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In Bernard F. Huppe’s critical exposition, “The “Wanderer”: Theme and Structure”, he speaks collectively for scholarship associated with the elegiac poem, The Wanderer, stating that “the purpose of the poem is entirely Christian, its general theme being the contrast between the transitoriness of earthly goods and the security of God’s mercy”(Huppe, 516) Though this is a plausible thematic evaluation of the Old English verse, a rigorous analysis of the relationship between form and content may reveal various additional layers of meaning. Interpretations range and are often disputed due to the utilization of stoic diction and the appearance of multiple speakers throughout. The Wanderer is innately concerned with the credibility of “fate” and the concept of “free will”, out of which a dichotomy is apparent; that of divine intervention and fundamental human agency. These concepts can be observed in “wyrd”, a term that occurs frequently and differs within the context of location in the poem. “Wyrd” is essentially a paradox: the pagan connotation of “wyrd” shifts and expands, as earthly life is seen as “inexorable fate”, from the timeless perspective of God, while from the point of view of the sage who has embraced the transient nature of the world and the belief in God’s mercy, it is revealed to also be the working of providence.
A common denominator in the Anglo Saxon elegy is the motif of exile, physical and mental isolation from a societal system. In the narrator’s case, personal pronouns and devotion to a “lost lord” suggest a male warrior’s excommunication from his lord’s bad of retainers. Thematically, exile is persistent throughout the poem; however, a transition from disdain to eventual embrace can be traced. The poem can be divided into two distinct modes of narration: the former seems to adopt a traditional narrative style, while the latter assumes a didactic tone. Initially, the subject of the poem is characterized as an “anhaga”, or, the solitary man, and is described to dwell on the deaths of fellow kinsmen and the funeral of his lord. The first seven lines convey an objective and passive tone; then, editorial punctuation aside, “the wanderer’s” dialogue begins. The dialogue comes to a halt at line 29b: “weman mid wynnum. Wat se e cunna,”.(The Wanderer, line 29) The narrative depicts a third person perspective in reference to the experiences of the speaker; this shift also suggests a cultural tradition. Huppe comments on this deviation and states:
There is nothing unusual about this rhetorical change in person within a single monologue: the Old English poetic style strained for variety in the telling of a story… the conduct of the wanderer under difficult circumstances. The “motivation” for the change in person at 29b is not mere adornment; heroic etiquette was a matter of fundamental import to the Old English poet.(Huppe, 522)
Though this may be a matter of variety in “storytelling”, the shift may also indicate the malleability of the state of exile on an individual. The speaker, assuming there is only one, sustains the transition of the “anahaga”(line 1), the solitary man, to the “modecearig”(line 2), troubled in thought, to the final phase of “snotter on mode”(line 111) the wise in spirit. Static language still allows for movement, as the definitions for “exile” undergo change; this can be perceived as an allegory for a larger thematic concern, that of “wyrd”, as the poem chronicles a transition from a Germanic warrior society to a Christian society.
“Wyrd” appears in the poem four times, and in each instance placement designates a distinct connotation of the word. “Wyrd” refers to “fortune”, “circumstance”, and most often, “fate”. In the case of The Wanderer, “wyrd” correlates with the division of narrative discussed previously, as it encompasses a dichotomy of pagan fate and Christian providence. “Wyrd” is inherently paradoxical since it embodies both modes of poetic discourse; the first, narrative half may be alluding to a pagan belief system, while the second, didactic half may suggest a transition to Christian values. The word begins its journey in the poem as a stark example of fatalism: “wadan wraeclastas. Wyrd bip ful araed!”(The Wanderer, line 5) The wanderer is, from the outset, deemed helpless, and his only opportunity for security lies in the mercy of God. Fate is characterized as “inflexible”; Christian doctrine is prevalent in these beginnings lines, and the insecurity of earthly things is developed further into the poem. The word incorporates both destiny and providence. In the first two lines, “wyrd” is fate and a notion separate to God’s providence, as the narrator divulges about finding “the grace and mercy of the Lord”, yet in the same line speaks cautiously that “fate is relentless”.
“Wyrd” appears again in latter half of the poem, after the change in speaker:“Eall is earfoaelic eorpan rice,/onwende wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.”(The Wanderer, line 106-107) This can be loosely translated to: “All the kingdom of earth is full of trouble, the operation of the fates changes the world under the heavens.” The connotation of “wyrd” resembles fate as a concept of a world in decline; against this insecurity the Christian individual has the comfort of his faith in God and his ultimate recess in heaven, while the pagan individual has only himself, and whatever strength is available internally. The paradoxical quality of “wyrd” is apparent in this situation of the poem, as it addresses pagan and innately Christian elements. The wanderer, as a warrior, but primarily, a biological creature, longs for peace of mind and body, but relies both in the fate dictated by God and the fate existing within himself.
The concluding lines cement the contradictory nature of The Wanderer; the “anhaga”, having meditated on his troubles and tribulations as the “modcearig” finally attains the status of “snotter on mode”, or the enlightened man, conscious of his retained wisdom. The conclusion is as follows:
Swa cwae snottor on mode, gesaet him sundor aet rune. Til bip se be his treowe gehealde, ne sceal naefre his torn to rycene beorn of his breostum acypan, nempe he aer pa bote cunne, eorl mid elne gefremman. Wel bip ?am pe him are secep, frofre to faeder on heofonum, aer us eal seo faestnung stonde. (The Wanderer, line 111-115)
The lines, resonating with the didactic style that occupies the latter portion of the poem, articulate the wisdom, which advises a man to avoid vexation by not engaging it. However, if tragedy does occur, the individual must “not manifest the anger of his breats too quickly” and to embrace it with “courage”. This wisdom is exclusive for those that are wholeheartedly committed to the power of Fate, who, unlike the Christian man, have no divine means of escape. Virtue seems to be inherently connected to both opposing forces in “wyrd”, as it is necessary for both qualities in the character of the wanderer to find reconciliation. Huppe outlines a parallel between the beginning and concluding lines, which holds as a correlation enclosed by form and content:
It would, as a consequence, appear that the structure of the poem must be built around the themal contrast between earthly insecurity and heavenly security: a contrast stated at the beginning, developed in the body and summarized at the end of the poem. (Huppe, 526)
“Earthly insecurity” and “heavenly security” can be interpreted as the pagan and Christian values that have persistently challenged each other in the poem. Huppe engages with the structural development of the elegy as an organization of this opposition, however, ultimately, the Christian claim made in the introduction prevails; Christian faith open and close the poem, yet self-reliance and self-cultivated virtue support pagan beliefs, resulting in the paradox that pervades The Wanderer.
The seeming contradiction between the misfortune that ails men and the “grace and mercy of the Lord” that is spoken in the beginning lines of the poem can be resolved in the banished wanderer’s conclusion—that perhaps there is a feasible function to the numerous misfortunes that have befallen the wanderer, as those that provoked his search for God’s mercy initially. The pagan interpretation of “wyrd” changes and expands, as what during earthly life is seen as “inexorable fate”, from the timeless perspective of God – or from the point of view of the sage who has embraced the “transient nature” of the world and the “belief in God’s mercy” – it is revealed to also be the working of providence.
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