The change from an Anglo-Saxon to a Christian society. Problems of time and narrative in "The Wanderer"

Essay, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

The formal problem of the speaker

Difficulties in time and narration

Anglo-Saxon Warrior: the past

The exile: a landscape of despair

Wisdom as a gift

The problem of the present state


Works Cited

The Wanderer is an Old English elegy which is situated in the transition period between the Anglo-Saxon society and the new emerged Christian one. This implies a great change for society and culture leading into trouble with identity with the people. Coming from a warrior culture, the wanderer suffers the disappearance of his home culture which leads to his wandering between the two cultures in a nowhere land. Although he gains wisdom and faith in the end, the focus lies on the moaning for a past he has to dismiss. Therefore, the paper will look at five different aspects starting with the formal aspect and the problem of the speakers. Secondly, the past comes into account through looking at the Anglo-Saxon warrior time and therefore exploring the depiction of the past. Linked to that is the third part which examines the imagery of ruin and hostile nature in his exile. Fourthly, Christianity and his new gained wisdom come into focus which leads to the last question of the present state of the wanderer.

However, the poem depicts his problems of adopting via discontinuity in time and narrative. Not alone are present and past hard to distinguish at certain passages but also use of speakers is questionable. Both aspects are used simultaneously to express the internal difficulty of the wanderer and in that regard also the struggle of the whole society.

The formal problem of the speaker

The elegy The Wanderer is an Anglo-Saxon poem preserved in the Exeter book dating from the 10th century. It consists of 115 alliterative verse in the Old English version, however, lines and verse pattern can differ in translation. The caesura in the alliterative verse cuts the lines into two half’s who mirror their two stresses: “The Germanic alliterative line consists of two hemistichs (half lines) separated by a caesura (pause). There are one or two alliterating letters in the first half line preceding the medial caesura; these also alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second half line.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Depending on the translation the poem does not always include the caesura and stress pattern. Typically for the Anglo-Saxon period is the unknown author and origin as well as the missing title which was added later. Since formal patterns like rhyme scheme or metre are difficult to analyse in the different translations the main formal question is the genre. Although Anglo-Saxons did not classified their poetry into certain genres The Wanderer can be seen as an elegy. The elegy is a classic form originating in Greek poetry: “Elegy, meditative lyric poem lamenting the death of a public personage or of a friend or loved one; by extension, any reflective lyric on the broader theme of human mortality.”(Encyclopaedia Britannica). Lamenting and mourning for somebody beloved is the main topic and intent of an elegy although it does not always have to be a person who died. The poet can also express his loss of a certain ideal or status which is the case in The Wanderer. Here, the speaker is definitely concerned with loss and grieve about his past. Form and content complement each other, the genre of the elegy emphasizes the loss he expresses.

Regarding that, the cause of his mourning is of great interest. Basically, the speaker talks of his exile since his lord and kinsmen are gone and he is left alone without anything familiar. However, this leads directly to one of the main questions of the poem: how is that loss presented, is it a longing for the past or a personal experience? Regarding the ending, there arise even more questions concerning the contrast of Christian or Anglo-Saxon values. It is questionable if the speaker sees faith as the solution for his loneliness or if he prefers his past as a warrior. The spiritual growth of the wanderer appears to be enforced on him due to the cultural changes in his surroundings.

Difficulties in time and narration

All of these textual questions are emphasized by the difficulty regarding time and narration. The narrative chronology is not always clear as well as how many speakers are in the poem. Problems concerning time include the time the speaker talks about, past and present surrounding him as well as grammatical time. Linked to that is the problem of narration since there can argue for one or two speakers as well as for an inward monologue or even a dream narrative. Although the Anglo-Saxon society was Christianized, the former heroic times are not condemned in the poem. Time in the poem is linked with personal and social changes.

All of this also refers to the narrative of the poem. As mentioned above, there is the wanderer or warrior who speaks. However, there are also parts in which the monologue seems to switch into a dialogue or an outer comment on the story. There are changes from ‘I’ to ‘he’ and back again (20a, 36a). The question of the narrative structure of the poem is linked to the warriors present and past as well as the change of personal account and generalizing statements.

Apparently, the interaction of time and narrative in the poem is closely connected to the contrast of personal account and general social change which shows its relevancy until today. One of the reasons why The Wanderer fascinates the reader-and scholarship so much today is the great social change described. Both Anglo-Saxon and modern world experiences changes regarding the social structure and the status of the individual, thus “both the eighth and the twentieth centuries were periods when old certainties were being called into question.” (Beaston, p.119).

Looking at the narrative structure, there are basically two interpretations possible: on the one side, there are several speakers, one being the wanderer and another one a narrator commenting on his experiences. This point of view is especially displayed in the first two stanzas in which the wanderer is introduced by the use of the third person pronoun: “Often the solitary one/ finds grace for himself/ the mercy of the Lord, /Although he, sorry-hearted,/ must for a long time” (Stanza 1). Especially in the second stanza the narrator hands the narration over to the wanderer: “So spoke the wanderer,/ mindful of hardships,/ of fierce slaughters/ and the downfall of kinsmen://Often (or always) I had alone” (Stanza 2+3). The colon and the following change to the first person singular hint at a turn in narration which means there would be at least one commenting and one suffering.

On the other side, the poem can also be seen as “a unified discourse uttered by a single speaker reflecting on the hardships of his life, hardships occasioned by the loss of his lord and his fellow warriors.” (Beaston, p.119f.). Here, the variation of personal pronouns do not refer necessarily to different speakers but to different times and experiences by the narrator. Therefore, the inconsistent narration reflects the struggle of identity of the speaker himself: “the poem introduces a solitary who, in spite of his sufferings, often receives grace.” (Klinck 31). It is a transformation with different phases of mind. This would be another point towards the connection from time and narrative. Regarding that, the general statements could be an introduction from the present state of mind and comment on the own development. Moreover, the wanderer himself is self-contradictory and torn between the two worlds surrounding him: the Anglo-Saxon warrior which resembles his past and the Christian wise man for whom faith brought consolation. Exactly this transitional position might be the reason for the moaning of the wanderer. The loss he describes in the first part of the poem is a deeply personal one when he speaks of his loneliness: “Often (or always) I had alone/ to speak of my trouble/ each morning before dawn./ There is none now living/ to whom I dare/ clearly speak/ of my innermost thoughts” (Stanza 3). Here, the repetition of ‘I’ is contrasted to the non-existing others reinforcing his seclusion from the rest of the world even more. However, next to the ‘I’ there is also a constant emphasis on his wish to speak about his thoughts and feelings. Obviously, his solitude is unbearable because he feels the need to express his loss which is the loss of anyone understanding him: “In isolation from his community, the immediate crisis facing the speaker is that he has no one to whom he can relate his suffering.”(Sharma 614). It seems to be a circle since he feels lonely because he lost his comrades in the past but this loss is especially amplified by the fact that he has no one to talk about this loss.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


The change from an Anglo-Saxon to a Christian society. Problems of time and narrative in "The Wanderer"
University College Dublin  (English)
Telling Time on Old English
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anglo-saxon, christian, problems, wanderer
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Jana Schäfer (Author), 2015, The change from an Anglo-Saxon to a Christian society. Problems of time and narrative in "The Wanderer", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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