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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian

elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors


like J.R.R. Tolkien.

Essay
The Wanderer:
social context,
pagan
and Christian
elements, feelings
of the
character and
influence in authors
like
J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.

2 grado en estudios ingleses


Cultura de los pases en habla inglesa
This essay is aim at explaining some different points of view of the old English
poem called The Wanderer. To get this objective, it is extremely necessary to make an
analysis as complete as possible of this poem. This means that we will consider all the
options available, the way in that the author compounds it, the social context as well as
the historical, the authors feelings and intentions and the influences that could affect
him. It is a hard work because we do not know who the author is and even do not know
how many characters appear in this poem, so we only can make suppositions and try to
find some ideas according to the little information we have.
The second part of this essay will be focussed in the influences that poems of
this age and this style took place in more modern authors; a good example of this idea is
the influence that the great writer J.R.R. Tolkien got from this kind of works and how
can we recognise theses influences on his books and histories.
The Wanderer is an elegiac poem dated by some scholars around 597 (date in
which Saint Augustine arrived to England) and by others in the 10 th century; it was
found in the Exeter Book, which was kept in the Exeter Cathedral by its first bishop,
Leofric. In 1826 John Conybeare made a compilation of Anglo-Saxon poetry and
erroneously he treated it as a part of the poem Julianna, but finally in 1842 was
recognized as a separate work. Benjamin Thorpe who said about it that it had a
considerable evidence of originality named it The Wanderer. The writer J.R.R. Tolkien
was never agree with the name given by Thorpe and in 1926 considered alternative titles
like An Exile or Alone The banished Man, he tried again in 1964 to rename it as
The Exiles Lament, but despite of the pressure the poem is still called with Thorpes
title. These kinds of works are very common in Old English poetry; it develops the ideas
of Anglo-Saxon society. There are many theories about how many characters appear in
the poem; even nowadays it is not totally clear. The most common opinion holds that
the body of the poem is related as a monologue and the prologue and epilogue are
voiced by the poet acting as the narrator. However, some scholars think that it is just a
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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
soliloquy and also there is a group that believe there could interact even three persons.
Due to this, it is possible to find three differentiated parts, the prologue, the main body
and the epilogue.
It is possible to know the ideas that will be developed in the poem just with the
beginning:
He who is alone
These words introduce us to the poem showing that an stereotype of character
and feelings are going to be described.
In the main body of the poem it is possible to get all the information about how
feels the wanderer, a warrior that has lost everything, who had a glorious past with his
lord, friends and family but now has not got anything and remembers nostalgic how
blissful he felt. The character is always speaking about sadness, loneliness and his
distress; we can find these feelings in the entire poem, but there are some clear
examples with these phrases:
All delight has gone.
The wise warrior must consider how ghostly it will be when all the wealth of
this world stands waste.
All earths kingdom is wretched, the world beneath the skies is changed by the
work of the fates.
The entire poem contains Christian and pagan elements, but in the conclusion it
is possible to recognise them clearly:
It will be well with him who seeks favour, comfort from the father in heaven,
where for us all stability resides.

The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
At this point of the essay it has been possible to know about the structure of the
poem and what is it dealing on, but now it is time to introduce ourselves in the context
that involved it at the moment of its creation historically and culturally.
Great Britain was initially Roman, they conquered the islands but never paid
much attention on these territories because they thought it was a terrible place to live
and there were not natural treasures like gold or gemstones that could increase the
wealth of the empire. Vikings were continuously attacking them and finally Romans
were expelled from Britain in 410 AD. These barbarians (Romans called them with
this name) were settlers that emigrated from some places of Germany (Angeln and
Saxony) and Netherlands (Jutland); and introduced their own traditions finishing
completely with Romans ones. A good example of this replacement of cultures could be
the buildings; Anglo-Saxon people destroyed almost all Roman buildings made of stone
(only have survived some ruins of fortresses and walls) and replaced them with their
own wood constructions. But it is easy to discover that Roman culture left its legacy in
the Anglo-Saxon society, especially in language. Romans were not always fighting with
Vikings, some of these people tried to deal with them because it was more profitable
and safe for their own families, so this situation leaded in a mixture of words and even
nowadays it is possible to find Latin influences. Their language was the Old English, it
was the evolution of the Ingvaeonic that was a German dialect, it is the base of the
modern English we know nowadays, they called their own language with the name of
Englisc (sc in Old English were pronounced as the sh in Modern English is).
It is clear that they brought to the country their own culture, buildings, language
and religion, but in 597 Saint Augustine arrived to the islands sent by the pope Gregory
and started the Christian conversion finishing the enterprise in 616 with the death of the
king Ethelbert, during this age is easy to find a lot of proofs of this christianisation
because there are many pagan and christian elements invading all rests of Anglo-Saxon
culture. Anglo-Saxons arrived to England and brought their own religion and gods, this
is evident, but there is a period of coexistence between this pagan culture and
Christianism, for example, the use of plants and medicines was treated by Christians as
witchcraft, this can be interpreted as an opposition movement to the ancient German and
Scandinavian culture of Anglo-Saxon people. It is possible to think that before the
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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
arrival of the Christian religion to England, Anglo-Saxon believed in an afterlife due to
the rests found in tombs that contained grave goods and even skeletons of dogs or
horses or human slaves next to their died masters or lords. Most of old English
manuscripts and works must have been modified by Christians, this is a reliable theory
because in this age only priests were able to read and write and were the only ones who
had access to manuscripts and libraries in churches, monasteries and cathedrals, they
were responsible of the recompilation of all the wisdom and history of the moment. The
Wanderer is a poem that makes us to think about the possibility of this theory
concerning the modification of the original works.
Firstly it is necessary to situate ourselves in the moment in which the poem was
created, not when it was written, the author composed the poem some centuries before
its recompilation in the Exeter Book, when Christianism had not arrived to England yet
and pagan culture was dominating the islands; this is the reason why we find in this
work the theme of this age: the warriors. The poem reflects the Anglo-Saxon culture
because this is an age full of wars between Anglo-Saxons and Normans, according to
this, it is easy to understand that it was very important for people to have a lord who
protected them, it was much more important belonging to a community that would
provide you security and home, than being lonely in this society full of problems and
battles. But we cannot think that this was the way of life in the community, we only
have the literature that has been conserved from this period of time. Of course that it
brings us closer to the manners that governed Anglo-Saxon people, but always taking
care about not generalize or get wrong ideas, we have to remember that this is only
literary.
Returning to the poem, it is always treating about a pagan theme: the wyrd, the
fate and destiny that were present in warriors and Scandinavian and German pagan
cultures, these type of heroic poems never speak about farmers, carpenters or fishermen,
only treat about glorious battles and the skills and relationships between the heroes and
their lord and what was their way of life; specifically The Wanderer has to do with the
feelings of this type of character that only lived for the battle and his overlord and now
he is homesickness without illusions.

