Last month, I offered the Internet an article about the Old English poem Beowulf and how familiar, despite its antiquity, its language can become with a little linguistic guidance. I’d say the article and the idea behind it were received quite well – so, here we go again, with the same format and another Old English text. This time we’ll be looking at the beautiful, poignant poem known as The Wanderer.
The poem has more in common with Beowulf than just its language and culture of origin; it is also an anonymous work, is also untitled and also comes down to us in a single manuscript source, the Exeter Book, which dates to the late tenth century AD. (Honestly, these precarious journeys that our surviving Old English texts have taken are enough to give you nightmares!) Furthermore, like Beowulf, The Wanderer had a great influence on J. R. R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. The haunting song of Rohan recited by Aragorn that begins “Where is the horse and the rider?” takes its inspiration from the “Hwǣr cwōm mearg? Hwǣr cwōm mago?” of The Wanderer.
However, the poem does not feel like the same world as that of Beowulf, with its treasure hordes, dragons and impossible feats of strength; The Wanderer is instead a work of literary art that can seem very modern and relatable through its themes of solitude, painful nostalgia and uncontrollable fate, and its style of frank reflection. It pulls us into the bleak world of a man alone, who has lost his lord and protector, his friends, family and homeland, and thus all the security and happiness of his former life, which now seems to him “darkened under the cover of night, as if it never was”.
His is a complex voice; although he stoically remarks at one point “it is a noble custom in a man to bind fast his mind”, at another point the wanderer wails “all pleasure has perished!” and dreams “that he embraces and kisses his lord, and on his knee lays his hands and head”, only to wake again, alone and “friendless” beside the cold sea. It’s a voice that still carries across ten centuries to seize our hearts today.
Once again, this article will proceed as follows: it will first present the original words of the poem from the excerpts to be discussed, before going through those words line by line. For each, I will offer a very literal translation, before giving linguistic explanations and etymological facts that illuminate the Old English wherever I can, highlighting links to present-day English or to related words in other languages.
As with Beowulf, you really can understand more of The Wanderer than you may think.
Here’s a picture of two of the pages of the Exeter Book that contain The Wanderer.
What we see here is just over half of the text – it’s a long poem, 115 lines in total! If you would like to read the entire text and a Modern English translation, you can find both here.
The two excerpts I have chosen to focus on come from the very beginning (lines 1a – 7b) and from close to the end (106a – 110b). When lifted from page to screen and transformed into modern letter forms, the two sections look as follows:
“Oft him anhaga are gebideð,Lines 1a – 7b
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
ƿadan ƿræclastas. Ƿyrd bið ful aræd!
Sƿa cƿæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
ƿraþra ƿælsleahta, ƿinemæga hryre”
“Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice,Lines 106a – 110b
onƿendeð ƿyrda gesceaft ƿeoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel ƿeorþeð”
Crystal clear now, right?
No, not for me either. Again, we have the letters that have fallen out of use since Old English times: ⟨þ⟩,⟨ð⟩ and ⟨ƿ⟩, named thorn, eth and wynn. For a guide to the sounds they stand for, as well as the letters like ⟨g⟩ that had alternative pronunciations, head back to the previous blog post.
If you’re already up to date with eth and au fait with thorn, let’s get into the language!
“Oft him anhaga are gebideð”‘Often for himself the solitary man favour experiences’
Oft – this is like the current adverb often, or closer still its shortened form that appears in compounds like oft-quoted or oft-repeated.
him – a personal pronoun, specifically masculine and in the dative case, which I’ve translated as ‘for himself’. Like the recognisable “he” on the next line, many personal pronouns have survived very well over the centuries since their earliest attestations.
anhaga – ‘the alone one, the loner’. Just as these possible translations do, ānhaga contains ān, the Old English word for ‘one’. It’s the ancestor of both the modern number one and the indefinite article, a(n). Where one picked up its initial /w/ sound is a fascinating story, which I’ve previously tried to explain here.
are – this word for ‘honour, favour, mercy’ may no longer be current in English today, but sister words survive in German and Dutch – namely Ehre and eer, meaning ‘honour’.
gebideð – the form and various meanings of this verb, ġebīdan, can still be today in bide and abide. The –ð at the end tells us the verb is conjugated for the third person singular, which would be written -th by the time of Early Modern English (e.g. ‘he hath”, ‘she loveth‘) and has since become the ending -s.
“metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig”‘the Lord’s mercy, although he, anxious at heart,’
miltse – within this word for ‘mercy’, we can see the same root as that of the adjective mild.
