mentioned. The Wanderer appears to have let go of his traditions, and has accepted the “Father in Heaven” who has a “fortress for all”.
Odin is present in this poem as well as Christ. Mention of Germanic customs, traditions, gods, and nature are therefore common themes in The Wanderer. Odin himself was a wanderer. Several stanzas found in the Wanderer highly reflect viewpoints in The Havamal, also called “The Sayings of the High One”, or “The Words of Odin”. (See lines 65-72 of The Wanderer). The resemblance to Larrington’s translation of The Havamal is nearly identical thus reflecting the paganism and nature found in The Wanderer. What is truly fascinating regarding that is The Wanderer poem pre-dates the Eddas and Havamal by several hundred years.
Stanza 6 and 7 in Carolyne Larrington’s Havamal translation directly relate to Lines 65-72 of The Wanderer.
“About his intelligence, no man should be boastful,/rather cautious of mind;/when a wise and silent man comes to a homestead/blame seldom befalls the wary;/ for no more dependable friend can a man ever get/than a store of common sense” (Sayings of the High One, Stanza 6, Larrington, 2014).
“The careful guest, who comes to a meal,/keeps silent, with hearing finely attuned;’ he listens with his ears, / and looks about with his eyes; / so every wise man spies out what’s ahead (Sayings of the High One, Stanza 7, Larrington, 2014).
Identifying similarities in The Wanderer can be done by examining lines 62-72.
“… So this middle-earth / from day to day dwindles and fails; /, therefore, no one is wise without his share of winters / in the world’s kingdom. / A wise man must be patient, / not too hot of heart nor hasty of speech, / not reluctant to fight nor too reckless, / not too timid nor too glad, not too greedy, and never eager to commit until he can be sure. / A man should hold back his boast until / that time has come when he truly knows / to direct his heart on the right path” (Greenblatt, 2018).
The resemblances stood out instantly based on new examination and previous analyses of each text. The ideas mentioned in each ancient poem reflect Germanic pagan viewpoints which did often include nature.
The little bit of this poem has so many symbols and devices that one could write a book on how paganism and nature around without. The examples above are only from a small analysis and prior readings that led to the connection of the sources used. For people in the middle ages, life was hard for plenty of reasons. It is important to not overlook the conflicting feelings of religion among the ancient people, as well as the importance of nature and old sayings full of wisdom.
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. TENTH ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press, 2014.
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