How to Approach Ambiguity, or The Poem Known as Wulf and Eadwacer

The poem traditionally known as Wulf and Eadwacer has allowed anything but a clear-cut meaning or understanding.  Found in the Exeter book manuscript between Deor and the Riddles, just about every aspect of the poem allures scholars in fields from language to historical women’s studies as it is questioned and probed with reference to its sources, genre, potential characters, its connection to other literature (Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian), and its value as art.  The poem puts forth quite a handful of enigmas, as scholars offer just about any conjecture in order to make sense of this short bit of early literature.

The scholarship about Wulf and Eadwacer began with Benjamin Thorpe’s famous declaration: “Of this, I can make no sense” (Fry 247).  Since then, a multitude of extremely varied conjectures have been put forth, as noted by Marijane Osborne, including a since refuted idea that Wulf is a riddle bearing Cynwulf’s hidden signature, or another from Peter Orton who argued that the poem “was actually about animals” (qtd. in Osborne 3).  Much of this conjecture surrounds several individual words in the poem, including “dogode,” which varies greatly in interpretation. Osborn even argues, without any other scholarly support that I could find, could mean “to dog” (3).  Other words often discussed include “aþecgan,” which Peter S. Baker convincingly renders as “to kill” or “to feed,” bringing a connotation of both eating and danger (396), which will prove important in my translation.  Also, I will briefly gloss the varied understandings of “whelp,” which adds to what becomes an important list of perhaps shakily defined words.

In addition to a discussion of words and philology, much work attempts determine a narrative within the poem: its story, characters, and setting.  As many as four or as little as two characters have been suggested as the number of people referred to by the speaker (herself included). Anne L. Klinck describes her own potential cast of characters for the poem: the speaker (a woman), the woman’s child, and two men who have unclear relationships with the speaker and bear the names Wulf and Eadwacer (48).  Yet, much scholarship contests this list of characters, as some scholars, such as J. A. Tasioulas, point out other options, arguing, “eadwacer is a warrior, the speaker’s lover, and the father of Wulf,” Wulf being a victim of infanticide (8). Dolores Warwick Frese makes a case that Wulf is in fact the son of the speaker who is not “a sexually unsatisfied woman,” but “a mother reciting a formal giedd for her son” (286).

Lois Bragg would suggest a different cast of characters, pointing out the potential kenning of “eadwacer” as “property-watcher” or even “heaven-watcher,” and proposed it as an epithet for Wulf (264).  Bragg also successfully refutes the suggestion that Wulf is a son of the speaker, pointing to the last lines as clear marriage reference, and the poem as a woman’s love lyric (257). Warwick would claim that the last words of the poem, þæt mon eaþe tosliteð   þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,/uncer giedd geador, present an ironic inversion of marriage ceremony language (what God has joined together let no man put asunder) (257).  In this way, Warwick claims, the poem references a marriage that never truly occurred, but nevertheless implies that the person the speaker addresses would be a potential marriage partner (257).  

Thankfully, at least one character’s existence can be confirmed with some certainty: the speaker, of whom as Henk Aertsen argues “the grammar tells us” in the feminine endings of “reotugu” and “seoce” is female (121). One of the benefits perhaps of the gender-laden, inflected structure of Anglo-Saxon manifests itself in keeping the poem from total ambiguity as the endings of the words spoken in the poem indicate the gender of the speaker. As Emily Jensen notes, the poem “has been generally accepted as a poem spoken by a woman” (373). 

However, another ambiguity appears in the possible definitions of the word “whelp,” which Philip Pulsiano and Kirsten Wolf suggest, “may be either a child, an animal, Wulf, Eadwacer, a poem, or a metaphor” (1).  Regardless, it is clear that these characters remain as uncertain as the narrative that scholars attempt to extract from the poem.

