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British Literature

Anglo-Saxon Period

Anglo-Saxon Extras

The Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, era of England lasted from about 450-1066 A.D. The tribes from Germany that conquered Britain in the fifth century carried with them both the Old English language and a detailed poetic tradition. The tradition included alliteration, stressed and unstressed syllables, but more importantly, the poetry was usually mournful, reflecting on suffering and loss.1These sorrowful poems from the Anglo Saxon time period are mimetic to the Anglo-Saxons themselves; they reflect the often burdened and miserable lives and times of the people who created them. The Anglo-Saxon poems, “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament,” are three examples how literature is mimetic, for they capture the culture’s heroic beliefs of Fame and Fate, the culture’s societal structure, and religious struggle of the Old English time period: making the transition from paganism to Christianity.

In order to understand how these poems mirror the Anglo-Saxons’ lives, one must know a little history about the culture. In the fifth century, the inhabitants of the island of Britain hired German mercenaries to defend them against their warring neighbors, the Picts and the Scots. 2 After having defeated the enemies, the pagan Angles, or Saxons, revolted against their former allies, the Britons, killing everyone, no matter what their status or occupation, destroyed towns and buildings, and drove out Christianity, the Britons’ religion. The conquerors were Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, and Frisians, but they all had a similar culture so they became known as Anglo-Saxons. 3

Anglo-Saxons set up Germanic kingdoms, each one ruled by a lord. In the new Anglo-Saxon society, the strongest bonds were not between a husband and wife, or parents and children, but were between a lord and his kin.4 The Germanic comitatus was made up of men who served this lord with a fierce loyalty and would selflessly fight for him.5 They were his warriors. The comitatus “stressed the loyalty of a thane to his chieftain and treated exile and outlawry as the most tragic lots that could befall one. This secular sense of loss is keen in The Wanderer.”6 Not only is the loss of a lord evident in “The Wanderer,” but in “The Seafarer” and “The Wife’s Lament” as well.

The poem “The Wanderer” speaks of a man who has been exiled from his clan, and is now forced to roam the land alone. Separation from his fellow kinsmen and lord seems to be the worst fate imaginable. The man speaks of his great loss, remembering the time when he was happy with his liege,

        When friendships are no more. His fortune is exile,
        Not gifts of fine gold; a heart that is frozen,
        Earth’s wisomeness dead. And he dreams of the hall-men,
        The dealing of treasure, the days of his youth,
        When his lord bade welcome to wassail and feast.
        But gone is that gladness, and never again
        Shall come the loved counsel of comrade and king.

                  (II. 27-34)

The speaker of “The Seafarer” is also an outcast sailing the sea in solitude, and he speaks similarly of his exile from his lord and kinsmen: “Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile/ Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles.” (II. 14-15) He seems to believe that if he has lost his fellow warriors and lord, or his friends, the only thing left in life is the nature that surrounds him.

The speaker of “The Wife’s Lament” is also in exile, but she is no warrior; she is a lord’s wife, and is distressed because she has been separated from him:

        I ever suffered grief through banishment.
        For since my lord departed from his people
        Over the sea, each dawn I had care
        Wondering where my lord may be on land.
        When I set off to join and serve my lord,
        A friendless exile in my sorry plight. . .

                  (II. 6-10)

All three mournful poems act mimetically, because they prove the importance of a lord and comitatus to the Anglo-Saxon society by showing the great sorrow the people go through when they lose their leader.

The lord of a comitatus would care for his warriors; he allowed them to dine in mead halls, and if a warrior were loyal to his lord, the lord would reward his subject with treasures. “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are mimetic when the speakers reflect on the dining halls and rewards during the Anglo-Saxon times. “The Seafarer” speaks of rewards from the lord, and refers to them as “ring receiving,”7 (I. 44) which was described as “rings or gold or other valuable objects were customarily given by Anglo-Saxon kings to their retainers to affirm a mutual bond of loyalty and protection.”8 Because a powerful lord could provide protection, food, and gifts to his weaker, lower kin, the Anglo-Saxons felt they needed a leader, someone to whom they could be loyal, for without him they would have nothing.9 It is evident that “The Wanderer” is mimetic, because the speaker reflects how the people of the time longed for such a leader:

        Even in slumber his sorrow assaileth,
        And, dreaming he claspeth his dear lord again,
        Head on knee, hand on knee, loyally laying,
        Pledging his liege as in days long past.
        Then from his slumber he starts lonely hearted. . .
        The longing for loved one: his grief is renewed.

