Cold-hearted orb that rules the night,
Removes the colours from our sight,
Red is grey and yellow white,
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.

Thus runs the poem that bookends “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. The moon: that cold light that, like a magic wand, makes everything wan: its victory won, all is one, through the achromatopsia of dim light to the featurelessness of utter darkness. An object might, like a chameleon, change from colour to colour to colour, the shift passing imperceptibly.

But wait: the moon is wan, but the dark landscape is not, is it? Well, it depends on when that dark landscape is. Is it now… or is it half a millennium or more ago?

Pick up your copy of Beowulf and turn to line 702:

Com on wanre niht
scriðan sceadugenga.

‘Came in dark night to glide shadowgoer [or darkness-walker]’ – that’s a calque; a real translation is ‘He came gliding in dark night, shadowgoer.’ Well, never mind the syntactic weirdness of Old English. It’s that wanre – an inflected form of wan – that should not escape our vision. Grendel (that’s who) was not coming in pale or ashen or even leaden night. The Old English poets liked redundancy, repetition with variation, reinforcement of images (along with alliteration). The author was not saying that it was an uncharacteristically pale night. Ah-nope. The old definition of wan was, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it (in a definition that has a light taste of Old English alliterative reiterative verse), “lacking light or lustre; dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark.”

How, then, did this shadowgoer glide from oscuro to chiaro? How did it manage, under many moons, to shift its shade, its shape retaining?

It is not just that Beowulf was written in the Dark Ages and we have since passed through the Enlightenment. Nor, although wan may be related to wane, need we say the moon had waned and now has waxed. No: when we plumb the depths, we find a common element. We are led to lead. Plumbum. That dull grey element.

A wan thing is wanting in colour. It has the aspect of lead. If a thing is drained of colour, it takes on a leaden aspect. If a face is drained of colour by disease or death, it may be said to be of a leaden hue, perhaps: as observes Oxford, “Of an unhealthy, unwholesome colour; livid, leaden-hued.” That definition, which existed as an extension of the ‘dark colourless’ sense, is also obsolete – these dark and medium senses existed from the beginning of English to the 1600s. But by the 1300s, the ‘unhealthily pale’ sense had come into use. So we had a cross-fade of some two or three hundred years. Now wan is ‘pale’, or perhaps etiolated, bleached, lacking in colour or character: a wan smile.

By its brevity wan gains a myriad of associations. The most common collocation in the Corpus of Contemporary American English is wan na. Chinese? No, it’s just how they parse a colloquial compound – you wanna guess which one? But wan certainly shows in Mandarin: wàn, ‘ten thousand’, or wān, ‘crooked’, or wán, ‘whole’, or wăn, ‘gracious’, or wán, ‘stupid’, or wăn, ‘evening’.

In ten thousand evenings, with or without white satin, could you go from crooked to whole, from stupid to gracious? Oh, be wan – can no be? Come over to the dark side, the black’s wan. You will wander under moon-waxing welkin, beauty bleached by sky-swan burgeoning, greyed gules and white gold, illumination intending, deciding illusion.

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