Commentary for Exeter Riddles 1-3


Date: Thu 21 Mar 2013
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 1

Riddles 1 to 3 are quite clearly thematically linked, and it is because of this that they have also been read as one very long riddle (especially because Riddle 2 and the sections of Riddle 3 begin with the same word: Hwilum (sometimes)). This, of course, throws off the riddle numbering system (which you should note is an editorial practice and does not appear in the Exeter Book manuscript). For this website’s purposes, we’re sticking to the old school riddle numbering (i.e. the one in Krapp and Dobbie’s edition – see the About the Exeter Book page for more on this) because this is the system most online riddle resources use.

As for solutions (1), you may have noticed that the same ones crop up for each of the three related riddles. They are all commonly solved as Storm or Wind, but this doesn’t come close to covering all the potential solutions (scholars like to disagree). Other suggestions include Atmosphere, Power of Nature, Sun (esp. for riddles 2 and 3) and all manner of different types of storms (including Apocalyptic Storm, Hurricane, Earthquake, Storm at Sea and Thunderstorm). Riddle 1 has also been solved as Fire and Raiding Party or Army, while Riddle 2 has been solved as Anchor and Riddle 3 as Revenant. In addition to the stormy weather solutions, another trend can be seen throughout the riddles and that relates to religion. This is unsurprising considering the Exeter Book was donated to a cathedral library by a bishop – in fact, most early English literature has a strong religious connection because of the structure of this society and its scribal culture (think monasteries!). So, this religious trend has resulted in the following solutions: Riddle 1 as God, Riddle 2 as Christ and Riddle 3 as Cross, Spirit and Supernatural Force.

Having read a good chunk of Old English poetry, it seems pretty clear that each of the three riddles does possess religious connotations. All this talk of leaders controlling the destructive action of whatever þrymful þeow (powerful servant) is narrating definitely signals a divine entity. In fact, these poems echo in some ways the verse lines of the Old English translation of Boethius’ Consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy). A section from Metre 20 (lines 63-74), which deals with the elements, reads:

Habbað þeah þa feower      frumstol hiora,
æghwilc hiora      agenne stede,
þeah anra hwilc      wið oðer sie
miclum gemenged      and mid mægne eac
fæder ælmihtiges      fæste gebunden,
gesiblice,      softe togædre
mid bebode þine,      bilewit fæder,
þætte heora ænig      oðres ne dorste
mearce ofergangan      for metodes ege,
ac [geþweorod] sint      ðegnas togædre,
cyninges cempan,      cele wið hæto,
wæt wið drygum,      winnað hwæðre. (2)
(Nevertheless each of the four have their proper station, their own place, although each of them may be greatly mixed with the other and also, by the might of the almighty father, bound fast, peaceably, gently together by your decree, merciful father, so that none of them dared to go over the other’s boundary because of fear of the lord, but the retainers are made to agree, the champions of the king, cold with heat, wet with dry, yet they compete.)

Stormy water

Rambunctious elements! Photo (by Terry Lucas) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 3.0).

The rest of the poem goes on to discuss God’s control over the elements, which is again mentioned in relation to binding a hundred lines later:

Hafað fæder engla      fyr gebunden
efne to þon fæste      þæt hit fiolan ne mæg
eft æt his eðle      þær þæt oðer fyr
up ofer eall þis      eardfæst wunað. (153-56)
(The father of angels has bound fire precisely so fast that it may not return to its homeland where that other fire, up over all this, remains firmly fixed.)

Riddle 3’s focus on confinement in particular maps nicely onto this Boethian vision of the cosmos. It’s also noteworthy that Riddles 2 and 3 end with a similar challenge to the listener: the riddler not only asks what is narrating the poem, but also what is controlling the speaker:

                 Saga, þoncol mon,
hwa mec bregde      of brimes fæþmum,
þonne streamas eft      stille weorþað,
yþa geþwære,      þe mec ær wrugon. (12b-15)
(Say, thoughtful one, who draws me from the depths of the ocean, when the streams become still again, obedient the waves, which earlier concealed me.)


                  Saga hwæt ic hatte,
oþþe hwa mec rære,      þonne ic restan ne mot,
oþþe hwa mec stæðþe,      þonne ic stille beom. (72b-4)
(Say what I am called, or who raises me, when I may not rest, or who stays me, when I am still.)

Although Riddle 1 doesn’t end this way, it does include a reference to the powers that control it:

                  heahum meahtum
wrecen on waþe,      wide sended (10b-11).
(pressed into wandering / by the powers on high, sent afar).

