Why readers can benefit from this analysis
This poem, with its unique combination of emotional power and mystery, is one of the most popular of all poems in the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. However, reading and appreciation is made more difficult by the ambiguity of the narrative stucture. It is reasonable to assume that the target audience had information at their disposal (backstory or other cues) which would have removed these difficulties.
The poem presents many features of a riddle. It is quite possible that the original meaning of the poem was to be sought based on knowlege of some saga tradition the details of which which we cannot access. The name “Eadwacer”, which points to the historical and legendary character of Odoacer, ruler of Italy, strongly suggests some kind of connection to the legend cycles surrounding Theoderic the Great. These stories are only attested in Continental and Scandinavian sources, many from a much later date. They have clearly undergone considerable change over time and the details of the legends in their Anglo-Saxon form is irrecoverable. If a legendary backstory is part of the meaning, it is likely that various devices, such as change of speaker and confusion of characters (e.g. wolf = lover, wolf = executioner) may have been used to disguise the underlying story.
Basis for analysis:
For the purposes of this analysis, however, I will ignore all this and attempt to reconstruct a meaning by deriving the most straightforward consistent internal reading. Thus we start by assuming a single speaker and the identity of all the of characters called wolf. The outcome will hopefully provide a consistent narrative structure within which the poem can be read and appreciated by modern readers in the absence of possible original legendary back-story.
For my people it is as if they are given a sacrifice
They will consume him if he comes upon their band
bloodthirsty men are on the island
The speaker’s people are on the island, they know wolf is there and are waiting for him. He may be deliberately walking into a trap.
it is different for us
In the absence of an antecedent, ‘it’ must be a general reference to life, fate, social station, or nation.
The plain meaning of ‘us’ is the wolf and the speaker.
Crux: for us? Does this mean ‘for each of us with respect to the other’, or ‘for us (the wolf and the speaker) as against everyone else’
A: The difference is probably between the speaker and the wolf, referring to their life. This is emphasised by their physical separation. Possibly the speaker lives in luxury and the wolf is an outlaw. The meaning of the alternative is too unclear in the absence of any indication of features which the speaker and the wolf share.
wolf is on (an/one) island I on (an/the) other
Crux: wolf? A person or an actual wolf
A: Probably a person. There is an alternative possible reading where the speaker is a dog who has mated with a wolf. This would certainly explain the cryptic “it is different for us”, but apart from the fact that this doesn’t seem a satisfactory answer for a poem of such emotional power, it leaves the island references unexplained. See comments below on “wolf” and “Eadwacer”.
Crux: other? The other (there are two) or another (there are many)?
Probably indefinite, as why would there be only two?
the island is fast
Crux: the island? The island the speaker is on or the island the wolf is on?
A: The island the wolf is on, as the bloodthirsty men who are “there on the island” are waiting for the wolf.
“Fast” probably means well-defended, as solid/firm would be pleonastic for an island.
So the speaker is on one island and the wolf is on another well defended island, hunted by a band of the speaker’s people. What is he doing? Perhaps rescuing their child?
Presumably this neglect was before she got together with the battle-brave, as he would have been unable to come at all if she was living with another man. This implies that he was often away so he may have always been a rebel, exile or outlaw.
Crux: “battle-brave”? Is this the wolf or Eadwacer?
A: Seems to be a person at any rate as he has arms. Unclear why the embrace should be partly joyful, partly loathesome if it was the wolf. Probably the battlebrave is Eadwacer, to whom she is married after being parted from the wolf.
Crux: Personal name or agent noun “guarder of property”?
A: This is a person’s name. The name is found at least once in the Anglosaxon records as the name of an actual English person. It is the Anglosaxon reflex of the name of a barbarian ruler of Italy, Odoacer, which points to a possible connection of this poem with the legends of Theoderic the Great. There are good reasons for rejecting a possible alternative reading of “property-watcher”. The noun “wacer”, watcher, is not found in Old English. In any case, an agentive noun from “wacian” would have been “wacere”. “Ead” means more “wealth, happiness” than physical property. However, if the poem is a riddle about a dog and a wolf, then Eadwacer could just possibly be stretched to be the name of a guard-dog!
Unless wolf really is a wolf (see above), ‘whelp” is figurative, meaning someone’s child.
Crux: our? Does this mean the speaker and wolf or the speaker and Eadwacer?
A: The child is probably the wolf’s, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a whelp. And why would the wolf take the child of another?
our story together
Crux: “our”? the speaker and wolf, the speaker and the child, the speaker and Eadwacer
A: Not the last, as they are still together. Perhaps the speaker and both the wolf and child, in the sense that the family is split up. According to this interpretation, they have already been split up, because the wolf was absent and the child was on another island to the speaker. This would explain the reference to “what never was together”.
The female speaker has had a relationship with a rebel/exile/outlaw and enemy of her current people (wolf) and they have a child. He may have gone away before and she married someone else. Eadwacer may be her current husband. The child is kept on a fortified island, perhaps as bait and the woman lives with Eadwacer. The wolf/lover bravely liberates the child from the island and takes it with him, leaving the woman behind forever.