The Importance of Old English Wisdom for Modern Men
by Donavon L Riley 


In a culture where the clamor of modern life often drowns the voices of timeless virtues, where depravity is celebrated and true honor diminished, there exists a treasure trove of wisdom that modern men can turn to for guidance—Old English poetry from the 7th to the 11th centuries. These verses, born from the minds of early Anglo-Saxon writers, are more than ancient relics; they are enduring sources of masculine values, honor, justice, perseverance, and faith. If we just take the time to pause, read, and digest these age-old verses, we’ll discover how they offer a guiding light for contemporary men seeking to navigate the complexities of life.

Honor and Valor

In the epic saga of “Beowulf,” we are transported to a time when honor and valor were not mere words but guiding principles, embodied by the indomitable hero, Beowulf himself. His resolute commitment to defending his people against monstrous foes serves as an enduring testament to the importance of these virtues. Beowulf’s words echo through the ages, proclaiming, “Each of us will come to the end of this life on earth; he who can earn it should fight for the glory of his name.”

Beowulf’s legendary battles against Grendel, the malevolent creature that terrorized the kingdom of the Danes, epitomize the essence of true honor. He willingly confronts this monstrous evil, venturing into the dark abyss of Heorot to face Grendel on equal terms. The hero’s courage knows no bounds, and he risks his own life to safeguard the lives of others. In these verses, we find the resounding truth that honor is not a superficial badge but a profound commitment to protect the innocent and vanquish evil.

As the narrative unfolds, Beowulf’s valor is tested once more in the harrowing depths of the mere, where he battles Grendel’s mother, a relentless force of darkness. In these moments of peril, the hero’s actions resound with the conviction that true honor lies in the willingness to confront evil, even when the odds appear insurmountable. Beowulf’s unwavering determination to emerge victorious, to safeguard his people, and to secure his legacy is a reminder that honor transcends the boundaries of time and culture.

Finally, the epic culminates in a climactic battle against a fearsome dragon, where Beowulf once again demonstrates his unwavering righteousness. In the face of certain death, he declares, “I’ve never known fear. As a youth I fought in endless battles. I am old, now, but I will fight again, seek fame still, if the dragon hiding in his tower dares to face me.” Beowulf’s final sacrifice I order to protect his own people is a poignant testament to the selflessness and nobility inherent in true honor.

In an age where moral relativism blurs the lines between right and wrong, Beowulf stands as a symbol of unyielding righteousness. His legacy serves as a profound reminder that honor is not a relic of the past but a timeless virtue to be upheld, a virtue that modern men can embrace as they confront the complexities of an ever-evolving world.

Justice and the Warrior Ethos

In “The Battle of Maldon,” warriors face insurmountable odds with unshakable resolve. This gripping poem weaves a tale of brave men who willingly march to their deaths, standing as a bulwark against foreign invaders. Their unwavering commitment to defending their land and preserving their way of life resounds with echoes of justice and the warrior ethos. As we navigate a world where moral clarity is muddied on purpose by men lacking in honor and selflessness, and justice fakis victim to conflicting ideologies, the men of Maldon exemplify the enduring importance of upholding what is right.

In the midst of the battle, the warriors of Maldon utter a powerful declaration: “Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener, courage must be the greater, as our strength lessens.” These words encapsulate the essence of the warrior ethos, emphasizing that even in the face of adversity, courage and conviction must remain steadfast. The men of Maldon understood that their duty extended beyond mere survival; it was about defending their homeland and preserving the values they held dear.

“The Battle of Maldon” underscores the significance of justice in the face of overwhelming odds. The warriors knew that their cause was just, and they were willing to lay down their lives for it. To repeat, then, in a society where moral clarity is constantly being challenged by conflicting ideologies, the men of Maldon stand as a testament to the unwavering commitment to what is right. Their sacrifice serves as a poignant reminder that justice is not merely an abstract concept; it is a living, breathing principle worth defending.

The narrative of Maldon is a powerful illustration of the warrior’s duty to protect what is right. In a world where the lines between right and wrong are so often  blurred, the men of Maldon serve as beacons of unwavering resolve. They inspire us to uphold justice, to defend our principles, and to stand firm in the face of adversity. As we confront the complexities of our time, the enduring lessons from “The Battle of Maldon” remind us that the warrior ethos transcends eras, offering timeless guidance on preserving what is just and honorable.