                  (II. 25-39, 44)

These three poems, “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament” are considered to be elegiac, one of the main categories of Old English poetry. Elegiac poems are mournful, reflecting on a great loss or losses, and reminisce about the better, happier times one once knew.10 The Old English elegy is defined by Stanley B. Greenfield as “ ‘a relatively short reflective or dramatic poem embodying a contrasting pattern of loss and consolation, ostensibly based upon a specific personal experience or observation, and expressing an attitude towards that experience.’”11 Therefore, because these three poems are considered elegiac, the situations that are written, namely, the exiles and separation from lords, are indeed true, personal experiences or observations of the speakers. Whether observation or personal experience, these are events that actually occurred in Anglo-Saxon time. They are not simply stanzas of fiction written by an imaginative author; these poems are reflections of the life of the Anglo-Saxon culture, experiences of the people, and therefore are mimetic.

The Anglo-Saxons brought with them their Germanic philosophies of paganism to the island. As pagans, they believed in many gods, but they also believed strongly in pagan heroic traditions that ruled their society and literature.12

These heroic traditions were based on the philosophies of Fame and Fate. It was believed that Fate, or Wyrd, controlled people’s lives and could “put men and women into positions whence it seems impossible for them to emerge with honor. They are judged by their choice, still more, perhaps, by the steadfastness with which they carry out their chosen aim, never looking back.”13 Heroes and heroines often could not leave a situation with honor because they could only choose between two evils. This usually meant that they could either succumb to their fate and show no valor, or try to resist it with violence, which probably ended in one’s death.14

The courage to resist one’s fate brought about the idea of Fame, which “is something greater than Fate: the strength of will and the courage of human beings, and the memory which could preserve their deeds.”15 If one resisted his fate, he had to have courage because it often meant facing great physical hardships, knowing that he would most likely die. But heroes would rather die an early, courageous death, trying to achieve Fame rather than sitting back and doing nothing, because “fame dies never for him who gets it worthily.”16 For the pagan Anglo-Saxons, there was no afterlife or reward in heaven, so the people wanted to forever be remembered on earth for their great feats. The famous poem Beowulf shows that the Anglo-Saxon culture regarded Fame as very appealing: “So fame/ Comes to the men who mean to win it/ And care about nothing else!”17 (II. 507-509).

Around the end of the sixth century, however, Christian missionaries arrived from Rome and Ireland, and successfully began to convert the former polytheistic Anglo-Saxons into monotheistic Christians.18
The Christian religion included the belief of an afterlife in Heaven or Hell; where one went depended on the sins he had committed during his earthly life. Because where one went in his afterlife resulted from his actions, Christians did not believe in the pagan concept of Fate. Instead they trusted in the justice of God. Defeat and misfortune were easier to understand in this new religion. If one suffered on earth, but led a good life devoted to God, Christians believed that he would be rewarded for his suffering in the heaven.19 Because of this more hopeful outlook on life, it is easy to understand why many pagans converted to Christianity, no force needed. Even though the king of Kent converted to Christianity, he did not demand the people also convert; he wanted conversions to be voluntary.20 But Christian and pagan philosophies are strikingly different, and the Anglo-Saxons had difficulty shifting their beliefs so quickly.

The literature of the time tells of the people’s struggle to understand which faith was valid, after they discover that Christians do not honor their familiar pagan beliefs of Fame and Fate. The glory of Fame and riches on earth holds no value in heaven, so therefore material items mean nothing. Accepting the Christian religion meant that their heroes in literature could no longer follow tradition by fighting off Fate to gain Fame.21 The Anglo-Saxons were torn between the familiar religion they once knew and the potentially more hopeful one that was presented to them. Because of “the markedly elegiac note of such poems as “The Wanderer,” and “The Ruin,” scholars usually assume that melancholy was an inborn trait of the Anglo-Saxons.”22 But when considering the new religion to which they quickly tried to adapt, scholars then realized that
the transition in Anglo-Saxon thought from pagan defiance to Christian resignation, from the glory of undying Fame to the nothingness of this world, might well produce the melancholy in Anglo-Saxon poetry, which strikes such an alien note in the chorus of heroic song.23

In other words, the conflicting ideas and beliefs during the time of the confused Anglo-Saxons are conveyed in the poems “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer” therefore giving them the right to be called mimetic.
The speaker of “The Wanderer” seems to be struggle with the Germanic and Christian philosophies, trying to understand why he suffers in life, and how, or if, he can obtain relief. It can be seen in the opening lines how he clings to both religions:

        Oft to the Wanderer, weary of exile,
        Cometh God’s pity, compassionate love,
        Though woefully toiling on wintry seas
        With churning oar in the icy wave,
        Homeless and helpless he fled from Fate.