And, the narrative of Wulf and Eadwacer, if one indeed exists is no less illusory than its potential cast. J.A. Tasioulas, for instance, asserts that the poem is “concerned with maternal grief,” and “does not depict intense sexual passion” (2), while in contrast Bragg argues that the poem is “best understood against the background of medieval women’s love lyrics” (258).  Bragg would also convincingly refute those who deny the involvement of “sexual relations” in the poem.  Pulsiano and Wolf also strongly refute the notion that the poem is entirely about maternal grief (6), along with Seiichi Suzuki who argues for the involvement of “copulation” in the poem (182).  Also, Janemarie Luecke, while seeking a better understanding of aþecgan points out that early peoples and cultures often use “for both eating…and sexual intercourse,” and that “aþecan can mean to mate” (198).  This evidence, along with Bragg’s point about an ironic marriage reference in the poem seem to point to a strong sexual element in Wulf and Eadwacer.  I think that Frese’s argument, which stated that the poem did not concern a woman’s sexual life at all, but rather her grief for a son (286) seems to ignore much of this evidence, including Luecke’s research on aþecgan, one of the more important words of the poem. So although the content of the poem remains uncertain, I think the arguments that point towards a sexual element are perhaps more accurate.  Still, I would not entirely rule out the possibility of and element of infanticide, as the poem could concern relationships both between a son and a sexual relation of the speaker.

One final major area of scholarship about the poem involves this difficulty to categorize it in any one particular genre, as already seen with the disagreement of Tasioulas’ “Mother’s Lament” as opposed to the “women’s love lyric,” which Bragg suggests.  Other suggestions involve understanding it as Donald Fry does, as a “medical charm…[and] a brilliant poetic achievement” (Fry, 263), or as Richard North argues, “A charade for winter evenings in the Danelaw” (53), bearing “formal Scandinavian influence” (32).  James A. Anderson suggests that the riddles of the Exeter book begin before Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer which “taken together also comprise an abduction story [influenced by Norse mythology] told alternately by a man and a woman” (207), a theory that initially intrigued me, simply because it appeared quite interesting. However, later when working on a translation of Deor, I read bit more on the idea of connecting the two poems to the same story and was persuaded otherwise.  One should note that Deor is “told by induction” of different “episodes” (Foley), and that those episodes, according to Kemp Malone, derive from several different sources, and not one singular story that connects to Wulf and Eadwacer. 

Still, having considered all of this material concerning characters, linguistics, and genre, one could strongly agree that with all the uncertainty and ambiguity, as F. Jones says,  “the poem is incoherent (witness the radically different interpretations reached) or incomplete” (Jones 323).  This scholastic uncertainty that I have glossed so far does not provide a solid answer about how to approach this enigmatic work, how much to value it as art, or even if it is worth enjoying or translating in terms of literary artistry.

Fortunately, a handful of research on Wulf and Eadwacer moves towards an approach to the poem that seems to affirm its value and shapes my own translation significantly.  These critics have focused on “the vast amount of internal evidence” in the poem, as Wesley S. Mattox suggested (34), and generally embrace the poem’s inherent ambiguities as part of the beauty and force of its artistry.  Alain Renoir’s essay that he calls “A Noninterpretation,” paved the way for such a New Critical approach to the poem, as it quickly points out that a good part of the short poem “is composed of a series of semantically contradictory phrases which, even out of context, convey a sense of hopeless struggle” (148).  This “hopeless struggle” Renoir sees as the beauty of the poem, creating a “passionate intensification of grief,” allowing the poem to be understood “apart from its meaning” (160-161).  The essay details the emotional force of the poem as its main effect in a confused and intentionally ambiguous cry about which the reader does not need to understand the exact situation and cast of characters, and in which that lack of understanding contributes to the passion of the poem (154, 161). Arnold E. Davidson also agrees with this general notion of the poem as containing much inherent ambiguity and semantic contradiction as he suggests that “the very fact that the poem can be read so many different ways suggests that it might be ambiguous and perhaps deliberately so” and claims the poem is “characterized by controlled ambiguity” (24). 

Even some evidence outside of the text also supports this notion as “female exiles [in literature such as perhaps the speaker in Wulf] constitute a challenge to social and linguistic structure,” according to Helen T. Bennett. Bennet argues that a challenging or deviant linguistic structure, such as the ambiguities present in Wulf and Eadwacer, is characteristic of early women’s literature (44). So it would make sense, historically speaking, that the poem would be intentionally ambiguous and confusing.   Indeed, Bennett also notes that the poem “has just enough temporal makers to tease us into attempting a narrative reconstruction” (53), affirming the notion of an intentionally, and masterfully crafted ambiguity.

