Role of the mead-hall in The Wanderer (poem) Essay
Role of the mead-hall in The Wanderer (poem)
In reading The Wanderer, one is also immediately struck by the poignancy and lingering anguish underlying the text as it adopts a somewhat elegiac dolefulness in addressing some of the most common themes in Old English poetry – the flow of time and the transience of earthly beings, the agonizing grief of exile in a place of tragic impermanence, and the harshness of longing and disconnection. But amongst the many metaphorical representations, the imagery of the mead-hall seems most imperative to the motivation of the poem and its contemplation of earthly instability.
First, to examine the mead-hall in its literal meaning, “mead” is most likely associated to the alcoholic drink made from fermenting honey and water and thus symbolizes a celebration by feasting. As such, the mead-hall stands for a place of rewards and honor. To the protagonist of the poem, it was where he had spent the most glorious days of his life and, more importantly, it is the core of his identity as a “hall-warrior”. It is the only life that he knows, it is where his kinship lies, and it is where his Lord resides.
The presence of a mead-hall denotes the condition in which a warrior is at one with his Lord and his place in the world is secure; in the Anglo-Saxon context, it probably refers to the Lord’s grace and divine protection. By losing his Lord, the warrior becomes victim to the state of affairs in which the social ties that define a man’s identity have been severed. That is, the exiled is without a protector and lacks legal standing. He becomes an outlaw.
Through the succession of the poetry, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw a clear line between the physical hall and the deeper metaphorical meanings it represents. Fundamentally, the concept of the mead-hall draws an esoteric line documenting the three sequential stages of the wanderer’s life – his past, present and future.
In his past as an apparently thriving warrior, the mead-hall acts as a means of recording his many glories and confirms the status he has earned from his conquests. It was in that very hall where he spent his most fulfilled days serving his Lord, and being surrounded with his comrades. However, the mead-hall also reminds him of his close friends and kin who were killed in an attack, and because the hall is imprinted into his identity, the memories of the carnage will consequently remain with him all his life. This compelling relationship between the protagonist and his role as a hall-warrior leads to his present state of exile.
The poem essentially is set in the present where the warrior is on a voyage to seek a new mead-hall – a new life. But within The Wanderer, not only is there physical journeying (or wandering), but there is also an important parallel between the journey and its function as a perceptible transformation in the mind of the character making the journey. This change in mentality and behavior is most obvious in the vivid descriptions the wanderer establishes of his loneliness and yearning for the better days that have past. The mead-hall that was once a familiar place filled with warmth and perhaps some comforting rowdiness has now become muted and distant, painted with a foreboding hue of death and lost.
Here, the mead-hall represents the wanderer’s spirit, for without a functioning hall, he becomes hollow and desolated. It is hard to imagine how he might have been like in his glorious days as we can only see a bewildered thane crying “Alas!” while he acknowledges the “fleeting” nature of material wealth and of human existence. The concepts evoked from the mead-hall diffuse into every aspect of the epic and acts as an adhesive base for the entire poem.
Lastly, the mead-hall also represents the protagonist’s future. His search for a new hall starkly reminds the readers of the cruel passing of time – what was that perhaps never will be. Not only is the pursuit of this “utopia” what pushes the warrior to persevere on this seemingly treacherous journey, but that it ultimately leaves him with no choice but to be in exile (because his life is the physical mirror-image of the definition of the mead-hall) thereby forming the cause and motivation of the entire poem.
While not within the scope of the poem, readers can infer two palpable endings to the wanderer’s travel – first, is that he succeeds in finding a new Lord and a new mead-hall; second, that he fails and is in perpetual banishment until he dies. Either case, the hall implies the ultimate resting place for the wanderer – whether psychologically or physically. It draws a conclusion to the wandering of the wanderer.
Aside, the meaning of the mead-hall seems paradoxical in that it represents both progression as well as decline. It is etched with the achievements of the wanderer but also acts as a bleak reminder of the impending failure and possibility of living a life of nonbeing. This perhaps reflects the very characteristic of the protagonist and deepens the tragedy and misery of his woe. As he laments about his situation and inability to feel joy, it somewhat entails an underlying vulnerability and helplessness towards the conflicted life that he is forced to dwell in. Conceivably this quandary also leads the readers to wonder if he would be in far less suffering if he to have been killed along with his friends and his Lord. In such a sense, the mead-hall, or rather, the necessity of it provokes the readers to contemplate.
Also, the mead-hall acts as the most obvious constant in the frequent transition between prospective and retrospective voice, this is perhaps because the wanderer is wholly possessed by the past, and accordingly is more concerned with the present where he seeks his past.
To look at the significance of the mead-hall on broader scale, that is, beyond that of the wanderer’s perspective, it seems to echo the concept of earth in general. At the end of the poem, when the narrator’s voice comes in to comment on the wanderer’s account, it seems suddenly possible that the wanderer’s long journey may be likened to be life’s journey towards death and union with “the Father in heaven, where for us all stability resides.” As such, the mead-hall confirms the fatalism and profound sense of the impermanence of earth and the joys that it holds.
The mead-hall was described to be “middle-earth wind-blown walls [that] stand covered with frost-fall, storm-beaten dwellings”. This depiction of the hall may perhaps be fatalistically translated to the victorious invasion by Fate (which is ruled by winter) and whose courier, snow, establishes the new Lord’s arrival with a snowstorm, and the entire mead-hall (now a possible symbol of earth) is stripped of all significance. Similarly, it also represents the succession of time and changes that follow; and how earthly things are powerless against it.
Therefore, the function of the mead-hall is pivotal to the flow of the storyline as it appears to be the cortex to the swirling emotions that embody the poem. It acts as a tool which magnifies as well as scrutinizes various themes and concerns of The Wanderer, such that it not only bridges the connection between chronological events, but also of the connection between the persona of the exiled hall-warrior and larger premises like the transient nature of secular things.
The Wanderer Project. 2001. Rick McDonald (Utah Valley University).