Anhaga as Mistranslation. 

Oft him ānhaga     āre gebīdeð,
  Metudes miltse,     þēah þe hē mōdcearig
  geond lagulāde     longe sceolde
  hrēran mid hondum     hrīmcealde s
 wadan wræclāstas.     Wyrd bið ful ārǣd.
  Swā cwæð eardstapa,     earfeþa gemyndig,
  wrāþra wælsleahta,     winem
ǣga hryre:


Ongietan sceal glēaw hæle     hū gǣstlic bið,
  þonne ealre þisse worulde wela     wēste stondeð,
swā nū missenlīce     geond þisne middangeard
  winde biwāune     weallas stondaþ,
  hrīme bihrorene,     hrȳðge þā ederas.
  Wōriað þā wīnsalo,     waldend licgað
  drēame bidrorene,     duguþ eal gecrong,
 wlonc bi wealle.     Sume wīg fornom,
  ferede in forðwege:     sumne fugel oþbær
  ofer hēanne holm,     sumne se hāra wulf
  dēaðe gedǣlde,     sumne drēorighlēor
  in eorðscræfe     eorl gehȳdde.
 Ȳþde swā þisne eardgeard     ælda Scyppend
  oþ þæt burgwara     breahtma lēase
  eald enta geweorc     īdlu stōdon.

Firstly, get rid of the idea of the Old English poem, The Wanderer,  as an autobiography or a dramatic monologue.

 Yes there is an I.

Oft ic sceolde āna ūhtna gehwylce
mīne ceare cwīþan. Nis nū cwicra nān
þe ic him mōdsefan mīnne durre
sweotule āsecgan.

But the speaker is a fictional construct: the /I/ does not point backwards to a biological point of origin, nor does it create a character. It is an empty space into which the performer of the poem steps. The Exeter Book is a book to read from, placed on a lectern. The reader steps into the role, becomes the anhaga, who thus magically appears in the place where the performance occurs.

Imagine, urges this text, imagine a man in this situation. Speaking to you. Or imagine you are the one speaking. Both are possible.

He has lost everything external that gives his life meaning: his kin, the bonds of fealty that tied him to his lord, the social and legal definitions and protection those afforded, the obligations which shaped his behaviour and gave him finite purpose; he has lost his country, he is adrift in a hostile world looking for context. He cannot even expect to land where his language is spoken and he may be given the chance to explain himself before they kill him.

Who is he?

Take away all those external markers of identification, those makers of social identity, and who is he?

And the poem says that you are all in this situation:you, sitting there listening, safe in your assumption that the I speaking is not the I listening. Who are you?

What do you ground your answer in? A name (with its assumptions of family: X son of A or Y daughter of B?) A relationship? A history? The name of your village, your kingdom, your Lord? The accumulation of experience that passes as your biography? The world? Heroic actions? Acquisitions: fame, possessions, knowledge, the beauty of made things? The language you speak with its colouring of status and education and regional provenance?

Friends, lords, family, companions: they all die, says the poem. One the wolf took off, another the bird bore away, another was buried in a ditch by his kinsmen. It all rots, rusts, fades, crumbles: Even the walls stand ruined, and soon it’s all gone.

And when it’s all gone...and then something odd happens. The poem wants to say; you will find meaning and context in God. That is the lesson and this is what it says. If you do not know God then your life is simply an exile lived in a hostile space. Search for him and find him and you will no longer be alone.

But lurking in the background is a different question. Not a “pagan” answer. (This is a Christian poem. Not a pagan poem topped and tailed with Christian sentiment to make it fit for the cloister, but a very obviously Christian poem.)

Ongietan sceal glēaw hæle hū gǣstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela wēste stondeð,
swā nū missenlīce geond þisne middangeard
winde biwāune weallas stondaþ,
hrīme bihrorene, hrȳðge þā ederas.

gǣstlic :a lot depends on how you translate that one word

The first clause could easily be translated :

A wise man knows how ghastly it is when all this world’s wealth stands waste.

Ghastly: in early use: causing terror.  In modern use: suggestive of the kind of horror evoked by the sight of death of carnage; horrible, frightful, shocking. (OED)

But you could also translate gǣstlic as ghostly, in the sense of 'not of the body'. Peter Baker’s suggestion, by extension, is spiritual. But since I’m not doing an academic translation, how about: liberating.

A wise man knows how liberating it is to stand alone in front of the ruins of whatever he thought made him who he was.

The poem rephrases the question, cutting through the post modern waffle about identity as performative, as self as fractured and unknowable, as constructed by nationality or language and culture.

The last human on the planet, utterly alone, staring at the ruin of the world, would still be an 'I'.

So not what roles do you play, not what labels do you wear, but who or what is this irreducible, unique 'I' who stands looking at the ruins?


