The Old English poems “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “Dream of the Rood” all contain strong religious themes, but they express these themes in different ways.
The most overtly religious of the three is “Dream of the Rood.” In this poem, the speaker begins by describing a dream he has about the Cross (or "Rood") of Christ. The Cross then takes over the narrative, speaking in the first person and telling the story of the crucifixion of Jesus in its own words. It presents itself as a thane of Christ, a warrior-member of the Anglo-Saxon war band of which Jesus is the leader. Anglo-Saxon thanes normally had the duty to defend their leader to the death, killing anyone who threatened the leader and dying with the leader if they could not save him. In this case, however, religion changes the role of the thane. Christ has ordered His thane, the Cross, not to defend Him but instead to hold still and let Him die. The Cross feels the full horror of this order, which goes against every norm of the Anglo-Saxon war band, but it obeys even as it laments, "I could have felled all those foemen, / Nevertheless I stood fast" (lines 37-38). Religious obedience to Christ has taken priority over usual cultural rules and practices, and this is one of the major religious themes of “Dream of the Rood”: when one becomes Christian, one's life must change in sometimes dramatic ways, and one must give up their normal ways of thinking and acting in order to obey God.
“The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” treat religion in quite a different way than does “Dream of the Rood.” To understand these poems, it is important to know that kinship and community where all-important in Anglo-Saxon life. People identified themselves with their kinship groups and war bands, and they lived within communities, not usually as independent individuals. Leaders of those communities took special care of their followers, providing them with necessities and gifts, while the followers offered loyalty and support in times of war.
The speaker of “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” have lost this community interaction. They live as exiles, alone, traveling on land and on sea, deprived of their homes, families, and leaders. The speaker of “The Wanderer” longs for and dreams about the days when he knew “the counsels of beloved lord” (line 38), when he could kneel before his leader and delight in his affection and gifts, but now those days are over, and he has sorrow as a companion. The speaker of “The Seafarer” is also alone, “deprived of friendly kinsmen” (line 16) as he travels the sea, feeling the weight of his “impoverished spirit” (line 26).
These two lonely men, in their exile and sorrow, reflect on the nature of the world and come to similar conclusions. This world is passing; it is temporary; it will not last. The speaker of “The Wanderer” concludes,
All is misery-fraught in the realm of earth,...
Here wealth is loaned. Here friends are loaned.
Here man is loaned. Here family is loaned—
And this whole foundation of the earth wastes away! (lines 106, 108-110)
The speaker of “The Seafarer” touches on the same theme, noting that every person goes to the grave at the end of life with no comfort from kin or gold or anything else of this world.
So where is one to turn in the face of this gloomy prospect? Both speakers present the same answer: God. Only in God can one find true comfort that will last beyond this life and this world. As the speaker of "The Wanderer" expresses it,
It will be well for him who seeks the favor,
The comfort from our father in heaven,
Where a fortress stands for us all. (lines 114-115)
The speaker of “The Seafarer” notes that “reward comes in heaven” (line 107) for those who live well on earth and asserts that one's true hope and home is in heaven, not in the passing things of this life and world. In “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” then, one of the major religious themes is the comfort and hope that faith in God can bring in the worst of worldly perils and predicaments.