This all seems to suggest that the solution calls for a master-servant duo. And so, perhaps God and the Elements (or in Old English: God ond þa Feower Gesceafta) would make a nice solution for all three of these poems. Of course, the poet seems to prefer the destructive aspect of each element…but without central heating, this isn’t particularly surprising!


(1) For a convenient list of solutions and solvers, see Donald K. Fry’s article, “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions,” Old English Newsletter 15.1 (1981), pp. 22-33, although unfortunately and for obvious reasons it does not take into account suggested solutions after 1981.

(2) These lines are quoted from the brilliant, new-ish edition by Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine, The Old English Boethius: An Edition of the Old English Versions of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, 2 volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). The translations, along with this post, are by Megan.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 1  riddle 2  riddle 3 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 2
Exeter Riddle 3

Exeter Riddle 3


Date: Sun 10 Mar 2013
Original text:

Hwilum mec min frea      fæste genearwað,
sendeð þonne      under salwonges
bearm þone bradan,      ond on bid wriceð,
þrafað on þystrum      þrymma sumne,
5     hæste on enge,      þær me heord siteð
hruse on hrycge.      Nah ic hwyrftweges
of þam aglace,      ac ic eþelstol
hæleþa hrere;      hornsalu wagiað,
wera wicstede,      weallas beofiað,
10     steape ofer stiwitum.      Stille þynceð
lyft ofer londe      ond lagu swige,
oþþæt ic of enge      up aþringe,
efne swa mec wisaþ      se mec wræde on
æt frumsceafte      furþum legde,
15     bende ond clomme,      þæt ic onbugan ne mot
of þæs gewealde      þe me wegas tæcneð.
Hwilum ic sceal ufan      yþa wregan,
streamas styrgan      ond to staþe þywan
flintgrægne flod.      Famig winneð
20     wæg wið wealle,      wonn ariseð
dun ofer dype;      hyre deorc on last,
eare geblonden,      oþer fereð,
þæt hy gemittað      mearclonde neah
hea hlincas.      Þær bið hlud wudu,
25     brimgiesta breahtm,      bidað stille
stealc stanhleoþu      streamgewinnes,
hopgehnastes,      þonne heah geþring
on cleofu crydeþ.      Þær bið ceole wen
sliþre sæcce,      gif hine sæ byreð
30     on þa grimman tid,      gæsta fulne,
þæt he scyle rice      birofen weorþan,
feore bifohten      fæmig ridan
yþa hrycgum.      Þær bið egsa sum
ældum geywed,      þara þe ic hyran sceal
35     strong on stiðweg.      Hwa gestilleð þæt?
Hwilum ic þurhræse,      þæt me on bæce rideð
won wægfatu,      wide toþringe
lagustreama full,      hwilum læte eft
slupan tosomne.      Se bið swega mæst,
40     breahtma ofer burgum,      ond gebreca hludast,
þonne scearp cymeð      sceo wiþ oþrum,
ecg wið ecge;      earpan gesceafte
fus ofer folcum      fyre swætað,
blacan lige,      ond gebrecu ferað
45     deorc ofer dryhtum      gedyne micle,
farað feohtende,      feallan lætað
sweart sumsendu      seaw of bosme,
wætan of wombe.      Winnende fareð
atol eoredþreat,      egsa astigeð,
50     micel modþrea      monna cynne,
brogan on burgum,      þonne blace scotiað
scriþende scin      scearpum wæpnum.
Dol him ne ondrædeð      ða deaðsperu,
swylteð hwæþre,      gif him soð meotud
55     on geryhtu      þurh regn ufan
of gestune læteð      stræle fleogan,
farende flan.      Fea þæt gedygað,
þara þe geræceð      rynegiestes wæpen.
Ic þæs orleges      or anstelle,
60     þonne gewite      wolcengehnaste
þurh geþræc þringan      þrimme micle
ofer byrnan bosm.      Biersteð hlude
heah hloðgecrod;      þonne hnige eft
under lyfte helm      londe near,
65     ond me on hrycg hlade      þæt ic habban sceal,
meahtum gemagnad      mines frean.
Swa ic þrymful þeow      þragum winne,
hwilum under eorþan,      hwilum yþa sceal
hean underhnigan,      hwilum holm yfan
70     streamas styrge,      hwilum stige up,
wolcnfare wrege,      wide fere
swift ond swiþfeorm.      Saga hwæt ic hatte,
oþþe hwa mec rære,      þonne ic restan ne mot,
oþþe hwa mec stæðþe,      þonne ic stille beom.