Sources and ‘Further Reading’.


Although I have studied Old English and have academic qualifications in medieval Literature and History, I am not a scholar nor do I pretend to be one.

This list is a ‘what I found useful and why’. It’s offered in the hopes it might lead readers beyond the poem into a fascinating field of study. 

 I make no claims for the list beyond that.


There are numerous good translations of OE poetry. This is the main reason I did not 'Translate The Wanderer'. 

I read Michael Alexander’s translations of Beowulf and The Early English Poems while I was still at school. They were the reasons I studied Old English. Both are still available from Penguin Classics though the latter has been updated and reissued as The First Poems in English.

Tom Meyers Beowulf, recently (2012) published by punctum books, is a fascinating ‘modernist’ take on the Big B.  Jane Holland’s version of The Wanderer, published as a pamphlet by Heavitree press, is a thought provoking take on the poem.

The Wanderer

There is an excellent Introduction to ‘The Wanderer’ at the Oxford Old English site:

For the text of The Wanderer I used volume three of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: The Exeter Book. I found the notes and discussion in Anne L. Klinck’s The Old English Elegies: a critical edition and genre study particularly useful. I also made full use of Peter Barker’s OE Aerobics web site. (see below). I would have used the digitalized cd-Rom version of the Exeter book but by the time I bought a copy the software it requires was no longer available.

I have seen the Exeter Book twice. Unlike the digital version it is still readable.There's a lesson there I think. 


My favorite overview of Old English Literature is still Tom Shippey’s: Old English Verse. A more recent book by Michael Alexander,  A History of Old English Literature (2002) is aimed squarely at people who want a good introduction to the literature and the culture in one book.

The essays in R.M.Liuzza’s Old English Literature are aimed at more ‘advanced scholars’ but provide plenty to think about.

For iconoclastic delight, though it talks to specialists, I’d recommend Alan J.Frantzen’s Desire for Origins.  

Anglo-Saxon Books provide a wide range of books for anyone interested in Old English or Anglo-Saxon life in General. . It’s not always mainstream academic scholarship but it’s a vast and useful resource.

If you’re in England go visit the experimental site at West Stow to see what an Anglo-Saxon village might have looked like. The Anglo-Saxon collection in the British Museum is always worth a visit.


Reference in Anhaga to bog bodies owes a lot to the excitement I remember surrounding the discovery and display of Lindow Man (‘Pete Marsh’). Pete is still on display in the British Museum but looking a bit worn. The display of Bog Bodies in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin was deeply affecting, and Old Croghan man and his beautiful hands are unforgettable.

During the writing of Anhaga I learnt a great deal from four books:

The Lyric Speakers of Old English Poetry by Lois Bragg

The Textually of Old English Literature by Carol Braun Pasternack

Interactions of thought and Language in Old English Literature by Peter Clemoes

Visible song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse by Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe.

Lurking in the background of part two is Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons.



If you wanted to teach yourself from scratch Stephen Pollington’s First Steps in Old English is a recommended starting point: I used it for revision when writing Lady Godiva and Me and I think I learnt more from it than I did in three years of formal study as an undergraduate.

Pollington has his own website:

Peter Barker’s Old English Aerobics is excellent for anyone interested in learning Old English.  To get the best out of the site you have to request an account but it’s free and invaluable. The textbook that goes with it is also very good.

 ‘The Cambridge Old English Reader’ is well thought out for beginners and has a marvelous range of texts. Perhaps somewhat oddly the Teach Yourself series’ ‘Teach yourself Old English’ also has an interesting range of texts.

All these texts are much more user friendly than Sweets Primer and Reader which I used as an Undergraduate, but both of these are still good.


I’ve been a fan of Michael Wood since I saw In Search of the Dark ages when it first appeared on British TV.  The book of the series is a fine introduction to the period. The TV series has been recently (2014) reissued on DVD and though it's showing its age technically is well worth watching. His In Search of King Arthur in the Myths and Heroes series is also good.

The man has done so much for history he should be declared a national monument and those jeans from In Search of the Trojan War should be in a museum.

The Anglo-Saxon period has not been well served by feature films. The Anglo-Saxons in the awful ‘King Arthur’ starring Clive Owen are so stupid they would never have survived long enough to add to the gene pool.

Most of the focus in film has been on Beowulf. There are several attempts. They are interesting for the changes they make to the story and the attitudes those changes reveal.  Most of them seem oblivious to the fact that the poem itself offers a critique of its hero and his ethos. The Gerard Butler Beowulf and Grendel is filmed in Iceland and at least looks beautiful. The much Maligned 13th Warrior probably gets closer to the Big B than a lot of other films (if you can get over the Beowulf character’s outlandish name), as does the equally outlandish Outlander.

Wood’s In Search of Beowulf is on Youtube…