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Wulf and Eadwacer

Wulf and Eadwacer is an Old English poem of famously difficult interpretation. It has been variously characterised, (modernly) as an elegy, (historically) as a riddle, and (in speculation on the poem's pre-history) as a song or ballad with refrain. The poem's complexities are, however, often asserted simply to defy genre classification, especially with regard to its narrative content. The poem's only extant text is found within the 10th century Exeter Book, along with certain other texts to which it possesses qualitative similarities.

Genre

The characterisation of the poem as a riddle is the oldest of its various treatments, the argument for which characterisation is based largely upon the obscurity of its subject and the placement of the poem within the Exeter Book, preceding the texts of the extant riddles themselves. However, its length and its various textual problems not characteristic of the riddles have led few scholars to pursue a simple riddle interpretation in modern textual study, and few such explanations have garnered serious attention in the recent history of its scholarship. Rather, the thematic similarity of the poem to The Wife's Lament, also found in the Exeter Book, has caused most modern scholars to place it, along with the Wife's Lament, solidly within the genre of the frauenlied, or woman's song and, more broadly, in that of the Old English elegy. Its adjacency to the riddles has, however, continued to inform commentary and interpretation.

Manuscript Evidence

For lack of any historical evidence or attestation outside the Exeter Book's text, historical criticism is limited to study of the Exeter Book itself and, particularly, to comparative study of its various contained works. Though it is generally held that the poem's composition occurred at a date significantly earlier than the date of the Exeter Book's own compilation, the degree of the poem's age relative to the codex is difficult if not impossible to ascertain. The dating of the poem in criticism is thus generally limited to what can be ascertained from the known history of the Exeter Book, for which suggested dates of compilation range from 960CE to 990CE. Though the folios on which the poem is recorded are not subject to any significant damage necessitating reconstruction, its textual problems and, particularly, the grammatical confusion of the first lines of the text, have resulted in widespread postulation that the initial lines of the poem may have been lost prior to its inclusion in the Exeter Book but subsequent to an earlier transcription. There is no manuscript evidence to directly support this theory, however.

Proposals regarding its heritage prior to inscription in the Exeter codex are consequently many and various. The inclusion of a refrain in the text of the poem may support an originally non-English origin, as the refrain is not conventional to the Old English elegy or to any other known Old English poetical form. Among proposed explanations for this anomaly, a Scandinavian inspiration for the Anglo-Saxon text offers one possible solution to this problem, and has similarly been considered as an explanation for its difficult language, but this theory, as with most others on the poem's prehistory, can only be regarded as hypothetical given lack of substantive corroborating evidence. The suggestion is that the poem derives from some interpretation of the Wayland story; that the woman is Beadohild, Wulf is Wayland, and Eadwacer her angry father. This episode is also discussed in the poem Deor.

Characters

The most conventional interpretation of the poem is as a lament spoken in the first person by an unnamed woman who is or has in the past been involved with two men whose names are Wulf and Eadwacer respectively. Both of these are attested Anglo-Saxon names, and this interpretation is the basis for the common titling of the poem (which is not based on any other manuscript evidence). However, even this point proves controversial. Some interpretations favour a single male character, and virtually all commentaries acknowledge the possibility, though this is the less orthodox of the two views. In recognition of this fact, for example, preeminent Old English scholar Michael Alexander has chosen the title "Wulf" for his own reproduction of it in The Earliest English Poems (Penguin, 1973). The title Wulf and Eadwacer, however, though apocryphal, has gained such widespread acceptance over time that in the majority of texts it is accepted regardless of the treatment of the titular name(s) and character(s).

Synopsis

The speaker of the poem is evidently separated from her lover, both symbolically and materially (Wulf is on iege, | ic on oþerre), and this separation is seemingly maintained by threat of violence (willað hy hine aþecgan, | gif he on þreat cymeð), possibly by her own people (Leodum is minum | swylce him mon lac gife). In sorrow, an unnamed lover takes her in his arms (þonne mec se beaducafa bogum bilegde), and she finds comfort in this, but also pain (wæs me wyn to þon, wæs me hwæþre eac lað). She addresses her lover as 'Eadwacer', which, again, may or may not be a personal name, and she appears to identify their 'whelp' (Uncerne earne hwelp), generally understood to metaphorically imply 'child' and possibly a reference to the child's being the 'whelp' of a man named 'Wulf', and describe this child being taken off 'to the woods' (to wuda). Finally, the poem's closing lines are likely a metaphor drawn from biblical reference to Matthew 19:6. The lines might be loosely rendered as a whole, "easily torn asunder is that which was never united | our song/riddle together".

Old English text

Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre.

Fæst is þæt eglond, fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe weras þær on ige;
willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelice is us.
Wulfes ic mines widlastum wenum dogode;

þonne hit wæs renig weder ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon, wæs me hwæþre eac lað.
Wulf, min Wulf, wena me þine
seoce gedydon, þine seldcymas,

murnende mod, nales meteliste.
Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer? Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð Wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.

References

  • Alexander, Michael. "Wulf." The Earliest English Poems. London: Penguin, 1973. p. 56-62.
  • Baker, Peter S. "Wulf and Eadwacer." Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. p. 206-207.
  • Mitchell, Bruce. "Wulf." An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. p. 308-309.
  • Mitchell, Bruce and Robinson, Fred C. "Wulf and Eadwacer." A Guide to Old English. 6th ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. p. 297-299.
  • Treharne, Elaine, ed. "Wulf and Eadwacer." Old English and Middle English c.890-c.1400. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. p. 64-65.

See also

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