Commentary for Exeter Riddle 93


Date: Tue 12 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 93

Like so many of the riddles in the final part of the Exeter Book, Riddle 93 is a bit of a mess. The long burn that stretches across both pages of the open book befuddles (yes, befuddles!) both the beginning and end of this poem. Luckily, it’s one of the longer riddles in the collection, so there is plenty of detail in the middle to sink our teeth into.

Riddle 93 is one of those rare riddles whose solution doesn’t cause much scholarly in-fighting. Everyone is pretty much agreed that this riddle describes an antler that is used to make an ink-well. In Old English, we might solve it as either horn (antler/horn) or blæc-horn (ink-well/ink-horn).

St Matthew with Ink Horn

Behold, a 12th-century inkhorn! St Matthew is busy at work in © British Library, Add MS 11850, folio 17v.

The riddle is easy to solve in part because it builds upon the many other antler/horn and stag references throughout the Exeter Book. In particular, it’s a companion piece to Riddle 88, which also frames the shed antlers of a stag as exiled warriors – brothers – facing violence at the hands of human craftsmen. But here in Riddle 93, it's the relationship between stag and antler – lord and retainer – that is prized above all and mourned when the antler is displaced.

The first 16 lines of the riddle describe the antler’s place on the head of a stag, his frea (lord) in lines 1a and 7a. The stag’s behaviour is described as he wanders the wilderness and its hills, seeking out a duguþ (troop) in line 11b, which is presumably his herd. Dieter Bitterli emphasizes just how accurate the riddle’s account of red deer is – both their behaviour and their habitat: “male and female red deer segregate for most of the year. Whereas the hinds remain in a herd with their young, stags form their own, less stable groups, or sometimes live alone, and seek out the hinds only during the rut” in the autumn, leaving again when winter comes (page 158). At that point, “hind populations tend to occupy richer soils and grassland, while stags are generally found on poorer ground; this tallies with the ‘stony plains’ (12) the stag in the riddle is said to dig into when the ground is ‘hard with rime’ (13)” (page 158).

While the stag is separated from the herd throughout the frosty winter, the antler remains with his lord, secure upon his head – his gleawstol (seat of wisdom) in line 15a. But as the seasons move on, line 15b’s gingra broþor‏ (younger brother) forces the antler into exile. The stag has shed his antlers, which are replaced by new growth, something that is also described as a kin relationship in Riddle 88 (lines 15-17a).

Red deer stag standing in forest

A fantastic red deer (by Luc Viatour) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Siþþan (Afterwards) at line 17 signals a change in the antler’s fortunes and a turn in the narrative. In exile, the shed antler is found and put to new purpose. An iron implement is used to gouge it out, creating a wound that does not bleed because the object is antler rather than flesh, as lines 17-20a remind us. The imagery in this section is full of references to warfare and violence – lots of biting and sharp edges, which we might expect to apply to swords rather than a craftsman’s tool. In fact, Patrick Murphy reads Riddle 93 alongside Riddle 5’s bord (shield or chopping board), noting the play with heroic imagery that describes a fairly mundane task in both poems (pages 69-70).

While the task of making the ink-well may be mundane, as Mercedes Salvador-Bello notes, Riddle 93 takes the elegiac theme it shares with Riddle 88 down a darker path, focusing especially on “the dire consequences of the creature’s change of status by giving free rein to the notion of feud” (page 428). Here, the antler laments that it can’t take revenge for its miseries (because it’s an inanimate object) by lashing out at the wiga (warrior, line 23a) who abuses it.

When we reach lines 24b-5a, the antler’s new purpose has become very clear: Nu ic blace swelge / wuda ond wætre (Now I swallow black wood and water). The antler has been used to create an ink-well that has to hold black ink made from a mixture of various types of wood, wine and chemicals (Bitterli, pages 160-1). Into the ink-well dips the hiþende feond (pillaging enemy) of line 28b – a quill pen.

Quill pen, ink and parchment

A quill pen, ink and parchment (by Mushki Brichta) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

The description that follows includes a kenning, a mini riddle-within-a-riddle, as it were. The wulfes gehleþan (companion of the wolf) of line 29b refers to the “beasts of battle” motif that crops up in a variety of Old English poems (Bitterli, page 162). Wherever we find wolves, ravens and eagles feasting upon people who have been killed in battle, we have the (equal parts unpleasant and fascinating) beasts of battle motif! Here in Riddle 93, the wolf’s companion is one of these birds – likely the raven, whose feathers were used as quills for fine and detailed work by medieval scribes (Bitterli, page 162). The raven-feather quill is here dipped into the unwilling ink-well, creating a strange mishmash of animal body parts, conflict and agency.

Ultimately, this scene of violence is clearly the work of human scribes, which is presumably how the riddle ends. In among the damaged lines, we can catch glimpses of the sense. Lines 32b-33a include references to the light of the dægcondel (day-candle) and sunne (sun), and line 34 suggests that someone who eagum wliteð (gazes with eyes) was imagined as looking upon the work of the scribe.

If we want to get really meta (and of course we do – don’t we?), we might think of the poem that we’re reading as the work of this scribe. We might think that the quill, ink and ink-well used to pen the Exeter Book found a life of their own in this antler’s lament. How profound.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, esp. pages 157-63.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 69-70.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 425-31.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 93 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 88
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88
Exeter Riddle 93