It is on the suggestions of this scholarship embracing the ambiguities of the poem as among its most important artistic elements that I have crafted my translation. I am considering the poem to be a confusing emotional outburst of a woman, coming out of immense grief surrounding sexual relations, and probably motherly relations also, along with other potential situations about which the speaker leaves us to speculate.  I also rely heavily on the notion concerning the poem as an emotional outburst where as Osborn suggests,  “The image of the woman speaker sitting and weeping may be seen as a fulcrum around which the poem as a whole is balanced” (Osborn 177).  Furthermore I see this “fulcrum” as involving a sound image connoting what Baker describes as  “wild lament” (400), taking into consideration the change in tone Renoir notes in the last four lines (157).  These elements leaves us, I think, with a poem that consists mainly of an outburst of emotions concerning some ambiguous events and relationships whose beauty and emotional force remain in its ambiguity, and surround the image of a female speaker wailing audibly.

In light of my desire for my translation to hinge on this ambiguity, I should outline exactly what I do intend to do in re-creating this enigmatic example of early English poetry in Modern English. My purpose for translating Anglo-Saxon poetry is to create art, as per the New Critical stance of “art for art’s sake.”  The goal is to capture the art and the artistic value of the original piece in Modern English.  This idea works under the assumption that if a work of art is good art in Anglo-Saxon, then is it worth trying to recapture that unique artistry in another language.  The art then exists for the audience too, as art whose aesthetic qualities might be enjoyed as their own reason for being.  Translation then should attempt to retain the essence or artistic “gist” of the original piece while giving new life to its ideas, thematic material, and histories in Modern English.

I believe that this artistic endeavor should be attempted by paying special attention to the vibrant Anglo Saxon sounds, textures, and images, while also attempting to bring new life to, when possible, the catalogue of Anglo-Saxon creative devices including heroic elements, cryptic or riddle-like language, word-crafting, and musicality.  In short, I would desire the translator to preserve the unique elements of a piece of Anglo-Saxon art.  These unique elements could also be described as what make the piece of art transcend being a potential mundane arrangement of words.

I should note also a few things about how I applied these criteria specifically to Wulf and Eadwacer.  For instance, the poem is shorter and contains no heroic narrative, and thus much of its artistry relies on word choice and sound.  The words that can bear several meanings need to somehow represented as at least somewhat ambiguous in Modern English, while at the same time preserving a tone that rings of danger and wild lament, focusing upon a central image of wailing woman. 

Plenty of translators have approached this poem, with varied agendas and criteria. R.K. Gordon, for instance, has made a translation that I think seeks to determine a narrative, though not avoiding all ambiguities. But Gordon greatly limits the emotional force of his translation by mixing colloquialisms with more archaic words like “thy” and “thou,” which left me feeling confused as to how serious I should take the poem, and thereby lessened the potential effect of an emotional outburst.  Perhaps more importantly, Gordon understands “aþecgan” as part of a question, asking “will they feed him, if he should feel want?” (2), which does not imply any direct or impending danger, and lessens the potential for grief in the poem.  Again, Baker defines the word in terms of eating, or devouring, i.e. “to kill,” so understanding of the word as “to feed,” I think, while close to the meaning Baker suggests, misses the true force of danger that the poem suggests. Perhaps a rendering of “they will feed on him if he should come…” might work if the word “feed” must be used. 

A translation by Michael Alexander in alliterative verse preserves again much of the ambiguity of the Anglo-Saxon, but in forcing his lines to alliterate rather than seeking a general “feel” of the poem, again, the emotional impact suffers and even adds extra elements to the poem.  The line “our fate is forked” (8), in alliterating the “f” sounds, adds the word fate, which might correspond to “wyrd” in Anglo-Saxon, a serious and complicated concept that certainly does not appear in the original text.  This rendering of wyrd suffices only to add an entirely unrelated theme to the poem, as well as making the poem somewhat awkward and detracting from its emotional force.

Burton Raffel has made another translation, which also adds elements to the poem that detract from the specific artistry and thus emotional force of the Anglo-Saxon text.    My main grievance concerns his use of “and my eyes ran red” (10) which creates no image of a wailing woman, which has been previously noted as the center point of the whole poem, and perhaps even falsely suggests a woman with tired or even bleeding eyes.

