You know the movement to make traditional bad guys good in children’s stories, or to at least give their side of the story. When I was a
boisterous oddly serious public school lad, I remember a story that had recast the big bad wolf as a hapless neighbor who only wanted sugar from his selfish porcine neighbors–who still happened to die and be quite tasty in the end for all the revisioning.
Now, I’m not trying to raise any ire about whether or not we should keep traditional good and evil or have shades of gray in children’s tales. We’re not going to get into how I feel about whether the Jedi should end or any of that.
What I’m wanting to get into is this way we change the moral roles of characters and figures in our stories over time.
I want to talk about the wraecca.
Eventually turning into our modern word wretch, the wraecca is an exile who is completely cut off from society. This creature wanders the moors and has no place in halls and hates music. Being a “friendless exile” as Liuzza putes it or a “wræccan wineleasum” as it was in the original, is a terrible state to be in Germanic cultures where tribal affiliation is extremely important.
If you just started thinking about Grendel, then you already know what a wraecca is.
So this figure should be the worst monster, right? The Anglo-Saxon version of the big bad wolf. Always killing and eating those Danes whole at a time.
That might hold up as we go along. Satan is a wraecca in Paradise Lost and the Anglo-Saxon poem “Christ and Satan” wherein he wanders “the paths of exile.”
But then some less sinister characters also become wraeccas. There’s Thomas Hardy’s Michael Henchard who experiences exile from Casterbridge in the end. As a wanderer, he even places himself in the same line of Cain that Grendel comes from:
“If I had only got her with me—if I only had!” he said. “Hard work would be nothing to me then! But that was not to be. I—Cain—go alone as I deserve—an outcast and a vagabond. But my punishment is not greater than I can bear!”
And in poems of Hardy’s like “The Wanderer” we follow the wraecca through the plodding rhythm of the poem as he gains a moment, though he has nowhere to lay his head, as he looks up at the stars which are above his despair.
Speaking of “nowhere to lay his head,” take a look at this poem:
Fowles in the frith,
The fisshes in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood
Much sorwe I walke with
For beste of boon and blood.
This is a wraecca who walks only with sorrow and must wax mad, though birds have their woods and fishes (best plural ever) have their water. Yes, birds have their nests, and foxes have dens, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, though best of bone and blood.
Christ, like fallen Henchard and monstrous Grendel, is a wraecca.
What do we do with that?
We take is a step further, and see how the Christ figure in literature aligns with the figure of the wraecca.
I know I put aside Malory and we’ve already talked about the knights of the Round Table at length, but Arthurial legend is a place where these two figures come together.
Let’s look at Galahad in particular. He is a holy knight, who through his chastity experiences the achievement of the holy grail. In this way, he is the most Christ-like of knights. How does he best express his place as a Christ figure? Through isolation. He is a knight-errant, the figure of the wraecca institutionalized in courtly culture. The beginning of the grail quest means wandering about the moors, and no longer staying in Hroðgar’s/Arthur’s hall.
Of course, going back to the etymology, even this ambivalent idea of knight errantry (is it a good way to promote the culture of Arthur’s court or something that should be reined in by that same court?) has its origins in the related Old High German term:
In the entry, the OED even remarks that “the contrast in the development of the meaning in English and German is remarkable.”
Sometimes translators of Beowulf struggle with these different shades. Should Grendel and Eanmund be translated with the same word? Should they be split between positive and negative connotations?
But that still means bringing very different meanings together.
Galahad and Grendel. Christ and Satan. Each one is a wraecca. The figure has revolved from monstrous to sacred.
And I’m still not sure what to do with it.
As always, you can follow along with the reading lists with the Powell’s partner links below: