The Wanderer:
A Christian Lesson for a Pagan World

written by Benjamin Cruzan
Fall 1996

The introduction of Christianity and its culture to the Anglo-Saxon culture brought about an intriguing blend of these two often opposing sets of beliefs. In literature this blend frequently manifests itself as an overlay--Christianity is simply imposed in short spurts upon preexisting works. The demonstration of this practice is not difficult to find in Anglo-Saxon literature. Scanning a section of Anglo-Saxon works from nearly any literature anthology will most likely uncover several such overlays per page. These overlays, however, are not the focus of this essay. This essay will focus on one work that does more with Christian culture. Rather than presenting Christianity through overlay, the Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Wanderer," addresses directly the issues of Christianity. A traditional reading of "The Wanderer" claims that it is a poem about a thane who has lost his liege-lord and about the torment this thane experiences while in search of a new lord and mead-hall. This reading is not incorrect, but a new reading will show that it is incomplete. In the new and more complete reading, the wanderings of the thane become an extended metaphor for the pagan society's members' search for a valid opinion about the fate of traditional Anglo-Saxon culture, brought about by the introduction of Christian culture.

Not only is this new reading available, but it actually becomes necessary when the text is examined carefully. For example, the function of the narrator is unclear in the traditional reading. The narrator's appearance is very brief. He is present for one sentence in the opening of the poem, to introduce the main character and to present him as a respectable figure. The narrator does not speak again until the end of the poem, where he states a two-part moral: "A man must never utter too quickly his breast's passion" and, "[One should seek] comfort from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability resides" (70). Certainly these are familiar themes in Anglo-Saxon literature. But as closing ideas in a poem that otherwise concerns itself only with the earthly task of finding a liege-lord, as the traditional reading suggests, these statements would be unusually odd and out of place. There must be more to this poem: something that justifies the narrator's presence and explains his function.

In the same way, the wanderer's repeating that he must not speak what is on his mind seems out of place in the traditional reading. If the only thought in the wanderer's mind is that he wishes he were back with his fellow thanes, what reason does he have to stop himself from telling this to others--even under Anglo-Saxon mentality? In fact, the desire for a mead-hall must not be what the wanderer refuses to express, because he does express this quite openly and for a majority of the poem and the reader can be sure that the wanderer would not speak what is best unspoken; he puts too much emphasis on how essential silence is in such situations. The wanderer must be thinking something else, something that he truly should not express completely, or else there would be no reason for the presence of statements such as, "I [do not] dare clearly express the thought of my heart. I know indeed that it is a fine custom for a man to lock tight his heart's coffer, keep closed the hoard-case of his mind" (69).

Discovery of such areas, where the traditional reading is not sufficient, leads the reader to look more carefully at the text. The reading that this essay proposes now begins to take shape. As will be shown, the main character of the poem, the wanderer, who is the speaker throughout almost the entire text, is struggling with his own opinion of Christianity. His belief in the Christian God is not in question at any time; what he questions is what Christianity's culture has done to the Anglo-Saxon culture.

It was most certainly a Christian monk who wrote this poem, and, as is demonstrated in virtually all texts of the time, the Christian authors presented religious messages in their writings. What will be examined is how the author of "The Wanderer" forms the entire text with the preconception of the Christian moral he is presenting, rather than relying only on superimposing Christian ideas upon a preexisting a story. The author has the wanderer teach the people by example: although the wanderer has his reservations about letting go of the old Anglo-Saxon culture, he finally does come to the attitude that the author would have his reader reach as well, that God is almighty and the things of this world, the things Anglo-Saxon culture is concerned with, are fleeting.

The wanderer opens the poem with a general statement, which is most revealing in retrospect and will be examined later. The narrator then speaks for the first time. All that the narrator says is, "So spoke the earth-walker, remembering hardships, fierce war-slaughters--the fall of dear kinsmen." This presents the wanderer as a figure to be admired by members of Anglo-Saxon society--he has had his share of hard times. His memory of battle and death is shared by the audience on a global level, thus keeping with the poem's extended metaphor. By the time this poem was written most people probably did not have first-hand experience with battle, but culturally they were still fondly hanging on to the memory of a warring society. As a group, the people remember battle. This is the level on which the poem functions--moving the experiences of the individual wanderer up to a grander scale, making them analogous to the experiences of those members of the culture who are still hanging on to the old ways.