The translation titled “Eadwacer,” by Kemp Malone takes an obvious attempt to quell a certain amount of ambiguity even in its title, which seems to say the poem is primarily about the character named Eadwacer.  I also find it to lack a sense of musicality, especially in the third stanza which in part reads “when the doughty man drew me into his arms–/it was heaven, yes, but hateful too” (11-12).  The word “doughty” and the breaking up of the flow of line 12 by the commas seem to detract from a sense of Anglo-Saxon flowing musicality, which can be heard in the original language of  þonne mec se beaducafa bogum bilegde.

Finally, the translation of Kevin Crossley-Holland takes a similar path from the beginning, by focusing the translation on the character Wulf, in its title of “Wulf.”  And, while the last 2 lines are musical--“How easily man can sever that which was never/truly at one, the song of us two together” (18-19)--the use of the word “infrequent” earlier in the poem substantially detracts from its emotional force, as does the cliché “I am sick from love” (14, 15).

The only translation I found that made a great attempt to preserve ambiguity was rendered by Arnold E. Davidson, and appeared in an issue Annuale Mediaevale.  This translation preserves ambiguity by providing alternative definitions using parentheses and slash marks.  For example, the first line reads “It is as if to my people as if one might give them (a battle/sacrifice/gift/message/game)” (25).  The method does provide a guide for a scholarly look at the philological aspects of the poem for one unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon, but all potential sound devices are lost in the long lists of artificially inserted words.

I have crafted my translation in light of these attempts and the understanding I previously outlined, which states that the poem is intentionally ambiguous. This ambiguity is a device that contributes to the poem’s emotional force as a wild lament of a wailing woman.  I want it to bear a resemblance to “the feel” of the original, as well as its ambiguous words and situations, finding an appropriate balance. I hope my translation is able to meet this standard I have set for it.

Works Cited

Aertson, Henk.  Wulf and Eadwacer: A Woman’s Cri de Coeur–For Whom? For What?.”

Companion to Old English Poetry.  ed. Henk Aertson and Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr..  Amsterdam: VU UP, 1994. 119-144.

Alexander, Michael.  “Wulf and Eadwacer.”  The Earliest English Poems: A Bilingual Edition. trans. Michael Alexander.

Berkley and Los Angeles: U California P, 1966. 116.

Anderson, James E..  Deor Wulf and Eadwacer, and The Soul’s Address:  How and Where the Old English Exeter Book

Riddles Begin.”  Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope. Ed. Robert B.Burlin and Edward B. Irving, Jr.. Toronto: U Toronto P, 1974.  204-230.

Bennett, Helen T..  “Exile and Semiosis of Gender in Old English Elegies.”  Class and Gender in Early English Literature:

Intersections.  ed.  Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP,

1994. 43-58.

Bragg, Lois.  Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife’s Lament, and the Love Lyrics of The Middle Ages.”  Germanische

Romanische Monatsschrift  39.3 (1989): 257-268.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin.  “Wulf.”  The Battle of Maldon and Other Old English Poems.  ed.

Bruce Mitchelll.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1965.  77-78.

Davidson, Arnold E..  “Interpreting Wulf and Eadwacer.” Annuale Mediaevale 16 (1975): 24


Elaison, Norman E..  “On Wulf and Eadwacer.  Old English Studies in Honor of John C. Pope.

ed. Robert B.Burlin and Edward B. Irving, Jr.. Toronto: U Toronto P,

1974. 225-234.

Foley, John Miles.  Homer’s Traditional Art.  Universaity Park, PA: Penn. State UP, 1999.

Frese, Dolores Warwick.  Wulf and Eadwacer: The Adulterous Woman Reconsidered.”  New

Readings on Women in Old English Literature. ed. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990. 273-291.

Fry, Donald K..  Wulf and Eadwacer: A Wen Charm.”  The Chaucer Review: A Journal of

Medieval Studies And Literary Criticism 5 (1971): 247-263.

Gordon, R.K..  “Wulf And Eadwacer.”  Anglo-Saxon Poetry.  trans. R.K. Gordon, M.A..

London: Cambridge UP, 1967.  83.

