"WANDERER" - The Profound Anglo-Saxon Poem that Tolkien Used in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Updated: Sep 17, 2022
Video from Empire of the Mind
"J.R.R. Tolkien did something in the Lord of the Rings that no one else has been able to replicate. He made a fictional world that feels real. How was he able to do this? What makes him stand out among writers is that he was not a writer, first and foremost. He was a scholar—one of the truly great scholars of the Middle Ages. Most of his time was spent not writing novels but as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and English language and literature at Oxford, breaking ground in those fields, and translating numerous Medieval works including Beowulf. Hemingway once wrote that, “A good writer should know as near everything as possible.” And that was true of Tolkien, at least when it came to the Middle Ages. He had a pervasive knowledge of historical facts, cultures, and of human beings, especially of the Medieval flavor. Tolkien had a higher dosage of reality than most of us, and was therefore able to incorporate a high dose of reality into his fictional novels. There’s no better example of this than the Anglo-Saxon poem called The Wanderer, A poem Tolkien loved, studied, translated, and even quoted from during a valedictory address. Composed orally somewhere around the 5th or 6th century by an anonymous poet, It’s about a medieval warrior who, as the name implies, is forced to wander the earth because his people have been defeated in battle and Completely wiped out. His friends are slaughtered and his lord is slain. His home is destroyed. He has nowhere to return to or live. He is forced to travel, to wander the earth. He is a broken man. And this poem captures that sense of brokenness magnificently. Psychologically speaking, It’s a shockingly sophisticated poem. We can think of it in terms of the stages of medieval grief: 1. Isolation-Repression 2. Dream-Fantasy 3. Sadness-Depression 4. Acceptance-Wisdom 5. Disorientation-Confusion 6. Piety-Courage We should study The Wanderer to gain an understanding of grief. One weakness of modern psychology (it seems to me) is that it is too limited: it studies modern people, primarily. Thus it mistakes the working of the modern mind as the working of the human mind as such. But by studying ancient texts like The Wanderer, texts that pour out such raw humanity, we see just different human beings can be from one another. We see their VALUES. ‘The Wanderer’ provides us with an example—a historical artifact, an unarguable fact—that someone, somewhere, at some point in time, found stability and fulfillment, and possibly a great deal of happiness, in submitting himself to a lord. It is a fact that it is possible for someone to have a profound love for his lord, to submit and serve because he wants to, not because he has to. Kings are not always tyrants, submission is not always oppression, liberalism is not necessary to happiness, feudalism may be a very upsetting thing to lose. Many writers cannot break free from the modern ethos. When they write about other worlds, they feel like the modern West. The values, the behavior, the spirit are all the same. But Tolkien was able to capture the medieval ethos and work it into his stories. That's what makes him different. When people talk about world-building, the emphasis is often on bulk and quantity: creating more languages, more ornate magic systems, more backstory and genealogies, more character arcs. Tolkien is notorious for such things, and indeed is considered the father of modern fantasy for not only pioneering this level of world-building but also making it work. But when Tolkien added to Middle Earth, he added old things, not new things. He added things from our real world, from the sweating, suffering, crying, feeling real life of the Middle Ages. When he wrote, he wrote in styles and rhythms that correspond to the real prose and poetry of ages past. His books are a thousand years deep the moment he drafts them. When you enter Edoras, you enter not a completely new land but a very familiar one: you enter Anglo-Saxon England. And What was said of Aragorn is true: “It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days.” He does come out of forgotten days, and The same is true of all Tolkien’s characters. They come on the wings of song, and that song is The Wanderer." from video.