Wanderer (poem)

The Wanderer (poem)

The Wanderer is an Old English poem from the 10th century, preserved in the Exeter Book. The date of composition is unknown but most certainly predates 1070 AD, as it was probably part of an earlier, oral literary culture.


The Wanderer is a profoundly mournful poem, to the extent that it is an elegy, in which the speaker, whose lord and kin are now dead, details both his grief and his struggle to make his own way in the world. Though the poem mentions the wanderer's kinsmen, the poem is not one of remembrance. The visions the wanderer has, and the recollections he recounts, serve to highlight his pain at being left alone. The degeneration of “earthly glory” is presented as inevitable in the poem, contrasting with the theme of salvation through faith in God, which is introduced halfway through the poem.

Three notable elements of the poem are the use of the "Beasts of Battle" motif,, the "ubi sunt" formula and the siþ-motif.

The "Beasts of Battle" motif is here modified to include not only the standard eagle, raven and wolf, but also a "sad-faced man". It has been suggested that this is the poem's protagonist.

The "ubi sunt" or "where is" formula is here in the form "hwær cwom", the Old English phrase "where has gone". The use of this emphasises the sense of loss that pervades the poem.

The preoccupation with the siþ-motif in Anglo-Saxon literature is matched in many post-conquest texts where journeying is central to the text. A necessarily brief survey of the corpus might include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and William Golding's Rites of Passage. Not only do we find physical journeying within The Wanderer and those later texts, but a sense in which the journey is responsible for a visible transformation in the mind of the character making the journey.

The wanderer vividly describes his loneliness and yearning for the bright days past, and concludes with an admonition to put faith in God, "in whom all stability dwells". It has been argued that this admonition is a later addition, as it lies at the end of a poem that is otherwise solely secular in its concerns.

The structure of the poem is of four-stress lines, divided between the second and third stresses by a caesura. Like most Old English Poetry, it is written in alliterative meter.

The Wanderer is possibly the most debated Old English Poem in terms of its meaning, origin, and even the translation of various ambiguous words. Any reading of the poem will be speculative and theoretical, as is the case with any piece of literature.

Reference in Tolkien

In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Two Towers (the second volume of The Lord of the Rings), Aragorn sings a song about the kingdom of Rohan that begins:

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...

In the 2002 film version of The Two Towers, Peter Jackson takes liberties so that Tolkien's prose has been somewhat abridged, and they are instead uttered by King Théoden (whose name is Anglo Saxon for "chief") before the Battle of Helm's Deep:

Where is the horse and rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
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.
How did it come to this?

Whichever version is considered this poem is clearly based on this section of The Wanderer:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

The poem Lay of the Passing Ages, probably authored/translated by Tolkien, is derived from The Wanderer.



  • Anglo-Saxon poetry: an anthology of Old English poems tr. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Dent, 1982 (translation into English prose).

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