þeah þe – the first of these words is the ancestor of though. Unlike the descendant form and its silent ⟨gh⟩, the ⟨h⟩ of þēah was pronounced, likely as the velar fricative /x/. The second is a fascinating little word, which Old English used as a go-to means of introducing subordinate clauses, such as the clause “although he must over the waters…” that we have here. It was replaced in time by other words, but traces of it outlived Old English – such as the word lest, a contraction of the longer Old English phrase (þȳ) lǣs þe.
modcearig – part for part, we can transform this into modern ‘mood-caring’. However, strictly speaking, the Old English noun mōd usually meant ‘mind’, while the latter part, ċeariġ, starts with a different sound to its present-day relative care. The closest modern descendant of ċeariġ is the slightly archaic adjective chary, meaning ‘cautious, suspicious’.
“geond lagulade longe sceolde”‘over the waterway for a long time must’
geond – remember the various Old English pronunciations for the letter ⟨g⟩! Here it stands for the semivowel /j/, helping us to see the connection between ġeond ‘over, through’ and our modern beyond and yonder.
lagulade – this is another compound word, meaning something like ‘waterway’. Its first constituent, lagu, means ‘lake, water’ and is related to Latin lacus and Old Irish loch, from which we get lake and loch.
longe sceolde – not too far removed from long and should!
“hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ”‘move with his hands the frost-cold sea,’
mid hondum – before its replacement by with, Old English used the preposition mid. Its sister prepositions mit and met are alive and well in German and Dutch, while mid itself still survives in the word midwife – the ‘with-woman’.
hrimcealde sæ – another word for ‘frost’ is rime, which we can see in this compound adjective to describe the sea. As with ċeariġ, ċeald starts with a different consonant to modern cold. This is a nice glimpse into the variation between dialects of English; ċeald was the form spoken and written in the south of England, while the Anglian pronunciation of the word, cald, with its hard /k/ consonant, was the one that made it into Standard English.
“ƿadan ƿræclastas. Ƿyrd bið ful aræd!”‘walk the exile paths. Fate is fully fixed!’
ƿadan – the verb ƿadan has various meanings of movement and we can see it’s the source of modern wade, only with the letter wynn used for the sound /w/. It’s also a cousin of the Latin verb vādere, which would have once been pronounced with an initial /w/ too, and which you might know from words like invasion and evasion, or from the Latin phrase vade mecum (used for types of handbook), or from the many ‘go’-words in Romance languages derived from vādere, as in French je vais or Spanish vamos.
ƿræclastas – this means ‘exile paths’. I do like the word, because of its constituent ƿræc ‘punishment, exile’. It illustrates how words can linger on, even after they have ceased to be used as independent, productive words; ƿræc survives in the phrase wrack and ruin.
Ƿyrd bið ful aræd! – the famous phrase of The Wanderer, the subject matter of many tattoos and Twitter bios across the world. Yet, despite its brevity and fame, it defies easy translation. (The issue has been bravely tackled here.)
In terms of etymology, we have here the ancestral forms of full and weird, the latter of which has gone from a noun meaning ‘fate, fortune’ into an adjective meaning ‘strange’, probably in part thanks to Shakespeare’s weird sisters. What I want to highlight is bið, the verb. This was an alternative in Old English to is and derives from the same root as be and been. The co-existence of synonymous bið and is speaks to us of a time when the irregular paradigm that be has today was not yet fixed, and the fusion of multiple roots into one verb not yet complete.
“Sƿa cƿæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig”‘So said the world-walker, mindful of hardships’
Sƿa – despite appearances, this is indeed the Old English ancestor of so. It simplified and lost its second consonant during the Midde English period.
cƿæð – if someone said something, then that person quoth something. Cƿæð was a past-tense form of the verb cweþan ‘to say’, the root of which survives not only in archaic quoth but also in bequeath.
eardstapa – here we have the ‘earth-stepper’, or more simply the ‘wanderer’, after whom the poem is now named.
earfeþa gemyndig – while present-day mind is visible in ġemyndiġ, the things of which the wanderer is mindful are opaque. Earfoþe is both an adjective and a noun meaning ‘labour, difficulty, hardship’. Other languages can help us with this. Frequently, where Old English has the letter ⟨f⟩ in the middle of a word, its sister word in German has a ⟨b⟩ instead – compare seofen (modern seven) and sieben, and ġiefan (give) and geben. This correspondence helps to reveal the link between Old English earfoþe and the better-known German Arbeit.
“ƿraþra ƿælsleahta, ƿinemæga hryre”‘of savage slaughters, of dear kinsfolk’s ruin‘
ƿraþra ƿælsleahta – the adjective of this phrase is related to wrath, wroth and the verb writhe, while the noun partly is related to words like onslaught and slay.
