“The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are exact reflections of historical Anglo-Saxon life. They depict important Anglo-Saxon ideals and values. The Anglo-Saxon society was a great male-dominant, patriotic culture. All the tribes of that time shared common features like fierce allegiance to one’s land, value of reputation, martial values, and such. Most importantly, the revenge cycle or wergild, was a feature they strongly believed in and practiced. These features are highly evident in these elegies and in the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem, “Beowulf.” By comparing the three texts side by side, we can get a good sense of how such ideals were practiced in these tribes. Furthermore, by digging into the themes of isolation and exile, we can get a better understanding of how important kinship ties were, and how they shaped the society’s structure; especially in “Beowulf,” which conveys the importance of kin that can further explain the speakers’ conditions and hardships described in the two short poems.
Let’s start by taking a close look at “The Wanderer.” Written in the Exeter Book Elegies at around 1000 AD, “The Wanderer’s” subject matter concerns a warrior’s loss. It is a dramatic monologue about the speaker’s troubles and his great losses. From the beginning of the poem, we are informed about the speaker’s exile. The warrior is travelling alone under harsh cold weather. The winter season is when literally everything in nature is dead. Thus, it symbolizes his loneliness, since everyone he knew had passed away. “Ever since long ago I hid my gold-giving friend in the darkness of earth and went wretched, winter-sad, over the ice-lock waves,” (lines 22- 24); the second part of the quote emphasizes this relationship between loneliness and weather conditions. The imagery is concrete and we feel the tension emphasized by words like “ice-locked waves” and “winter-sad”; they reflect the speaker’s mental state and his sorrow due to being away from the warmth he enjoyed back in his homeland.
On the other hand, the first part of the quote shifts our attention to a past event the speaker is retelling. His “gold-giving friend” is apparently his lord or king. It seems that his king had died perhaps in battle, but instead of dying beside him a noble death, the warrior has to suffer a shameful isolation –here the ideals of the Anglo-Saxon society emerge. The term “gold-giving” portrays the ethics of a king towards his warriors, who is expected to reward his retainers after serving him in battle i.e. it is a reciprocal loyalty. We are reminded of this ideal later in “Beowulf,” in Hrothgar’s speech to Beowulf. Furthermore, if the king dies, it was expected of his warriors to avenge his death. This takes us back to the wergild motif I mentioned earlier. The fact that this warrior perhaps hadn’t avenged his king, only adds more to his sorrows.
The more the warrior contemplates on his dear kinsmen, the mead hall, and his lord, the harder his isolation becomes. Hence, his isolation is not only physical, but mental and emotional as well. This idea makes us think about the importance of kinship ties to this society. A warrior without kin is like a man without an identity. In this society, a man is measured by his kinship ties, heroism, generosity, and role in the community. Without these, he is considered unstable. Thus, evidently the speaker is longing for stability. He is longing to become a part of a community again. Because as long as he is in exile, he has no identity and consequently he has no reason to live in this world.
Similarly, “The Seafarer” describes the hardships one experiences in solitude. Physical distress and anguish is greatly stressed in this poem. The speaker is again, suffering cold weather in the sea, physically and mentally; “Pinched with cold were my feet, bound by frost in cold fetters, while cares seethed hot around my heart, hunger tore from within my sea-wary mind,” (lines 8-12). Vivid imagery of binding, frost, and cold waves makes its way into this poem. As we read more, we become more sympathetic with the speaker. He evokes pessimistic feelings, as we feel like we are in his place, for when he talks about his own distress he shifts his tone and starts addressing the struggles of human life when he says, “Always, for everyone, one of the three things hangs in the balance before its due time: illness or age or attack by the sword wrests life away from one doomed to die,” (lines 68-71). In other words, every man dies including you, no one is immune to death.
However, he later points out that with your reputation, you can leave something of you to be remembered by as this is the best of praise. He refers to “gold-givers” (a term also seen in “The Wanderer”) as examples of people who did “glorious deeds and lived in most lordly fame,” (lines 84-85). Again, this relates to the important values this culture holds dear, which also stresses the importance of one’s ties and what one leaves behind. Even by simply having a son or a successor, your name can continue to live and thus your reputation. This is something that is highly valued among the Anglo-Saxons, which Beowulf unfortunately lacks.
While the speaker of “The Seafarer” is like “The Wanderer,” looking for stability, “The Seafarer” shifts from being a sea voyage to a more spiritual one. So perhaps for the seafarer, stability lies within religion. In fact, the speaker eventually describes this earth as being a temporary place and this we can all relate to since we will all eventually die. Nevertheless, they both portray themes of isolation and loneliness quite explicitly.
With this in mind, we can shift our attention to how “Beowulf” portrays ideals explained earlier. For the most part, “Beowulf” is a poem that emphasizes martial values and heroism. We see in “Beowulf” the importance of the revenge cycle and how it ties to having kin or successors. There’s a dynastic theme which is crucial to Beowulf’s kingdom, thus we can definitely agree on how important the kinship role plays in this culture. If one wants to understand the backgrounds of “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” one must simply read “Beowulf” since it addresses the issues and values related to this culture, which they all share in common.
Hrothgrar’s speech, for instance, in lines 1687-1784 illustrates these values and validates what I said earlier about kinship ties and how important they are, since they are the foundation of these Anglo-Saxon tribes. In his speech, he praises Beowulf for his goodness and contrasts him with Heremod who suffered because he lacked the characteristics expected from a king. “No rings did he give to the Danes for their honor,” (lines 1719-20); again this notion of “gold-giver” is noted here. In general, the king must be loyal and must give to his people and as a result, his warriors must have heroic qualities. Thus, the survival of these standards is crucial to maintaining some social stability within these tribes.
Moreover, Hrothgar continues by advising Beowulf to learn from Heremod. “For your sake I have told this, in the wisdom of my winters,” (lines 1724-25), a line that echoes what the speaker says in “The Wanderer:” “A man cannot become wise, before he has weathered his share of winters in this world,” (lines 64-5). In other words, one should have his share of struggles and experience a whole lot of winter (grow old), before one can truly become wise. Indeed, Beowulf realizes that, when he becomes old and rules the kingdom without an heir. He realizes that his position is not a very favorable position to be in, when one wants to rule and continue his legacy.
This takes me to the notion of instability and how it affects Beowulf’s people. Grendel, for instance, though an outcast, does have someone to avenge his death at first. We see Grendel’s mother practicing the ideals of the society by going back to Hrothgar’s hall to avenge her son’s death. However, Grendel himself does not have off-springs, thus he has no one to continue his dynasty. Likewise, Beowulf lacks a successor. Although his kinsmen respect and serve him well, Beowulf does not have a kin of his own to carry his name. This jeopardizes his people after his death, as this makes them vulnerable to outside attacks. Therefore, the importance of keeping a stable society is something that Beowulf fails to accomplish.
And so, in brief, by looking at these texts and by understanding how human connections are interconnected with one’s character and role, we get a good picture of how these Anglo-Saxons survived. “The Seafarer” does tell us that one must leave a good reputation about himself after his death, which Beowulf accomplishes to do. However, “The Wanderer” reminds us of how important kinsmen are to one’s identity and one’s place in society and that is something Beowulf does not fulfill completely. These are rather challenging standards that these Germanic tribes had to conform to, but only by understanding these values and ideals can we begin to grasp the themes of isolation, exile and loneliness in these Old English texts.