Wulf and Eadwacer
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Wulf and Eadwacer is an Old English poem of famously difficult interpretation. It has been variously characterised, (modernly) as an elegy, (historically) as a riddle, and (in speculation on the poem's pre-history) as a song or ballad with refrain. The poem's complexities are, however, often asserted simply to defy genre classification, especially with regard to its narrative content. The poem's only extant text is found within the 10th century Exeter Book, along with certain other texts to which it possesses qualitative similarities.
The characterisation of the poem as a riddle is the oldest of its various treatments, the argument for which characterisation is based largely upon the obscurity of its subject and the placement of the poem within the Exeter Book, preceding the texts of the extant riddles themselves. However, its length and its various textual problems not characteristic of the riddles have led few scholars to pursue a simple riddle interpretation in modern textual study, and few such explanations have garnered serious attention in the recent history of its scholarship. Rather, the thematic similarity of the poem to The Wife's Lament, also found in the Exeter Book, has caused most modern scholars to place it, along with the Wife's Lament, solidly within the genre of the frauenlied, or woman's song and, more broadly, in that of the Old English elegy. Its adjacency to the riddles has, however, continued to inform commentary and interpretation. The short lines and refrains of Wulf and Eadwacer, along with the stream of consciousness narration have made it a popular feminist reading. These features aided by the rhythm and syntax, cause the emotional buildup of the poem.
For lack of any historical evidence or attestation outside the Exeter Book's text, historical criticism is limited to study of the Exeter Book itself and, particularly, to comparative study of its various contained works. Though it is generally held that the poem's composition occurred at a date significantly earlier than the date of the Exeter Book's own compilation, the degree of the poem's age relative to the codex is difficult if not impossible to ascertain. The dating of the poem in criticism is thus generally limited to what can be ascertained from the known history of the Exeter Book, for which suggested dates of compilation range from 960CE to 990CE. Though the folios on which the poem is recorded are not subject to any significant damage necessitating reconstruction, its textual problems and, particularly, the grammatical confusion of the first lines of the text, have resulted in widespread postulation that the initial lines of the poem may have been lost prior to its inclusion in the Exeter Book but subsequent to an earlier transcription. There is no manuscript evidence to directly support this theory, however.
Proposals regarding its heritage prior to inscription in the Exeter codex are consequently many and various. The inclusion of a refrain in the text of the poem may support an originally non-English origin, as the refrain is not conventional to the Old English elegy or to any other known Old English poetical form. Among proposed explanations for this anomaly, a Scandinavian inspiration for the Anglo-Saxon text offers one possible solution to this problem, and has similarly been considered as an explanation for its difficult language, but this theory, as with most others on the poem's prehistory, can only be regarded as hypothetical given lack of substantive corroborating evidence. The suggestion is that the poem derives from some interpretation of the Wayland story; that the woman is Beadohilde, Wulf is Wayland, and Eadwacer her angry father. This episode is also discussed in the poem Deor.
The most conventional interpretation of the poem is as a lament spoken in the first person by an unnamed woman who is or has in the past been involved with two men whose names are Wulf and Eadwacer respectively. Both of these are attested Anglo-Saxon names, and this interpretation is the basis for the common titling of the poem (which is not based on any other manuscript evidence). However, even this point proves controversial. Some interpretations favour a single male character, and virtually all commentaries acknowledge the possibility, though this is the less orthodox of the two views. In recognition of this fact, for example, preeminent Old English scholar Michael Alexander has chosen the title "Wulf" for his own reproduction of it in The Earliest English Poems (Penguin, 1973). It has also been known to be titled simply as Eadwacer. The title Wulf and Eadwacer, however, though apocryphal, has gained such widespread acceptance over time that in the majority of texts it is accepted regardless of the treatment of the titular name(s) and character(s).
The speaker of the poem is evidently separated from her lover and/or husband, Wulf, both symbolically and materially (Wulf is on iege, | ic on oþerre), and this separation is seemingly maintained by threat of violence (willað hy hine aþecgan, | gif he on þreat cymeð), possibly by her own people (Leodum is minum | swylce him mon lac gife). Crying out in her sorrow for her lover, she longs for him to take her in his arms (þonne mec se beaducafa bogum bilegde). She finds comfort in his coming, but it is also bittersweet (wæs me wyn to þon, wæs me hwæþre eac lað). She then addresses 'Eadwacer', who may be her husband or her captor, and she appears to identify their 'whelp' (Uncerne earne hwelp), generally understood to metaphorically imply 'child' and possibly a reference to the child's being the 'whelp' of a man named 'Wulf'. She describes this child as being taken off 'to the woods' (to wuda).
Even though the poem is a mere nineteen lines there are many differing interpretations. The before-mentioned is the most popular interpretation. One of the others is that the word Eadwacer in the poem is not a proper noun, but a simple common noun which means "property watcher". This brings the characters in the poem from three to two, the speaker and her lover, Wulf. If one adopts this interpretation then her exclamation ("Do you hear me, Eadwacer?") could be meant to be sarcastic or a calling out of his manhood. She is saying that his long absences have made him anything but a protector to her and their child who she worries about. Using this interpretation, the speaker's use of irony when speaking of her lover makes the last two lines make sense. The speaker may be saying that Wulf has been her lover and her child's father, but has never treated her as or actually been her husband. Therefore, the complications of their relationship is easily unbound. However, this seems to be more easily done by Wulf than the speaker herself (Adams).
Though this argument is debatable among scholars, there is the thought that the character of Wulf is actually the speaker's child and not her lover. In this case she would be lamenting and pining after her son, hoping that he was okay, and not her lover. One scholar says: "In Wulf and Eadwacer a woman finds herself in a situation typical of Old English poetry, torn between conflicting loyalties. Many commentators see this particular situation as a sexual triangle, with Wulf the woman’s lover and Eadwacer her husband. If so, then Wulf and Eadwacer is not typical, because most Old English loyalty crises occur within the family group…It is…true that romantic or sexual love was not the literary commonplace before the twelfth century it has been since; other loves took precedence…The situation in Wulf and Eadwacer is far more typically Anglo-Saxon than as usually interpreted, if the speaker is understood to be the mother of the person she addresses as Wulf, as well as of the ‘whelp’ of line 16." This argument that Wulf is actually the narrator’s son gives a different depth to the elegy—it becomes a poem of mourning for her son that seems to be exiled from her and their people. This idea has credibility when put in context that she was peace-weaved to Eadwacer, making Wulf their son.
Text and translation
Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gife;
It is to my people as if someone gave them a gift.
- The Old English Elegies New Essays in Criticism and Research. Rutherford [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983.
- Adams, John F. "Wulf and Eadwacer: An Interpretation." Modern Language Notes 73.1 (1958): 1-5.
- Alexander, Michael. "Wulf." The Earliest English Poems. London: Penguin, 1973. p. 56-62.
- Baker, Peter S. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Classroom Edition." Old English Newsletter 16.2 (1983): 179-180.
- Baker, Peter S. "Wulf and Eadwacer." Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. p. 206-207.
- Mitchell, Bruce. "Wulf." An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. p. 308-309.
- Mitchell, Bruce and Robinson, Fred C. "Wulf and Eadwacer." A Guide to Old English. 6th ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. p. 297-299.
- Treharne, Elaine, ed. "Wulf and Eadwacer." Old English and Middle English c.890-c.1400. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. p. 64-65.