ƿinemæga – wine (pronounced with two syllables, like /wi.ne/) is a poetic word for ‘friend’ in Old English. It provides the first element of this emotive compound and continues to be found in a couple of compounds today, namely names like Baldwin or Irwin. More distantly, it’s related to the divine name Venus, and therefore to venereal.
“Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice”‘All is difficult in the earthly realm’
Eall is earfoðlic – all is earfoþe, but with the suffix -līċ (modern -ly) to make it an adjective.
eorþan rice – modern earth is visible here, lengthened by the presence of the grammatical ending -an. The main noun in the phrase, rīċe (pronounced like rree-cheh), means both ‘kingdom, realm’ and ‘power, rule’. Its German cousin is considerably more famous today – Reich. Both are two members of a huge word family of leadership and authority; rīċe on its own may have fallen into obsolescence in English, but it survives in bishopric and, thanks to Latin, is related to words like royal, regal, reign, viceroy and so on.
“onƿendeð ƿyrda gesceaft ƿeoruld under heofonum.”‘fate’s working changes the world under heaven’
onƿendeð – as its root, we can see modern wend within this word for ‘change’ – allowing a connection not only to wend, but also to went, the past tense of go today.
ƿeoruld – this is the ancestor of world and its longer Old English form lets us appreciate better the original components of the word, as world was originally a compound. Its first component was wer, meaning ‘man’, as in the word werewolf. Wer is related moreover to other manly words: Latin vir (whence virile and virtue) and Old Irish fer (whence the name Fergus). The rest of ƿeoruld comes from the same source as the adjective old. Together they created ƿeoruld‘s literal meaning of ‘age of man’ – that is, the sum of human affairs and the material, temporal existence we are engaged in. To refer to our planetary home instead, Old English would probably say middanġeard.
under heofonum – as well as the recognisable preposition under, heofonum is clearly heaven, albeit written at a time before the adoption of the letter ⟨v⟩ in English. I think it’s interesting to note that the word is part of the tradition of referring to heaven as a plural noun, since it’s heofonum, not singular heofone. The word is plural in the Lord’s Prayer in Greek and Latin (en toĩs ouranoĩs and in caelīs), and, after all, we can exclaim heavens! in English today too.
“Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne”‘Here is money temporary, here is friend temporary‘
her bið – here is here, along with bið, the aforementioned alternative to is.
feoh – this was a common word for ‘money’ in Old English. It could also mean ‘personal property’ and specifically ‘cattle’ and it’s likely related in some way to modern fee. The two consonants in feoh allow us to undo the effects of Grimm’s law and find cognates outside the Germanic languages; doing so reveals the link to Latin pecū ‘cattle’ and through it to pecūnia ‘money’, and it’s from this Latin root that English gets pecuniary and peculiar.
freond – unsurprisingly, this is friend in Old English.
“her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne”‘Here is man temporary, here is kin temporary’
mon – the ⟨o⟩ in man here was a common spelling in Old English, as with hondum in line 4. It tells us that the word once had a different vowel sound to what it does today, something pronounced with the tongue further back in the mouth.
“eal þis eorþan gesteal idel ƿeorþeð”‘all this earthly frame becomes empty‘
idel – this word, both an adjective and a noun, means ‘void, empty(ness)’ and is the origin of modern idle.
ƿeorþeð – finally, a form of the verb weorþan ‘to become’. As per the regular sound changes of the Germanic languages, its continental cousins have /d/ instead of the /θ/ sound in Old English – hence, German has werden and Dutch has worden.
So, there you have it – twelve lines of The Wanderer, translated and dissected. My sure hope is that the words and phrases I’ve discussed here are now more familiar to you and will seem so if you meet them again elsewhere in Old English. More important though is the hope that this has been a good introduction to the poem, and that the analysis of its language shows that it’s possible for you too to access the beautiful, soul-stirring voice of The Wanderer in its original Old English.
To finish then, here are those lines in full, fluent Modern English, from the translation (available here) by Siân Echard:
“Often the solitary one experiences mercy for himself,
the mercy of the Measurer, although he, troubled in spirit,
over the ocean must long
stir with his hands the rime-cold sea,
travel the paths of exile– Fate is inexorable.
So said the wanderer, mindful of hardships,
of cruel deadly combats, the fall of dear kinsmen…”
“… All the kingdom of earth is full of trouble,
the operation of the fates changes the world under the heavens.
Here wealth is transitory, here friend is transitory,
here man is transitory, here woman is transitory,
this whole foundation of the earth becomes empty…”