The Wanderer – a medieval poem

The Wanderer – Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon inspiration

This is an interesting YouTube video, because it deals with a very specific element of the work of the late, great English Catholic scholar and author, J. R. R. Tolkien, who is best known for his long novel entitled the Lord of the Rings. Among the many races of men that Tolkien describes in that novel is one called the Rohirrim, a very Anglo-Saxon-like race that lives mostly in the plains in the centre of Middle Earth. He modelled this people on the Anglo-Saxon race of his mother, and Tolkien is still recognised as an authority in Anglo-Saxon studies and a lot of the rest of his work had to do with the literary remnants of that people, who form the beginning of the English people of these lands. I discovered a lot more about the English than I thought I would a few months ago, during the first lockdown, when I found a nice text-book on the Anglo-Saxon language, also called Old English. It was a basic introduction, certainly, but provided a wonderful insight into the origins of modern English, which is my first language, but also into the thought of the Anglo-Saxons themselves.

But back to the video. The Wanderer gives us a window into the thought of pre-reformation England, when most residents of these islands were Catholic. The subject of the poem is an isolated warrior, who has lost everything and must wander the earth in search of meaning and a reason to continue living. The video identifies the depth of human psychology that is provided in the meditation contained in the poem, long before the actual science of psychology began to develop. A strong feature is the medieval-feudal attachment of men to their liege-lord. In the Lord of the Rings, the two hobbits Pippin and Merry found this desire within them, attaching themselves respectively to the steward of the kingdom of Gondor and to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ king of the Rohirrim. The warrior of the Wanderer has lost the system of dependencies that the feudal system contained and has to come to terms with that loss. The video goes through the stages of loss, grief and acceptance and speaks of a wisdom that helps one to deal with loss without necessarily finding a solution for the pain. And the best thing about all of Tolkien’s work, as the video says, is not the vivid worlds and interesting characters that he created, but rather the depth of human experience that he injected into them – a human experience that he acquired through his study of humanity through his scholarship.

And the ethos, the philosophy, that can be best identified as underlying the work of a man who attended Mass daily is Catholicism.