Commentary for Exeter Riddle 55


Date: Wed 28 Sep 2016
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 55

Riddle 55’s commentary is once again by Franziska Wenzel of Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Take it away, Franziska!


A tree, splendid and otherworldly? Sounds familiar. Wasn’t there a movie about that? Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain? Except that’s not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about an Old English poem. No problem, I know it either way: that’s The Dream of the Rood (full translation here)! Oh, wait…except it’s not. It’s another riddle pretending to be about something entirely different than you’d think.

Still, it reminds me of The Dream of the Rood very much, especially the beginning. For comparison, the tree in that poem is introduced as follows:

Þuhte me þæt ic gesawe     syllicre treow
on lyft lædan,       leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost.     Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde;     gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum,     swlyce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.     Beheoldon þær engel Dryhtnes ealle,
fægere þurh forðgesceaft.     Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga.
Ac hine þær beheoldon     halige gastas,
men ofe rmoldan     ond eall þeps mære gesceaft.
(Swanton, page 89)

(It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree spreading aloft spun about with light, a most magnificent timber. The portent was all covered with gold; beautiful gems appeared at the corner of the earth and there were also five upon the cross-beam. All the beautiful angels of the Lord throughout the universe gaze thereon; certainly it was not the gallows of a criminal there, but holy spirits gazed thereon, men across the earth and all this glorious creation.) (Bradley, page 160, lines 4-12).

Similar to that wondrous tree, the tree in Riddle 55 is adorned with gold, and it also bears the sign of the cross. The riddle even alludes to the harrowing of hell (see lines 5-7a), an apocryphal biblical story in which Jesus frees human souls from hell after his crucifixion. Thus, the riddle deliberately alludes to Christ and the cross upon which he died. And yet the last lines invite us to use our wits and find out hu se wudu hatte (what the wood is called), so there’s more to the riddle than just a short version of The Dream of the Rood. Our mysterious wrætlic wudutreow (wondrous forest-tree; line 3a) isn’t the same wood of which Christ’s cross was made, but we’re made to feel as if it is.

So what kind of wood is it then?

One early solution is “harp” (Trautmann, page 113), because a hall is where you’d play such an instrument. This solution has already been dismissed, but it’s still an interesting idea, so I’d like to comment on it briefly.

Watch Michael J. King demonstrating his replica early medieval lyre (a similar-ish instrument to the harp).


It makes perfect sense to have a harp in a hall. The different types of wood mentioned in the riddle also make more or less sense for a musical instrument, as Moritz Trautmann points out when he explains his suggestion. And yet he never explains the feower cynna (four different kinds) that are brought into the hall as the parts of a harp in line 2b. A harp is made of wood, sure. Gold decorations? Okay, maybe. But silver strings? Animal guts were originally used to make strings, and nowadays nylon or metal. But no silver strings. Trautmann also proposes a psalterium, which is a similar type of instrument, but the solution has the same issues. There are some riddles that seem to be about musical instruments in the Exeter collection, so it’s not unthinkable to find another riddle on this topic. Still, it doesn’t quite fit. For the moment, let’s just keep in mind that it’s a valuable object in a hall because that’s important.

Craig Williamson, in his translation of the Exeter riddles, assumes that the riddle’s clues can’t be explained nowadays because the cultural knowledge behind them is lost to us (Feast of Creatures, page 196). However, it’s hard to imagine how it should be possible to combine actual kinds of woods into another, holy kind of wood. Therefore I believe that we don’t understand the metaphor correctly, which is probably more of a problem than a loss of cultural knowledge. Let’s move on, then, and keep trying.

Other suggested solutions are shield or scabbard, but neither is cross-shaped (also summarized in Williamson, Old English Riddles, page 301). A cross has also been suggested, which would be a simple solution. Trautmann thinks this would be too simple to be satisfying (page 112).

The Ruthwell Cross

The Ruthwell Cross (not made of wood, but still suitably early medieval!)


A gallows has also been suggested. If this is a gallows, it would again be an interesting parallel to The Dream of the Rood, where it’s explicitly stated that the wondrous tree is not a gallows tree. If Riddle 55 describes a gallows tree, it would propose a counterpart to the holy rood upon which Christ died: two wondrous trees, one holy, and one vile.

