Although the code of behavior in Anglo-Saxon England did expect that one of the king's thanes would fight to the death at the king's side, it was not always the case that a surviving thane was dishonored. For example, Beowulf himself, the greatest of heroes in Old English poetry (at...
Although the code of behavior in Anglo-Saxon England did expect that one of the king's thanes would fight to the death at the king's side, it was not always the case that a surviving thane was dishonored. For example, Beowulf himself, the greatest of heroes in Old English poetry (at least what is extant), survives the battle in which his king and kinsman, Hygelac, is killed, and returns home alone (anhaga, which is also used to describe the Wanderer in lines 1 & 40). His people actually ask Beowulf to be king at that point, but he refuses, instead serving as regent or protector to Hygelac's son Heardred--until Heardred is also killed. Then, in spite of having failed to defend not one but two kings, Beowulf is still made king. (See Beowulf, lines 2354-2390 for this sequence of events.)
In "The Wanderer" itself, we do not find any sense of guilt or shame, but only sorrow. Furthermore, this sorrow is not just for the king or for himself, but for much greater loss:
Where is the horse? Where is the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats of the banquets? Where are the joys in the hall?
Alas the bright cup! Alas the mailed warrior! Alas the glory of the prince!
How the time has gone, vanished under night’s helm, as if it never were! Now in place of a beloved host stands a wall wondrously high, decorated with the likenesses of serpents.
The powers of spears took the noblemen,
weapons greedy for slaughter; fate the renowned, and storms beat against these rocky slopes, falling snowstorm binds the earth, the noise of winter, then the dark comes. The shadow of night grows dark, sends from the north a rough shower of hail in enmity to the warriors. All the kingdom of earth is full of trouble, the operation of the fates changes the world under the heavens.
Here wealth is transitory, here friend is transitory, here man is transitory, here woman is transitory, this whole foundation of the earth becomes empty. (lines 92-110)
If this response was only because of a sorrow that was deserved because of his failure, the Wanderer would seem consumed by self-pity and would be an object of contempt and not compassion.
For these reasons, Christopher Dean's reconstruction of the events that led to the Wanderer's exile is preferable:
The Wanderer's lord and companions met their deaths in battle. The Wanderer must have been absent from the battle, for no reproach attaches to him for not dying by his lord's side. Returning to the hall, he found the bodies, some preyed upon by birds and wolves. He carried out his last duty to the lord that he loved, and...buried his lord. He then set up a wall around the mound, some at least of the stones carrying carved ornamentation. The whole made a fitting memorial. Then his search for a new lord began. As an old man, he remembers his lord still and the memorial that he raised to him. His memory of his lord and of the memorial is the only thing that can survive the universal decay.