I took line 5b from Old English poem ‘The Wanderer’ as the tagline for The Crows because it is at the heart of the fatalistic themes of death and fate: death is inevitable, and Carrie, unbeknownst to her but very much beknownst to Ricky Porter, has 33 days left to live from when the book opens.
Wyrd bið ful aræd | Fate is inexorable
I chose this as the tagline with the more commonly known translation, and this is a line that Ricky repeats to himself throughout the book (I think it appears a total of three times). But there are other ways to translate it, and Ricky’s translations vary a little when he thinks about fate and as he begins to struggle against it himself.
Aaron K. Hofstetter’s translation of ‘The Wanderer’ is free to read on The Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, as is his discussion on line 5b. What is meant by ‘wyrd’ and ‘aræd’? How do you interpret them in the full context of the poem itself, and how else is it attested?
Hofstetter’s own version is provocatively rendered [in American English]:
“Often the lone-dweller awaits his own favor,
the Measurer’s mercy, though he must,
mind-caring, throughout the ocean’s way
stir the rime-chilled sea with his hands
for a long while, tread the tracks of exile—
the way of the world is ever an open book.” (1-5)
I like this rendering – it makes the line reflect the landscape, but also implies that for those who can read the ways of the wyrd, the paths are clear but cannot be altered, only travelled. I tried to capture a little bit of this in The Crows in the sense of being trapped in space and place as well as in time, and contrast the apparent (and actual) wildness of Ricky Porter with his caged-ness. Ricky isn’t a wandering soothsayer like some versions of Merlin, although he is a sort of Merlin figure, so this is a layer of irony he doesn’t ever recognise.
Ricky is more Merlin Sylvestris/Myrddin Wyllt, or Merlin-Trapped, bound within borders, but also locked out of places he wants to enter. Ricky is tied to the woods (The Chase) where his family home (Bramble Cottage) is located, and Fairwood House a.k.a. The Crows on the edge of The Chase, and barely even ventures into the town (Pagham-on-Sea) any more. He bounces between this tight location of a few acres square and his grandmother’s house on Sea View Road, but he doesn’t go anywhere else. He also doesn’t see himself as trapped or stuck, or at least doesn’t actively try to fight against this, until he is forced to face his own limitations and how he is also entrapped by his own wyrd.
Another direct Merlin comparison is with the poem in the Red Book of Hergest, where Merlin dialogues with his twin sister Gwendydd, who asks him for his predictions about the line of rulers and what will happen in the future. It is mainly woeful, and she leaves him in the woods at the end but with a tender praise-parting. Ricky, of course, is an only child, and so he doesn’t have this sort of relationship, but he does often wonder what life would be like if he had a sister. Gwendydd, in the poem, says, ‘Praise to him who tells the truth’, and Ricky often emphasises his own truthfulness (the definition of sooth-sayer is truth-teller), and is a terrible liar anyway, in that he’s so transparent about it.
Hofstetter has a handy appendix at the bottom of his article where he lists the different ways line 5b has been translated since its first edition:
Thorpe, 1842: “His fate is full decreed”
Gollancz, 1895: “Fate is full stubborn!”
Hieatt, 1967 (prose): “Fate is inexorable”
Kennedy, 1936: “Homeless and helpless he fled from Fate”
Gordon, 1936: “settled in truth is fate!”
Raffel, 1960: “Fate has opened / a single port: memory” (same in 1998)
Alexander, 1970: “Wierd is set fast”
Rebsamen, 1971 (prose): “Fate is full determined”
David (in Pope, 1981, appears in the NAEL 9th ed.): “Fate is firmly set”
Bradley, 1982 (prose): “Fate is inexorable”
Crossley-Holland, 1983 (prose): “fate is inflexible”
Mitchell-Robinson, 1983 “Fate is wholly inexorable!”
Liuzza, 2009 (in Broadview’s anthology): “Wyrd is fully fixed!”
Williamson, 2011: “His fate is fixed”
Delanty, 2013: “fate dictates”
Bjork, 2014: “fate is fully fixed”
I’ve highlighted in bold the ones I’ve borrowed (Bradley, following Hieatt, for the tagline, and Kennedy for a sense of Ricky’s overall character arc).