Liebermann reads the first letters of the types of wood in Riddle 55 as an acrostic for gealga to support this solution. Unfortunately, that requires a quite liberal reading of the letters, and it would be the only acrostic in the whole Exeter collection. Acrostics are not unheard of in riddles: for example, Aldhelm’s entire introduction to his riddles is an acrostic. However, that does not mean that they we can necessarily expect all stylistic devices used in Latin riddles in the Exeter riddles as well. So – even though it can’t be ruled out (and it wouldn’t be too different from the clues in runic riddles) – it’s fairly unlikely (Williamson, Old English Riddles, pages 301-2). However, it would explain the wulfheafedtreo from line 12: if outlaws are metaphorically called wolves, they would hang on a wolf’s head tree when they meet their deaths (Williamson, Feast of Creatures, page 196). The solution “gallows” doesn’t explain the four kinds of wood, though.

A sword rack has also been proposed, but that has the same issue. Furthermore, there is no evidence for the use of sword racks in early medieval England. Williamson doubts it and suggests it might rather be an ornamented box (Old English Riddles, pages 302-3).

John D. Niles has a different idea. He convincingly suggests that the riddle might not be about gallows or crosses of any sort at all, and that it might be a form of a hengen (basically anything on which you can…well…hang things). Thus, we’re talking about a cross-shaped rack with a mail-coat hanging from it, so it looks like a hanged man on the gallows (pages 73-80).


A mail-coat from the Museum of Bayeux from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


Even Niles doesn’t explain what exactly is useful for a lord, though. The individual woods or the wonder-tree? Or the feower cynna (four different kinds) that are brought into the hall in line 2b? He raises the question as well, but leaves it open, for it doesn’t affect the solution he comes up with (page 64). Still, it makes me wonder whether we’re actually busting our chops trying to chew over the correct clues.

Anyway, what I like about this solution is that it means that Riddle 55 looks on the surface like a devotional poem, like a hymn, while its solution is a mundane object. It wouldn’t be the first riddle that reads not like a riddle but like another specific kind of poetry. I like to call this “literary mimicry,” and I love the Exeter riddles for it. The best examples I can think of are Riddle 6, which also sounds pretty hymnic and always reminds me of the hymn to the morning star and the sun in The Advent Lyrics; Riddles 3, 81, 88, and 93, which borrow elements from elegiac poems; Riddle 29, which reads like a mythical tale; and several riddles that read like miniature heroic poems, like most of the weapon riddles, or the very courageous animal in Riddle 15.

In addition, Riddle 55 is one of twenty-seven “witness” riddles: it’s written from a first-person perspective, but the narrator is a bystander rather than the solution itself. Some unknown person relates his or her experiences to the audience. Sound familiar? That’s what the dreamer in The Dream of the Rood does, too. These narrators don’t reveal much about themselves, the witness in Riddle 55 even less so than the dreamer in The Dream of the Rood. They’re not interesting for being narrators. They’re interesting because the mode of presenting a narrative as the account of an eye-witness affects the mood of a poem. This is part of the reason why both poems sound devout and make us imagine such vivid pictures like glorious golden trees in our heads.

I’ll leave you at that. I still don’t know what the wonder-tree is. Niles’ approach sounds most plausible to me, but even it can’t explain all the mysteries of this poem. I choose not to bother but to enjoy it for all its beauty, and think of all the splendid, otherworldly wonder-trees I can recall from popular culture. As my inclination to read the poem as another instance of “literary mimicry” might tell you, I assume that this is what the poet might have intended. It doesn’t matter that much which shape the mysterious wonder wood assumes. The poem describes what it’s like to look at it. I think we can enjoy that without actually knowing what we’re looking at.

Go hug a golden tree, folks!

Editorial Note:

Since this post's publication, Sara Burdorff has suggested another possible solution: military standard or banner (OE segn). Full details of the article are below.


References and Suggested Reading:

Adams, John F. “The Anglo-Saxon Riddles as Lyric Mode.” Criticism, vol. 7 (1965), pages 335-48.

Bradley, S. A. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry: An Anthology of Old English Poems in Prose Translation. Everyman: London, 1982.

Galpin, Canon Francis W. Old English Instruments of Music. 4th edition. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1965.

Liebermann, F. “Das anglesächsische Rätsel 56: ‘Galgen als Waffenständer’.” Archiv, vol. 114 (1905), pages 163-4.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 13. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2006.

Stewart, Ann Harleman. “Old English Riddle 47 as Stylistic Parody.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 11 (1975), pages 227-41.

Swanton, Michael James, ed. The Dream of the Rood. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. Print. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies.

Trautmann, Moritz, ed. Die Altenglischen Rätsel. Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1915.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910.

Williamson, Craig, trans. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Published after this post was written, but worth a read!:

Burdorff, Sara. "Segn of the Times: A New Solution for Exeter Riddle 55." Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 48 (2019), pages 63-91.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 55  franziska wenzel 

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