Sometimes my lord confines me firmly,
then sends me under the broad embrace
of the prosperous plain, and pushes me to a halt,
he restrains some of my power in darkness,
5     violently in confinement, where my keeper, earth,
presses on my back. I have no escape
from that oppression, but I shake
the dwelling place of heroes; the gabled halls tremble,
the homes of men, the walls wobble,
10     steep over the householders. The air over the land
seems still and the ocean is silent,
until I burst forth from my confinement,
even as he instructs me, he who first laid
fetters upon me at creation,
15     bonds and chains, so that I might not bend
from the power that shows me my path.
Sometimes I must excite the waves from above,
stir up the streams and drive to the shore
the flint-grey flood. The foamy water
20     struggles against the wall, a dark mountain
rises up over the deep; dark in its track,
another goes, mixed with the sea,
so that they meet near the borderland,
the high banks. There the wood is loud,
25     the cry of the sea-guests, the steep stone-cliffs
quietly await the watery war,
the wet conflict, when the lofty tumult
crowds onto the cliffs. There the ship is in expectation
of a fierce fight, if the sea bears it
30     on that terrible tide, full of souls,
so that it must be deprived of control
robbed of life, the foamy one [must] ride
the backs of the waves. There a certain terror is
made visible to men, that which I must obey,
35     strong on the harsh path. Who stills that?
Sometimes I rush through, so that a dark water-vessel
rides on my back, I drive apart
the cups of water widely, sometimes I let
them slide together again. That is the greatest of clamours,
40     sounds over the cities, and the loudest of clashes,
when a sharp cloud comes against another,
edge against edge; the dark creatures
eager over the people bleed fire,
bright flame, and the clamour travels
45     dark over the people with a great din,
they go fighting, allow to fall
dark drops, humming, from the compass [of the clouds],
moisture from the belly. A terrible troop travels,
toiling; fear rises up,
50     a great mind-torment for mankind,
terror in the cities, when dark phantoms,
spreading out, shoot with sharp weapons.
The foolish one does not dread the death-spear,
and yet he dies, if the true measurer,
55     according to his right, allows an arrow
to fly through the rain from the tempest above,
a traveling dart. Few escape that,
of those whom the weapon of the racing guest reaches.
I establish the start of that strife,
60     when I go through the crush to force
the cloud-conflict with great strength
over the compass of the stream. Loudly the lofty
crowd crashes; then afterwards I sink
under the helmet of the air near the land,
65     and load up something I must have onto my back,
recovered with the strength of my lord.
Thus I, powerful servant, contend at times,
sometimes under the earth, sometimes I must
descend beneath the humble waves, sometimes above the hill
70     I stir up streams, sometimes I rise up,
excite the cloud-journey, I travel widely,
swift and strong of substance. Say what I am called,
or who raises me, when I may not rest,
or who stays me, when I am still.

Click to show riddle solution?
Storm, Wind, etc


This riddle appears on folios 101v-102v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pages 181-3.

Note that this edition takes this riddle together with the preceding two, dubbing them all Riddle 1: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 67-70.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 3 

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Exeter Riddle 14
Exeter Riddle 7

Exeter Riddle 4


Date: Fri 29 Mar 2013
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 4
Original text:

Ic sceal þragbysig      þegne minum,
hringum hæfted,      hyran georne,
min bed brecan,      breahtme cyþan
þæt me halswriþan      hlaford sealde.
5     Oft mec slæpwerigne      secg oðþe meowle
gretan eode;      ic him gromheortum
winterceald oncweþe.      Wearm lim
gebundenne bæg      hwilum bersteð;
se þeah biþ on þonce      þegne minum,
10     medwisum men,      me þæt sylfe,
þær wiht wite,      ond wordum min
on sped mæge      spel gesecgan.


At times busy, bound by rings,
I must eagerly obey my thane,
break my bed, proclaim with a cry
that my lord gave me a neck-torque.
5     Often a man or woman came to greet me,
sleep-weary; I answer them, winter-cold,
the hostile-hearted ones. A warm limb
sometimes bursts the bound ring;
however, that is agreeable to my thane,
10     the half-witted man, and to myself,
if I could know anything, and tell my story
successfully with words.

Click to show riddle solution?
Bell, Bucket, Plough-team, etc.


This riddle appears on folio 102v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 183.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 2: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 70.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  solutions  riddle 4 

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