Exile was one of the most tragic fates that Anglo-Saxon man or woman could imagine. As the relationship between a Lord and his retainer was of utmost significance, voluntary or forced exile was akin to a modern prison sentence.
Many of the poems in Exeter Book deal with the pain of exile. In "The Wife's Lament," the Wife is not only desconsolate because of her separation from her husband, but also because of her exile from her homeland. She is friendless in a foreign land without protection from her kin. In "The Wanderer," the titular narrator mourns the death of his lord and his inability to find a new one. He journeys throughout the lands in isolation, remembering the warmth of the hearth and the laughter in the mead-hall. For him, the pain of separation is acute. The narrator in "The Seafarer" is also an exile, although his isolation is voluntary. He recognizes the contrast between a life on land and his struggles at sea, noting the absence of friends and women. However, he also understands that God challenges all men, and that he must accept his fate. The Seafarer's view of exile is perhaps the most positive and worldly.
The Anglo-Saxons strongly believed in the concept of fate, which is called wyrd in Old English. They believed that divine fate governed the lives of human beings and directed the course of worldly events. During this era, human beings were expected to understand that their lives were short, death was unavoidable, and a man could take nothing material with him beyond the grave. Therefore, it was important for men to accept their fate, demonstrating dignity and wisdom. These men would be recognized for their piety beyond their time on earth. Men who were prideful or ignorant could enjoy the spoils of wealth on earth, but were told to expect the darker side of the afterlife. Wyrd is mentioned in "The Wanderer" and alluded to in "The Seafarer". In the latter poem, the Seafarer exhorts men to perform valiant deeds so their souls can be saved in death. He counsels them to be aware of their eventual fate and to strive for wisdom above all. He is a perfect example of a man who has accepted his fate, because he recognizes that his sea journey brings him awareness of God's mercy and the glory of the afterlife.
The Transience of Earthly Life
Many of the Old English poems in Exeter Book display an awareness of the transience of earthly life. The poets describe buildings crumbling and bridges falling, men dying of illness, the sword, or old age; kingdoms collapsing and rulers' reigns ending. The poets encourage their readers to recognize that fortunes can change very quickly, but a human being's soul is eternal. Wealth can come and go, but a man cannot take his gold beyond the grave. Material wealth does not cover up the stains on a man's soul. Each of these poems present a warning in this way, encouraging readers to direct their ambition towards God and Heaven instead of pursuing wealth and power. In "The Seafarer" in particular, the narrator exhorts the listener/reader to be aware of how ephemeral life is and that the only place where he or she can really feel eternally happy is in Heaven. A man must understand the insignificance of his mortal life if he is to secure entrance into the kinder afterlife. In "The Ruin" the poet muses on the scene of entropy before him, ruminating on the warriors that once stood in the decimated halls and the piles of treasure that once ornamented the crumbling city. In "Deor" the poet suggests to the listener/reader that anything that happens in his earthly life, no matter how difficult, will pass. Suffering cannot last forever since life on earth is not eternal.
The Relationship between a Lord and his Warriors
The relationship between a lord and his retainer was one of the most significant in the Anglo-Saxon period. The culture centered around "heroism", meaning that societies were organized around war, adhering to a system of values that placed a premium on courage and prowess. A lord and his warriors formed a comiatus, which means "retinue or following." The lord would provide for and protect his men, and the men in return swore fealty to their lord and fought on his behalf. If the Lord died in battle, the men were expected to stay at the place where he fell, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives. Many Anglo-Saxon poems, including "The Battle of Maldon" (not discussed in this study guide), exemplified this special relationship. In "The Wanderer," the narrator's profound grief comes from the fact that he no longer has a lord. He is an exile, doomed to wander alone. In "Deor," the terrible King Ermanaric has violated this sacred bond and left his warriors unfulfilled and restless, making him a villain.
The Power of Nature/God
The Anglo-Saxons were very much aware of the awesome power of nature, and God, whom they believed to control it. Powerful storms, freezing temperatures, dangerous animals, eclipses, astronomical anomalies, and roiling seas were simply part of the tapestry of their lives. As a result, their poetry reflects this. In "The Ruin", the narrator muses on the pestilence that swept in unawares, destroying this once majestic city. "The Seafarer" vividly evokes the power of the sea, as the narrator describes his battles against tempestuous waves, freezing rain, hail, and violent storms. Although the sea is wild and unpredictable, the Seafarer understands that he gains wisdom from facing the elements head-on, which also brings him closer to his fate, and to God. "The Wanderer" also deals with the coldness of winter at sea. Many of the Exeter Book} riddles, particularly the first three ("The Storm Riddles"), God unleashes nature's fury at his will, testing the mettle of his subjects on Earth. The divine connection was likely how the Anglo-Saxons dealt with the devastation they faced at nature's hands.
Loneliness is a salient component of many of the Anglo-Saxon poems, thus giving them an immediacy and resonance with modern readers as well. In "The Wife's Lament," the female protagonist mourns for her husband. He has (possibly) betrayed her, and now she is alone, imprisoned under an oak tree, still dreaming of their once-happy life. She is even jealous of other lovers who are together. Her pain is palpable, despite her husband's possible infidelity. In "Deor", the narrator is lonely since he has been replaced in his lord's court. Both "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" are elegies that deal with the longing for previous environments, marked by comradeship and camaraderie. Both narrators have been cast out of their societies, spending all of their time alone at sea. Their suffering is mental and physical, as they endure the harsh weather of the sea. The wanderer's grief is so intense that he actually conjures up the faces of his lost friends in the squawking seabirds. All of these poems suggest that the Anglo-Saxons valued human relationships to a heightened degree, and also emphasizes the severity of exile as a punishment.
Anglo-Saxons valued wisdom and their literature exemplified the quest for it. Since they were constantly aware of fate and the reality that all men would die one day (and probably at a very young age, as life in early England was onerous), they valued a dignified and pragmatic approach to life. They believed a man should perform great deeds and thus allow his name to live on after he perished from the earth. Men were expected to understand that the accumulation of material goods was pointless, and that pride and arrogance could bring about a man's downfall in the afterlife. The quest for wisdom is apparent in "The Seafarer", as the narrator explains how life on land comfortable but life on sea has given him the wisdom to understand the transience of life. God's grace is greater than comforts or wealth, for only He could offer eternal life in Heaven. Wisdom of another sort appears in the riddles. Many of them are complicated and puzzling even today, and force their listeners/readers to think deeply. They present truths and depict the material world. They provided intellectual stimulation as well as folk wisdom, so a wide swath of readers could enjoy them.
Exeter Book Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Exeter Book is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.