                (II. 1-5)

These first five lines introduce his struggle. The speaker at first seems to have accepted Christianity as he embraces God’s love for him, but at the same time he still believes in the pagan belief of fate. As the poem continues, it seems as if the speaker is still a pagan, for he longs for the days of mead-halls and earthly riches from his lord:

        ‘Where now is the warrior? Where is the war horse?
        Bestowal of treasure, and sharing of feast?
        Alas! The bright ale-cup, the byrny-clad warrior,
        The prince in his splendor—those days are long sped
        In the night of the past, as if they never had been!

                (II. 84-88)

The speaker wants materialistic possessions and to live the life he once knew with the comfort of a lord; he wants to live the heroic culture, even though this former life caused him to be the wandering outcast that he is. He mourns for the old pagan life, yet in the last lines of the poem, he remembers God’s eternal love for those who suffer, and once again turns to Christianity as he says,

        He must never too quickly unburden his breast
        Of its sorrow, but eagerly strive for redress;
        And happy the man who seeketh for mercy
        From his heavenly Father, our Fortress and Strength.

                (II. 105-108)

Because the original Anglo-Saxon poems were originally preserved orally by scops24, and were not written down until many years later, there is speculation that the Christian lines could have possibly been added in when recorded, and were not part of the original work.

“The Wanderer” acts mimetically as it reflects the Anglo-Saxon traditions of its former heroic culture, and as it perfectly captures one man’s efforts to find answers to his deepest questions. His faith in the Germanic heroic code has been shaken, for it has forced him into a wretched existence. Yet even as he turns to Christianity for a new purpose and direction, he cannot help looking back fondly and sadly on the traditions that were a part of him.25

The speaker in “The Seafarer” seems to have more readily accepted Christianity than the speaker in “The Wanderer,” yet he also is shaky about this conversion. In the beginning of the poem it is obvious that he yearns for his former heroic days as he mistakes “the cries / Of curlews for the missing mirth of men, / The singing gull instead of the mead in hall.” (II. 19-21). But he then seems to shake these memories and turns steadfast the Christian faith as he proclaims that his mind doesn’t focus on earthly hopes and treasures “Because the joys of God mean more to me / Than this dead transitory life on land.” (II. 65-66). The speaker gives a Christian-like sermon, encouraging others to obey the Lord, and again repeats that riches on earth mean nothing after death. One might assume that he is a devoted, newly converted Christian, but words about the pagan beliefs of Fate and Fame, indicate “the poem is a direct reflection of the speaker’s own uncertainty and conflict.”26

In the poem, the speaker seems to think that he understands the Christian religion, but in reality he does not. He entwines his new faith with his old; he still believes in Fame and Fate, but in a Christian way. He defies the old belief of Fame, saying, “Fame is brought low,” (II. 88). Yet only a few lines earlier, he talks about the fame one will achieve on earth after he his death for the devoted life he lived:

        Memorial is the praise of living men
        After his death, that ere he must depart
        He shall have done good deeds on earth against
        The malice of his foes, and noble works
        Against the devil, that the sons of men
        May praise after him, and his glory live
        For ever with the angels in the splendor. . .

                (II. 73-78)

The speaker seems to think that by doing good works and getting to heaven, one will gain fame for doing so. He also still believes in the pagan philosophy of Fate: “Yet fate is mightier, the Lord’s ordaining / More powerful than any man can know.” (II. 118-119). Even though he thinks the one and only true God creates one’s destiny, his belief is wrong because Christians do not believe in the concept of fate; they believe in free will. Though the speaker is truly trying to act like a Christian, he cannot escape the former traditions of the Anglo-Saxon time.

There has been endless debate about what parts of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, are original and what parts were added in. Some believe that the Christian components were added in later centuries. Some ponder whether the poem was written by a Christian or a pagan.27 One thing is for certain however: “the most striking feature of the poem, namely the fact that, though it abounds in expressions of Christian sentiment, yet the customs and ceremonies to which it alludes are uniformly heathen.”28 Like “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer,” Beowulf has both Christian and pagan elements, and also similar to the poems, Beowulf speaks of the lords and mead halls of the time period. Beowulf is so mimetic to the Anglo-Saxon time that Archibald Strong went so far to declare, “ ‘Beowulf is the picture of a whole civilization. . . Beowulf is an important historical document.’”29 Because Beowulf is mimetic, and “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are so similar to the epic poem, they too can be considered mimetic.

The three elegiac poems, “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament” give the modern day world a glimpse how life was for the Anglo-Saxons in the early centuries. These three experiences or observations of the time show how the Anglo-Saxon society was organized and the importance of the lord to his comitatus; they speak of the former heroic tradition and the belief and Fame and Fate; the speakers of the poems question the beliefs of their new religion, and show the main struggle of the culture during that time: the transition from paganism to Christianity. By mirroring the lives of Anglo-Saxons, these poems behave mimetically.