We know the Old English poem “Wulf ond Eadwacer” due only to its survival in the Exeter Codex, the largest existing anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which dates back to the 10th century. Since no original manuscript for the poem exists, the date of its composition, its provenance, and even the identity of its composer are all unknown.
Even within the poem itself, ambiguities abound: the identity of the speaker is unknown, while the relationship of the speaker to both Eadwacer and Wulf, the poem’s setting, and its narrative content are all subject to conflicting interpretations. The prevailing interpretation of the poem’s narrative is as a love triangle in which the unnamed speaker (who is represented as “&” in my translation) is separated from her lover, Wulf, by threat of violence from Eadwacer, who is commonly viewed as either her husband and/or captor. It is also ambiguous in this interpretation if the ‘cub’ to which the speaker refers is her and Wulf’s lovechild or her and Eadwacer’s legitimate son. However, the poem has also been interpreted as a riddle, a ballad, a wen charm, an elegy, and a beast fable. As Peter S. Baker notes in “The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer,” half of the poem’s nineteen lines “pose lexical, syntactical, or interpretive problems.”
But the challenge of interpreting the poem is only part of what makes “Wulf ond Eadwacer” an anomaly. The poem is also formally radical, both for its departures from Anglo-Saxon prosody, and for its inclusion of elements like repetition, and refrain, which were uncommon in Old English poetry. For this, and other reasons, some scholars even believe that this compellingly mysterious lyric poem might itself be a translation from the Old Norse.
As the act of translation cannot be divorced from interpretation, the highly enigmatic nature of “Wulf ond Eadwacer” would seem to begird the translator, to restrict the approaches, the strategies, and the outcomes available to her. Indeed, it seems sensible to decide what a thing is and what kind of effect it should have on the reader before translating it. But the reader should not have to pay for the translator’s convenience, and perhaps the least faithful translation of this enigmatic, polyvalent anomaly of an Old English poem that might have been born Scandinavian in the first place would be to present it in the absence of its complexity, to pin the poem down to a singular, definitive interpretation, to lock it into a linear narrative that it never loved.
The translation at hand aims to release the poem back into its radical complexity—to restore the lacunae, the indeterminacy, and the strangeness that makes the Anglo Saxon version of “Wulf ond Eadwacer” so haunting. Wulf & Eadwacer uses fragments of the original Old English both to re-acquaint the reader with her etymological roots and to make her a bit of a stranger in her own language. Code-switching between Old English and Modern English, Wulf & Eadwacer embraces the proto-feminist, disjunctive voice of the original poem, so that its enigmatic nature and plurality can fully be explored for the first time.
Baker, Peter S. “The ambiguity of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer.’” Studies in Philology, Vol. 78, No. 5, Texts and Studies, 1981. “Eight Anglo-Saxon Studies.” University of North Carolina Press.
Danielli, Sonja. “Wulf, Min Wulf: An Eclectic Analysis of Wolf-Man.” Neophilologus, Vol. 91, Spring 2007: 505-524.