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Poetry was a very important part of Anglo-Saxon culture and the performances of ‘scops’, travelling poets, would be a popular feature at any gathering. Unfortunately not many of the works enjoyed by the Saxons have been passed down to us because the scop was an oral practitioner of his art. Very few manuscripts of genuine Anglo-Saxon poetry exists but of those that do two are quite rightly famous. The first is ‘Beowulf’, the tale of the Geat warrior who slew both Grendel and his mother before sacrificing himself to defeat the great dragon and protect his clan. The second is ‘The Wanderer’, a poem preserved in the Exeter Book. The poem relates the meditations of a lone exile looking back upon his life and is considered to contain an important vein of Anglo-Saxon wisdom. It may not have the popular appeal of Beowulf but it has found its’ way into popular culture nonetheless; do you recognise these lines:

Where now the horse and the rider?

Where is the horn that was blowing?

Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?

Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?

They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;

The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.

Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,

Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

They are the lines spoken by King Theoden of Rohan in Tolkein’s ‘The Two Towers’. Tolken specialised in Old English and adapted certain lines from ‘The Wanderer’ to give the king’s speech a degree of authenticity, not to mention the emotional charge.

I am not a scholar of languages from antiquity, more’s the pity perhaps, but I wanted to use ‘The Wanderer’ in ‘The War Wolf’ as I believed that it was open to interpretation by several of the characters, not to mention because it also generates in my mind at least some strong mental imagery that would be later

Facsimile of the first page of the Wanderer in Old English from the codex of the Exeter Book

The wanderer

So often does the solitary one find grace for himself in the mercy of the lord.

With a sorry heart he must for a long time row by hand along the waterways,

Along the ice cold sea, and tread the paths of exile.

Events go as they always must!

Alone each morning i spoke of my troubles before the dawn.

There is none now living to whom i can clearly speak of my innermost thoughts.

I know it truly, that it is in all men a noble custom that he should keep secret his own mind, guard his thoughts, though he thinks as he wishes.

The weary spirit cannot withstand fate nor does a sorrowful mind prove helpful.

Thus do those eager for glory keep secure their dreary thoughts housed in their breasts.

He who has been given the trial knows how cruel is sorrow as a companion to those who have few beloved friends.

The path of the exile holds him, and it is not all twisted gold, it is a frozen spirit, not the bounty of the earth.

He remembers well the hall of warriors, the giving of treasure.

How in his youth his lord accustomed him to the feasting.

All that joy has died!

I know not why my spirit does not darken when i ponder upon the whole life of men throughout this world.

How suddenly they left the bright hall, those proud theigns.

So this middle-earth decays a bit more each day.

A man cannot call himself wise before he has his share of years in this world.

A wise man knows he must be patient he must never be too impulsive nor too hasty to speak nor too weak a warrior nor too reckless not too fearful nor too cheerful nor too greedy for treasure nor too boastful about his own deeds before he can see clearly.

A man must wait when he speaks his oaths, until the proud-hearted can see clearly which way their heart will turn.

The wise hero will realise how terrible it will be when all the wealth of this world is lain waste.

The bright halls fall into decay their lords lie low deprived of all their joy all of their companions have fallen, the proud ones, the shield-wall, taken by war.

Where is the horse? Where the rider?

Where the giver of bright treasure?

Where the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?

Alas for the golden cup! Alas for the mailed warrior!

Alas for the splendour of princes! All that time has passed away under the cover of the dark night now, as if it had never been!

Those brave warriors were taken by the glory of spears weapons greedy for slaughter the famous turn of events and do storms thrash these rocky cliffs and falling frost fetters the earth the harbinger of winter.

Then does the dark come the nightshadows deepen from the northern sky there comes a rough hailstorm in malice against all men all is but trouble in this kingdom of the earth the turn of events in the world under heaven.

Here gold is fleeting, here friend is fleeting here kinsman is fleeting here man is fleeting here the foundations of the earth turn to waste!

So spake the wise man in his mind alone, sat apart in his own counsel.

Good is he who keeps his faith and a warrior must never speak of his grief too quickly unless he already knows the remedy, a hero must act with courage.

It is better for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from our father in heaven, where for us, all permanence rests!

Please follow this link to read Rick McDonald’s original translation: The Wanderer

echoed in the description of the Battle of Fulford Gate that would follow. I approached Rick McDonald for permission to use his extant translation and he kindly agreed. Below is my version, based upon Rick’s, and after that there is a link to a website where you can read his version (which is probably more authentic than mine!). Enjoy!

The Sorrow Song Trilogy © 2013 Peter C. Whitaker. All Rights Reserved.