Perseverance and Resilience

“The Wanderer,” a poetic masterpiece from the Old English era, provides us with a poignant reflection on the enduring theme of perseverance in the face of life’s harshest adversities. Within its verses, the poem’s narrator, an exile and a wanderer, embarks on a contemplative journey, delving into the very meaning and purpose of existence. 

In today’s world, which is often transient and uncertain, “The Wanderer” imparts timeless wisdom on the virtue of resilience, offering us guidance on how to weather life’s storms, stand steadfast in our principles, and find strength in our inner resolve.

The poem opens a window into the soul of the wanderer, who laments, “Often alone, I have made the ocean’s paths my home, cold waves my garments. There was no sound of men’s voices, no harp’s glad music.” In these lines, we witness the profound solitude and desolation that life’s trials can impose. The wanderer’s experience becomes a mirror to our own moments of isolation and uncertainty, inviting us to reflect on the transient nature of worldly pleasures.

Amidst the existential contemplation, “The Wanderer” offers a resounding lesson in resilience. It speaks to the human capacity to endure, to persist through even the darkest of hours. As the wanderer grapples with the fleeting nature of life’s joys and the inevitability of hardship, the poem becomes a powerful reminder that adversity need not break us. Instead, it can serve as the furnace in which our mettle is tested.

The poem’s ultimate message is one of hope, resilience, and the enduring strength of the human spirit. It reminds us that, like the wanderer, we too can navigate the tumultuous seas of life, emerging from our trials stronger and wiser. So, in a culture that rarely encourages actual resilience in the face of uncertainty, “The Wanderer” stands as a timeless guide, encouraging us to persevere, maintain our integrity, and draw strength from our inner resolve, knowing that, like the wanderer, we can find purpose and endurance even in the most challenging of trials.

Faith and Redemption

In the ancient verses of “Dream of the Rood,” we encounter a narrative that transcends time, one that explores the profound themes of faith and redemption through the poignant lens of a crucifixion story. This poem presents the cross not merely as an instrument of suffering but as a symbol of sacrifice that ultimately leads to salvation. In today’s culture, where faith is often subjected to scrutiny, doubt, and scorn, “Dream of the Rood” emerges as a testimony to unwavering belief, offering us timeless insights into the redemptive power of faith. Its message resonates through the ages, encouraging us to find solace and strength in our trust in Jesus Christ, even when faced with doubt or adversity.

The poem’s narrative unfolds as the cross itself speaks, recounting the events of Christ’s crucifixion from its own perspective. It declares, “I was reared up; heroes’ hands hoisted me, bold-minded men raised me.” These lines convey the notion of the cross as an active participant in the divine drama, willingly embracing its role in the salvation of humanity. In this portrayal, the cross becomes a symbol not only of suffering but also of unwavering commitment to a higher purpose.

“Dream of the Rood” delves into the heart of faith, emphasizing that even in the face of suffering and sacrifice, belief in Jesus leads to redemption. The cross, as a central symbol of Christianity, exemplifies the life-changing power of faith. It stands as a reminder that, in times of adversity, the conviction in one’s beliefs in Jesus as our Savior serves as a wellspring of strength and hope.

The poem’s message is a testament to the enduring nature of faith. It encourages modern men to embrace their belief in Jesus, even when confronted with doubt, uncertainty, or scorn. In a world where faith can be tested, “Dream of the Rood” reminds us that God is our ultimate source of unwavering support and guidance. Just as the cross bore the weight of salvation, so too will our faith in Jesus sustain us through life’s trials, ultimately leading to redemption and renewal in his name.

And so, as modern men, we are called to navigate a world that can often seem adrift in a sea of conflicting values and shifting paradigms. But, that’s exactly why Old English poetry from the 7th to the 11th centuries can serve us as a rock of stability and a light illuminating our path towards enduring masculinity, honor, justice, perseverance, and faith. Through the verses of “Beowulf,” “The Battle of Maldon,” “The Wanderer,” and “Dream of the Rood,” we find a timeless wellspring of wisdom. These poems serve as guiding stars, offering us their strength and insights, instructions that we desperately need if we are going to make our way forward through the ruins of a morally and spiritually bankrupt culture. In the words of the ancient bards, we discover not just echoes of the past but timeless truths that still speak to us today: a very real chorus of voices that can help shape our present and illuminate our future for the better of ourselves and everyone else.

**** Modern translations of Old English poems can be found here:

By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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