These concepts (wyrd, fate, destiny...) are

completely opposite to Christian religion because the pope of Rome defended that God
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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
was the big creator and his wishes were who guided us in our way through the world, so
it is impossible the believe in the destiny or the fate, then, how is it possible to find in
the poem Christian elements? Most probably is that a priest was charged of its
transcription to the written paper and Christian elements were introduced by him in
order to continue with his religious beliefs, respecting the poem but introducing them
without alter the main idea.
These types of works served as a way of inspiration for a lot of modern authors.
One of these known and famous writers is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien),
the great creator of The Lord of the Rings; an epic adventure that assimilates all the
values and skills of Old English epic poems mixed with fantasy and fiction. Tolkien was
born in 1892 in the city of Bloemfontein in South Africa, his origins were German, but
he lived in England. At twelve years old he was orphaned and his aunt and a priest were
charged of his education. This is the reason of his deeply catholic convictions, due to
this, it is possible to find again pagan and Christian elements in his books. He was
philologist, writer and professor in the University of Oxford, he started to write The
Silmarillion in 1917 and it deals about a fantastic history of how was created Arda, an
imaginary world, in the middle of a war between good and evil. It was published in
1977 by his son Christopher Tolkien, who recompiled all notes and information that his
father left after his death in 1973. In 1936, he wrote an essay about monsters in the epic
poem Beowulf, one of the poems that influenced him all his live, this essay was called
Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. His first published work was The Hobbit
in 1937 it related the fantastic adventures of Bilbo Bolson, a thief that was contracted
by a group of dwarves in the company of a wizard (Gandalf) and how he obtains the
Ring of Power. This book was acclaimed and he promised to continue the history, so in
1954 1955 was published his greatest work: The Lord of the Rings.
It is not a coincident the similar aspects of Tolkiens works with the Anglo-Saxon
culture; he was an expert in this area and he spent his whole life creating an English
mythology based in Nordic. He mixed styles and skills from the epic poems from this
age. He did not create only an entire world, he even invented the languages, traditions
and history of all the races that lived in the middle earth (it is the continent where The
Lord of the Rings develops the epic adventure) this name is based in the concept that
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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
German had of the world, a big continent surrounded by water. In the Lord of the Rings,
Tolkien uses all the features found in Old English epic poems, for example the hall. The
hall is treated in these poems as the lord in his castle surrounded by all his knights,
warriors and servants living in a close community, as if it was their home, the place
where they could rest and stay with their families after the brutality of the battle and
share their experiences in a full camaraderie. These images are found in both human
fortress in The Lord of the Rings: Medusel, where lives Theoden, the lord of Rohan, and
Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, Denethor is the seneschal that lives there while the
legitimate king is in the exile. Tolkien, tried to describe people in the Anglo-Saxon age
with his books, for example, he treated eorlingas (warriors from rohan) like this:
They are proud and willful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and
deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many
songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.
Due to this, we can imagine that Tolkien was describing us how Anglo-Saxon
people were if we consider the manuscripts that have been found of this age and making
similarities with Rohirrim. There is only one difference between this people and the
Anglo-Saxons: the horses, Rohirrim were brave warriors and very powerful in the battle
because of these animals, but if Tolkien wanted to represent Anglo-Saxon people with
Rohan, why he used them? It is so easy, Tolkien always hated the changes that affected
Anglo-Saxon when they were conquered by Normans and he knew that in 1066 if
Harold II in the battle of Hastings would have had cavalry, he would not have lost
against the Normans of William the Conqueror and Anglo-Saxon culture would not have
been modified as it happened.
It is strictly necessary to pay attention in the ubi sunt and tempus fugit, two
terms that are alive in The Wanderer in the entire poem and we can find clearly that the
famous writer used them as a source of inspiration as we can see in these two pieces:
In the poem, the wanderer made reference to this feeling like this:
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?
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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
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!
In the work of Tolkien, when Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are
contemplating the barrows on the hill, Aragorn starts to sing a song in rohirrim
language that is very similar to the extract that we have seen before in The Wanderer:
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 harp string, 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?
As we can see the similarities are evident between the Old English poem and
The Lord of the Rings, but we must consider, as we have seen before, that Tolkien was
not only inspired in this poem, his purpose was to create the own English mythology.
At this point of the analysis we have to emphasize in one of the main characters of
Tolkiens work: Gandalf. This character is named as the grey pilgrim; this aspect
makes us to remember again the poem The Wanderer, an exiled warrior without lord
and home that is continuously moving searching new adventures, this character has
been compared with the Norman god Odin, or Merlin from the King Arthur, but there
are much more similarities with Vinminen Runoya from the epic Finnish novel
Kalevala, this character has the same skills than Gandalf, the physical aspect is the
same, and is an ancient powerful wizard