Jensen, Emily.  “Narrative Voice in the Old English Wulf.  The Chaucer Review: a Journal of

Medieval Studies And Literary Criticism 13 (1979): 373-383.

Jones, F.. “A Note On The Interpretation of Wulf and Eadwacer.  Neuphilologische

Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Société Neophilogique/Bulletin of the

Modern Language Society 86.3 (1985): 323-327.

Klinck, Anne L.  The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study.  Montreal:

McGill-Queen’s UP, 1992.

Luecke, Janemarie.  Wulf and Eadwacer: Hints for Reading from Beowulf and Anthropology.”

The Old English Elegies New Essays in Criticism and Research.  ed.  Martin Green.  Toronto: Associated UP, 1983.  190-203.

Malone, Kemp.  “Eadwacer.”  Ten Old English Poems Put Into Modern English Alterative

Verse.  Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1941.  21.

Mattox, Wesley S..  “Encirclement and Sacrifice in Wulf and Eadwacer.  Annuale Mesiaevale

16 (1975): 24-32.

North, Richard.  “Metre and Meaning in Wulf and Eadwacer: Signy Reconsidered.”  Loyal

Letters: Studies in Medieval Alliterative Poetry and Prose.  ed.  L. A.J. R. Houwnen and A.A. MacDonald.  USA: Egbert Forsten Groningen, 1994.  29-54.

Baker, Peter S..  “The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer.  Old English Shorter Poems: Basic

Readings.  ed.  Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe.  New York: Garland, 1994.  393-408.

Osborn, Marijane. “Dogode in Wulf and Eadwacer and King Alfred’s Hunting Metaphors.”

ANQ: A quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 13.4 (2000):  3-9.

---.“The Text and Context of Wulf and Eadwacer.  The Old English Elegies

New Essays in Criticism and Research.  ed.  Martin Green.  Toronto: Associated UP, 1983.  174-189.

Pulsiano, Phillip and Kirsten Wolf.  “The ‘Hwelp’ In Wulf and Eadwacer.”  English Language

Notes 28.3 (1991): 1-9.

Raffel, Burton.  “Wulf and Eadwacer.”  Poems and Prose from The Old English.  ed. Alexandra

H. Olsen and Burton Raffel1.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.  5-16.

Renoir, Alain.  Wulf and Eadwacer: A Noninterpretation.”  Franciplegius: Medieval anf

Linguistic Studies In Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun Jr..  ed.  Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert P. Creed.  New York: New York UP, 1965. 147-163.

Suzuki, Seiichi.  Wulf and Eadwacer: A Reinterpretation and Some Conjectures.”

Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Société Neophilogique/Bulletin of the

Modern Language Society.  88.2 (1987):  175-185.

Tasioulas, J. A..  “The Mother’s Lament: Wulf and Eadwacer Reconsidered.”  Medium Aevum

65.1 (1996): 1-18.


Works Consulted

Desmond, Marilynn.  “The Voice of Exile: Feminist Literary History and The Anonymous

Anglo-Saxon Elegy.”  Critical Inquiry 16.3 (1990): 572-590.

Chance, Jane.  Woman as Hero In Old English Literature.  Syracuse: Syracuse UP,


Frankis, P. J.. “Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer: Some Conjectures.”  Medium Aevum 31 (1962):


Hall, J.R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge UP,


Gameson, Fiona and Richard.  Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife’s Lament, and the Discovery of

the Individual in Old English Verse.”  Studies in  English Language and Literature: ‘Doubt Wisely’ Papers in Honor of E.G. Stanley.  ed. M.J. Toswell and E.M. Tyler.  New York: Routledge, 1996. 457-474.

Kavros, Harry E.. “A Note on Wulf and Eadwacer.”  English Language Notes 15 (1977): 83-84.

Lehmann, Ruth, P. M.. “The Metrics and Structure of Wulf and Eadwacer”.  Philological

Quarterly 48 (1969): 151-165.

Mitchel, Bruce and Fred. C. Robinson.  A Guide to Old English Sixth Edition.  Maldon, Mass.:

Blackwell, 2002.

Stanley, E. G..  “Wolf, My Wolf!.”  Old English and New: Studies in Language and Linguistics

in Honor of Frederic G. Cassidy.  ed. Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringler.  New York: Garland, 1992. 46-62.