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  • J.R.R. Tolkien and The Wanderer:From Edition to Application
  • Stuart D. Lee (bio)

Towards the end of his Valedictory Address, presented on the 5th June 1959, Professor Tolkien chose, by way of conclusion, to read the famous ubi sunt lines from the Old English poem The Wanderer:

If then with understanding I contemplate this venerable foundation, I now myself frōd in ferðe am moved to exclaim:

Hwǽr cwóm mearh, hwær cwóm mago? Hwǽr cwóm máþþumgyfa?Hwǽr cwóm symbla gesetu? Hwǽr sindon seledréamas?Éalá , beorht bune! Éalá, byrnwiga!Éalá, þéodnes þrym! Hú seo þrág gewát,genáp under niht-helm, swá heo nó wǽre!

Where is the horse gone, where the young rider? Where now the giver of gifts? Where are the seats at the feasting gone? Where are the merry sounds in the hall? Alas, the bright goblet! Alas, the knight and his hauberk! Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed, dark under the shadow of night, as had it never been!

(MC, 239)

Douglas Gray, who was present at the lecture recalls:

. . . there was a stillness in the room as if the Green Knight himself had come in. He really understood, as few medievalists do, the importance of "performance" for medieval literature.


Over thirty years before his final lecture, Tolkien remarked that these lines were:

Deservedly famous.1 One of the best expressions of this motive in literature . . . we do not gain much from the argument of scholars as to whether it is a native or a learned motive. We might say it is a human motive! . . . And the question "where are" of the departed has been asked (as one might expect) in many languages.

(A 38, f. 36v)2

For many reasons the choice of these lines was fitting. They focus on transience, and no doubt Professor Tolkien himself saw this as a moment [End Page 189] of passing. More importantly, as we shall see by consulting Tolkien's work (predominantly his unpublished material), he engaged with this poem on a regular basis; and, by exploring these interactions, we can draw some interesting conclusions about Tolkien and his scholarship.

Before proceeding with the analysis of Tolkien's interaction with the poem, it is worth reminding ourselves of the original text. The Wanderer is an Old English poem. It survives in a single copy in The Exeter Book (ff. 76v-78r), and is usually described as an elegy (and thus part of a series of Old English elegies, including such poems as The Ruin, The Seafarer, etc.). It is a powerful poem detailing an individual's exile from society, his lonely wanderings, and at the same time it touches on themes of general loss.

The structure of the poem is fairly straightforward in one way, in that it has an opening and closing (almost like a prologue and epilogue), and in between is a lengthy speech by a single protagonist (but, as we will see later, the number of people speaking in the poem is not without debate). It begins with an image of a lonely individual suffering hardship (ll. 1-4). This, it is generally assumed, is the wanderer of the title, who we discover to be an outcast, pacing the earth without the solace of friends, relations, or lords (ll. 8-10)—a near death-sentence in the early Middle Ages. The poet then proceeds to explore a range of ideas and topics familiar to other Old English poems opening up from a single incident (the exiled wanderer of the poem's title) to wider issues concerning the nature of suffering, and the transitory nature of existence.

As it stands it is a Christian poem. Yet, on the face of it is not concerned with any great theological debate, but instead concentrates on the plight and personal loss of a single human being, who dreams of the past and contrasts it with the harsh present. In his mind he can summon up images of bygone joys and friends, but he cannot capture them forever. On wakening they simply disappear and "swim away" (ll. 41...


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