that has to fight versus the young wizard

Joukahainen, both wizards have their power in the voice and after fighting to each
other, Vinminen is defeated and thrown to the sea, where he will be rescued by an
eagle, something that is very similar to what happened in the Lord of the Rings between
Gandalf and Saruman. We can find more resemblances in this character with Old
English poems, for example, when Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas arrive to
Medusel in order to speak to Theoden about Sarumans betrayal, Grima Wormtongue is
Theodens servant but hi is working for Saruman, and in this scene he is trying
continuously to leave Gandalf in a bad place, firstly he reproaches the wizard that why
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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
in this age of difficulties, he does not bring with him an army instead of his words, but it
is possible to find again a big Old English influence in Tolkien in the next words from
Grima to Gandalf:
Why should I welcome you, Gandalf Stormcrow? Why indeed should welcome
you, Master Stormcrow? 'Lthspell' I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill
guest they say.
In this piece of text, Grima tells that calamities are behind Gandalf like crows,
and compares him with one of them. In the tradition, crows are related to bad news and
disasters, but Tolkien is a very good expert in English culture and although it seems to
be an insult, in the English tradition crows were symbol of hope. It is not a simple
coincidence because the Nordic god Odin is always surrounded the crows Huninn and
Muninn so this is another argument that remembers us the way in which Tolkien was
inspired when he wrote his greatest work.
Anglo-Saxon culture has served as a way of inspiration for a lot of authors, we
usually do not realize it, but there are a lot of modern works that have influences from
this age and this culture. If Norman would not have conquered the Islands, maybe this
culture would have survived more time and their manners and ways of life would have
been more alive than they are nowadays. It is for this reason why the manuscripts that
have been conserved and anonymous works dated from that age, are like a treasure,
because we cold not know how they were and lived without them and a lot of great
works like The Lord of the Rings perhaps would never have been written.
One of the most important authors that was in love with this culture was Tolkien,
he has been always criticized because people thought that he was writing for children,
but the reality is so different, he created an entire mythology, a world, even languages,
some people even said that he was nazi and that he was representing the World War in
his books, but he was an extreme catholic person that always criticized the two forces,
maybe he was labeled of nazi because of his religious ideas. He only tried to represent
the continuous fight between good and evil acclimated in a mythological environment
full of fantasy and at the same time, make Anglo-Saxon culture more alive and
introduce us to those people. An author that even lost his friendship with C.S. Lewis, the
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The Wanderer: social context, pagan and Christian


elements, feelings of the character and influence in authors
like J.R.R. Tolkien.
creator of the Chronicles of Narnia, with the same style and genre than him, but that
was very jealous of the success of Tolkien.

Bibliography:
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th Edition. Volume 1. Ed. by
M.H. Abrams, et al. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., January 4, 2006. 111-113
Church in Anglo-Saxon Society Blair, John Oxford University Press ; 01/2005
Hobbits, elves, and wizards: exploring the wonders and worlds of
J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the rings" . Michael N. Stanton.
An invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England Mitchell, Bruce Oxford:
Blackwell, 2003
Imagining the Anglo-Saxon past: the search for anglo-saxon paganism
andanglo-saxon trial by jury / Eric Gerald Stanley, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer,
2000

Internet references:
http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=wdr
http://www.silmarillionwritersguild.org/reference/references/pf/silmarillion-andwanderer.php
http://www.epdlp.com/escritor.php?id=2360
http://www.dor-lomin.org/trabajos/tolkien-catolicismo/tolkien_catolicismo.php
http://www.aciprensa.com/vejemplares/tolkien/tolkien.htm
http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=wdr