Following the narrator's brief interjection, and before the wanderer goes on to give the description of his journey, he explains his present situation:

Often before the day dawned I have had to speak of my cares, alone: there is now none among the living to whom I dare clearly express the thought of my heart. I know indeed that it is a fine custom for a man to lock tight his heart's coffer, keep closed the hoard-case of his mind, whatever his thoughts may be. Words of a weary heart may not withstand fate, nor those of an angry spirit bring help. Therefore men eager for fame shut sorrowful thought up fast in their breast's coffer. (69)
He begins this statement by describing an activity that sounds a lot like prayer--he's been talking of his private cares alone, before dawn. This is important to note for two reasons: first, because throughout the poem the wanderer is aware of God's presence and second, because the author is presenting the wanderer, who already has the reader's respect, as someone who trusts in God.

In the next part of the given section, the wanderer explains that he does not dare clearly speak what is on his mind. This statement demonstrates that the wanderer is not serving as the author's mindless pawn, unaware of the metaphor of which he is a part. Rather, the wanderer is consciously presenting his journey of conscience as a metaphor--he says that he dares not speak his thoughts clearly, not that he dares not speak them at all. He gives this as a warning to the members of the audience, that they should be looking for something--something the wanderer is willing to tell only unclearly. The secret mode of communication that the wanderer chooses is metaphor.

But why is the wanderer not willing to clearly express that he has reservations about leaving behind the pagan way of life? The answer to this comes from his above-stated belief in God and in his statement, "Words of a weary heart may not withstand fate, nor those of an angry spirit bring help. Therefore men eager for fame shut sorrowful thought up fast in their breast's coffer." In this statement, the wanderer is again appealing to the reader's cultural connection to himself. In the Anglo-Saxon culture, words were law; it was imperative not to speak until you knew that what you were saying was true and that you could stand behind your claims. "Men eager for fame," which describes exactly the pagan men, and may describe what is behind the wanderer's desire for the old life, do not voice their complaints in the face of fate. In the Anglo-Saxon culture, fate behaved similarly to the newly introduced Christian God, and so when the wanderer speaks of fate, he is speaking equally of God, again, appealing to the culture of the reader. What he expresses is that if he were to openly say that he wants the society to keep (or return to) its pagan culture, God may not tolerate it and the wanderer may not be able to stand behind his claims, may not be able to "withstand fate."

This is not the only time that the wanderer mentions that a man should be careful of what he says. When he is at the verge of stepping outside of the metaphor he has been using and is about to make a clear statement against his culture's fate, he backs out and again states the importance of prudence in speech. This takes place after he remembers, in detail and with mourning, the happy time he spent with his lord and fellow thanes. The mourning with which he remembers this is analogous to the loss the audience must have felt for the lord-thane tradition. In his memory he recalls being made "accustomed to feasting" and being "part in gift-giving" (69). He then sees a vision of his liege-lord and then of his fellow thanes, which vanishes over the ocean. As the vision vanishes and he is brought out of his reminiscence and into his present lordless reality, he says, "Therefore I cannot think why the thoughts of my heart should not grow dark when I consider all the life of men through this world--with what terrible swiftness they forgo the hall-floor" (69). It is with this statement that the wanderer comes close to breaking his metaphorical speech. This statement can be taken quite literally as a grieving for the life men now have to live, without the good times of hall-life; and for how swiftly the hall-life was forgone, replaced with a Christian culture that does not permit any pagan eagerness for wealth or fame. It is just now, when he is about break the metaphor, about to dare to speak clearly his thoughts, when he stops himself. He says, "No man may indeed become wise before he has had his share of winters in this world's kingdom" (69). With this he is rethinking what he has said, thinking that maybe the relative hardship that men are feeling now may be necessary for wisdom, maybe even for spiritual truth and maturity. He then says, "The wise man must be patient, must never be too hot-hearted, nor too hasty of speech." He has stopped himself from speaking in haste, which he knows would be unwise before God. In this we can again see the author working his moral. He allows the pagan wanderer to go only so far. Because the wanderer has been presented as a wise man, from whom the audience is to learn, the author has him stop before blasphemy and has him chastise himself for coming so close to speaking out against God's wishes.

