Commentary for Exeter Riddle 40


Date: Wed 10 Jun 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 40

I hope that you’ve all enjoyed reading the marathon of a poem that is Riddle 40. It reaches a grand total of 109 lines before a missing manuscript page deprives us of its no doubt beauteous ending. And, indeed, Riddle 40 is a work of beauty. Where else do you hear seamlessly poetic phrasing like: “I am fouler than this dark fen that stinks nastily here with its filth” (lines 31-2), or “I am more vile than this foul wood or this sea-weed that lies cast up here” (lines 48-9), or “the son of dung is speedier of step, that which we call in words ‘weevil’” (lines 72-3)? This is truly a poem after my own heart.

Admittedly, there are pretty images in here too. In fact, that’s kind of the point: the riddle puts forward a list of paradoxes as if to ask what can be both all the goods things and all the bad things. That’s why the poem reminds me of a combination of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and the Monty Python spoof song “All Things Dull and Ugly.” Because, of course, this is a creation-riddle. What makes me so sure? Riddle 40 is one of those occasional Old English riddles with a known Latin original. In this case, the final text in Aldhelm’s riddle collection: Enigma 100, De creatura (on creation). And so we have, creatura, gesceaft (in Old English), creation, the world, nature – whatever you want to call it – depicted as the biggest riddle of all.

Now when it comes to the relationship between the Old English and its Latin source, you’re going to have to bear with me. As you might have guessed, like Riddle 40, the Latin original is also pretty frickin’ long. So, I’m not going to quote it in full. But I will say that the first 81 lines of the Old English poem stick fairly closely to the Latin source. After that, the poet (or perhaps another poet?) goes off book a bit (this starts, as you may have noticed, with the wholesale repetition of lines 50-1 at 82-3).

But even when the poem is fairly faithful to its source, there’s a fair bit of room for improvising. My favourites relate to strange creatures. Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a made-up bird, an old giant or a gender-bending piggy?

Let’s start with the bird. Lines 66-9 of the Old English riddle read: Ic mæg fromlicor fleogan þonne pernex / oþþe earn oþþe hafoc æfre meahte; nis zefferus, se swifta wind, / þæt swa fromlice mæg feran æghwær (I can fly faster than a pernex or an eagle or a hawk ever might; there is no zephyr, that swift wind, that can journey anywhere faster). Not familiar with the pernex? That’s because it doesn’t exist. The translator appears to have gotten a tad confused when translating the Latin lines 35-6: Plus pernix aquilis, Zephiri velocior alis, / Necnon accipiter properantior (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533) (faster than eagles, quicker than the wings of the Zephyr, nor [is] the hawk speedier). As Janie Steen notes (page 103), it’s possible that the poet confused pernix (swift) with perdix (partridge)…although the partridge is not the speediest of birds…


Photo (by Marek Szczepanek) from the Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

You want more strange creatures? How’s about that old, hungry þyrs (giant) in lines 62-3? This famished fella is a translation of the Cyclopes (plural of Cyclops!) that appear at line 33 of the Latin version. It’s a bit strange that the poet chose to paraphrase here, when other classical references are left in (Vulcan and Zephyrus, for example). Maybe there was no good substitute for them, while hungry, hungry giants have a nice, long tradition in the world of Germanic myth.


Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen from the Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm…what else is odd about Riddle 40? I suppose my favourite change is made to the pig that comes right at the end of the Old English poem. In Riddle 40, we have a single amæsted swin, / bearg bellende, þe on bocwuda, / won wrotende wynnum lifde (lines 105b-8) (fattened swine, a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away). In other words, a male pig enjoying his freedom and wild lifestyle. The Latin version, on the other hand, shows us a very different critter:

Pinguior, en, multo scrofarum axungia glisco,
Glandiferis iterum referunt dum corpora fagis
Atque saginata laetantur carne subulci
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 535, lines 48-50).
(See, I grow far fatter than the grease of sows, as they carry 
their bodies back again from the acorn-bearing beech trees, and the swineherds rejoice at the fattened flesh).

The Latin pig is female and fat because she’s a food animal. So, joyous, romping dude-pig on the one hand, and domesticated female who’s destined to be eaten on the other. Erin Sebo notes that the Old English translator adapts this image and removes the only other reference to food in the Latin poem, arguing that the Old English poet is more interested in awe-inspiring creation than tense hierarchies of creator/created (and in this case, human/nonhuman).

Pig in mud at Bede's World

A pig at Bede’s World in Jarrow stares me down. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

This isn’t the only time that the Old English poet intentionally changes the tone/meaning of the Latin source. We also end up with a reference to bee-bread in lines 58-9: Ic eom on goman gena swetra / þonne þu beobread blende mid hunige (I am yet sweeter in the mouth than when you blend bee-bread with honey). In the Latin version, we have: Dulcior in palato quam lenti nectaris haustus (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533, line 31) (Sweeter on the palate than a draught of smooth nectar). As Patrick Murphy notes (pages 155-6), the wording of Riddle 40 implies that the translator was familiar with Psalm 18.11: Desiderabilia super aurum et lapidem pretiosum multum; et dulciora super mel et favum (More to be desired than gold and many precious stones: and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb) (from Douay-Rheims). “Bee-bread” is honeycomb, as Latin/Old English glosses tell us. But it’s also a pretty awesome compound in and of itself. Remember that next time you order yourself up a double-scoop of honeycomb ice cream.

Wait…did someone just say ice cream? Sorry to leave you there without a proper conclusion, but…uh…ice cream.

I’m off.


References and Suggested Reading:

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Exeter Riddle 40: The Art of an Old English Translator.” Proceedings of the Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Conference, vol. 5 (1983 for 1980), pages 107-17.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “The Text of Aldhelm’s Enigma no. c in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson C.697 and Exeter Riddle 40.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 14 (1985), pages 61-73.

Sebo, Erin. “The Creation Riddle and Anglo-Saxon Cosmology. In The Anglo-Saxons: The World Through Their Eyes. Edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Brian W. Schneider. Oxford: Archeaopress, 2014, pages 149-56.

Steen, Janie. Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 40 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 40