The wanderer, who has been presented to the audience as one of their own for the first two thirds of the poem, at this point is used by the author to very directly proclaim his own moral. The wanderer says, "the wise warrior must consider how ghostly it will be when all the wealth of this world stands waste" (69)--a very Christian idea, that the things of this world are temporary. The wanderer continues in this vein.

He is now standing among Roman ruins ("this wall place"), realizing that "The Maker of mankind laid waste this dwelling-place until the old works of giants stood idle, devoid of the noise of the stronghold's keep-ers" (69-70). At realizing what an awesome power he has been dealing with, the wanderer says, now almost instructing the audience, "Therefore the man wise in heart considers carefully this wall-place and this dark life, remembers the multitude of deadly combats long ago, and speaks these words" (70). He is telling the audience that if they are wise, they should think about God's power, and think about the dimness and fleetingness of this world. He allows them to remember the times of the past but they may only do so through these words:

Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the feasting seats? Where are the joys of the hall? Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior! Alas, the prince's glory! How that time has gone, vanished beneath night's cover, just as if it had never been! ... Snow...sends harsh hailstones from the north in hatred of men. All earth's kingdom is retched. ... Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting, here man is fleeting, here woman is fleeting-all this earthly habitation shall be emptied. (70)
The people are to remember the old times only with the realization the God, whom he calls, "Fate the mighty" (70)- -another appeal to their culture, is all-powerful and that He has the power to destroy. They are to realize that His power leaves the horse, the young warrior, the giver of treasure, the feasting seats, the joys of the hall, the bright cup, the mailed warrior, and the prince's glory all to vanish. Theirs was a culture in which wealth was desirable, where friends were the essence of living, where immortality was held by the memories of men and woman, and yet the wanderer now has these people, for whom word is law, say, "Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting, here man is fleeting, here woman is fleeting"--the final commitment to saying goodbye to their old ways.

The wanderer knew from the time he began speaking that this is exactly where the narrative would end. The opening lines of the poem, spoken by the wanderer, read, "He who is alone often lives to find favor, mildness of the Lord, even though he has long had to stir with his arms the frost-cold sea, troubled in heart over the water-way had to tread the tracks of exile. Fully-fixed is his fate" (68). With these sentences the wanderer was telling the audience from the very beginning where the poem would go. He said that the ones who are alone, without a hall, without fellow thanes, will find favor of the Lord. By the end of the poem the wanderer has led the audience to find favor of the Lord. He says they will find this favor even though they will, as will the wanderer himself, first have to tread through the cold water, confused. The wanderer spends half of the poem treading about his conscience, confused. In these opening lines, the wanderer is telling the audience exactly where they are going to be taken by the poem.

The last sentence of the opening is amazingly sophisticated: "Fully fixed is his fate." The wanderer is speaking of the fate of those listening to him speak. Their fate, within the poem, is fully fixed--it has been thought out ahead of time and the wanderer knows exactly what it will be--that, as the last lines of the poem state, they should "seek favor, comfort from the Father in heaven where for us all stability resides" (70). He is admitting, with humor, that this is not a poem of musing, where truth will be found along the way. Rather its outcome has been fixed. Fixed by whom? Possibly by the narrator/author, who rushes to interrupt the wanderer when he begins to reveal to the audience their fixed fate.

This interplay between the author, the character he creates, and the narrator he embodies is an intriguing and sophisticated use of narrative. It exemplifies the complexity that exists in "The Wanderer." In what is presented here, I have only begun to untangle all the turns within this poem, there is much left to be unraveled. What reason is there to think that this is the only Anglo-Saxon text to harbor such subtle complexities? While overlaying Christian ideas upon preexisting Anglo-Saxon texts is no doubt common, it is not the only presentation-mode of Christian beliefs, as The Wanderer demonstrates. Should we discount the possibility that other authors of the time could have worked in the same way as the author of this poem? We should look in other works for the presentation of respectable or heroic main characters as examples and teachers of Christian ideals, where these main character's pagan customs serve as lures to bring the contemporary audience close, and as familiar handles to which the audience can cling while being taken on their permanent journey into the Christian culture.

Work Cited

"The Wanderer." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. 68-70.

Here's a related essay on "The Wanderer."

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