Commentary for Exeter Riddle 95


Date: Thu 18 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 95

Riddle 95’s commentary is by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Go get’em, Brett!

If you like reading riddles, and I mean really like reading them, and you have a habit of reading them over and over again, then this riddle is for you. The last riddle in the Exeter Book is one of those infamous riddles that has (too) many possible answers. Rather than single out one solution, I think it would be best to try on one solution at a time, like shoes, so we can get a feel for how each fits the riddle.

Medieval Scandinavian leather shoes

Like these medieval shoes? Photo of Scandinavian shoes from the National Museum of Denmark, with thanks to Prof. Michael J. Fuller for permission to display them here.

This means that for each solution, the riddle has to be re-read and its details reconsidered, because with each solution the riddle is a new riddle. And so without further ado (and since we have much to do!), let’s begin:

First, the Wandering Singer. A wandering singer is known “far and wide” (fere wide; line 3b), and his lore is valued by “wise men” (snottre men; 7a). The “hope of plunderers” (hiþendra hyht; 5a) can be read as a kenning (a poetic circumlocution, or a way of hinting at something without actually saying it) meaning gold, the payment for which a wandering singer hopes. Finally, a wandering singer may want to hide his tracks if he has been exiled or has reason to fear for his life.

The problem with this solution, in my mind, is that it is too literal. If the Exeter Book riddles are any indication, early medieval riddlers enjoyed using metaphor, paradox, and word-play to trick the riddlee. We have to make our way through figurative twists and turns to get at the answer. And to me the answer of a wandering singer just seems a bit too easy.

Now let’s read the riddle again, this time with Prostitute as the answer. Kevin Kiernan, the scholar who suggests this solution, argues that the lastas in line 11 are “observances” or practices rather than “tracks.” So the speaker hides her practices from others. The hiþendra hyht, which Kiernan translates “the joy of ravagers,” may be a kenning for sexual gratification. With lots of clients, a prostitute can be known “far and wide.” And we can probably guess what happens in a place where “not a word” (no…word) is spoken (9b)!

The intriguing thing about this riddle solution is that it is not exclusive. A number of the Exeter Book riddles have two possible answers, one sexual, intended to make the audience blush, and one more “appropriate,” so to speak (see Riddles 25, 37, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, and 87). So perhaps Riddle 95 also has two answers, “prostitute” and something less prone to make people blush. Ultimately, however, I don’t find this solution convincing because there is an important difference between the dual-answer riddles and Riddle 95: the sexual content in them is very explicit, even obvious, whereas in Riddle 95 it is difficult to see. That is, if the sexual content is really there at all.

Waxing half-moon over water

A very nice image of the moon from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Ready to read the riddle again? This time, the solution to keep in mind is Moon. As lord of the night sky, the moon could certainly be called indryhten (noble; 1a). It is seen by the rich and poor alike, and when the morning comes, it fades, hiding its tracks (15-16). Frederick Tupper Jr., the strongest supporter of the “moon” solution, points to a number of similarities between this riddle and Riddle 29 (page 104). In both riddles, Tupper observes, the moon is famous, known to all who live on the earth; in both the moon possesses plunder or booty, which is another way of saying that the moon captures light from the sun; and in both the moon disappears from sight, in Riddle 95 hiding its tracks from those who would follow. Moreover, in both riddles the moon desires to settle comfortably in a burg (city) (try comparing lines 5b-6 to Riddle 29's lines 5-6).

This solution, besides fitting a number of the riddles’ details, has the added benefit of being a bit romantic, inviting us to picture a moonlit, starry night. But it is difficult to see what wisdom the moon is supposed to tell of or why wise men would cherish it (lines 7-9a), unless these lines somehow refer to the practice of astrology.

And now it’s time to read the riddle yet again, this time keeping in mind the solution Book. Craig Williamson, a strong supporter of this solution, argues that the hiþendra hyht (which he translates “plunderers’ joy”) refers to gold used as gilding on a book. According to Williamson the gold is the subject of fereð wide (travels far; 3b); it leaves its home (when it is mined) and, separated from its friends (other gold?), is taken far away to be used in book illumination. The idea of gold traveling may seem strange, but there may be a parallel in Riddle 83 (if gold is accepted as the solution). Finally, Riddle 95 says that the gold stondeð (literally “stands”) on the book, which probably means that the gold is gilded onto the pages.

Ornate cover of Lindisfarne Gospels

This decorative binding was added to the Lindisfarne Gospels in the 19th century, since the original treasure case went missing. Photo of London, British Library, Cotton Nero D IV © British Library.

If you’ve been reading the Exeter Book riddles in order, then by the time you get to the last lines of Riddle 95 you might experience déjà vu. That’s because the following of a last (track, footstep) or swaþu (track, trail, trace) is also mentioned in Riddles 26 (lines 7b-9a) and 51 (lines 2b-3a). The answers to these riddles (spoiler alert!) are likely a book or Bible and a quill pen, respectively. So given the link we’ve noticed between these riddles and Riddle 95, we can argue that the solution to Riddle 95 is probably also one of these.

So it’s time to – yes, you’ve guessed it – read the riddle again! This time we can imagine a Quill Pen as the solution. The ink is used to write books that are known to many people (lines 1-2). The hiþendra hyht (hope of plunderers) refers to the ink which is plundered by the pen. Or if the hope of plunderers is the subject of fereð wide (see Murphy’s rendering in the translation note), then it refers to the quill pen itself, a pen that fereð wide (travels widely) over the page as it writes, like a bird flying over the page. Murphy points out that Riddle 26 contains a similar kenning, fugles wyn (bird’s joy), which means a feather. This reading is given extra weight by the fact that a number of riddles, both Old English and Latin, associate birds with writing (for an Old English example see Riddle 26; for Latin examples see Aldhelm’s Riddle 59, Eusebius’ Riddle 35, and Tatwine’s Riddle 6).

There’s just one problem. If the answer to Riddle 95 is a book or a quill pen, why does it sometimes hide its tracks? These lines may refer to the fact that books, and writing in general, can sometimes be elitist, written in a way that only the learned can understand. And sometimes even the learned have trouble understanding what is written. Let’s face it – sometimes texts are confusing, whether they intend to be or not. And to find perfect examples, we need look no further than the Exeter Book riddles themselves. Multiple solutions, manuscript damage, translation difficulties, and cultural differences are just a few of the challenges that face readers of the Old English riddles. And what’s more, the riddle genre deliberately tries to trick its audience, adding an extra layer of difficulty.

The riddles are such a good example of hidden tracks that some have actually solved Riddle 95 as Riddle or Riddle Book. This solution is fitting for the last riddle in the Exeter Book collection, as it invites us to reflect on the nature of riddles. Riddles teach “wisdom” (line 9) by challenging the way we view the world. They encourage us to see a cuckoo as an orphan and an anchor as an exile, to see the suffering of a plough and the wisdom of ink, in short, to see the world afresh and anew, never settling for a “normal” perspective. The Old English riddles in particular invite us to read them again and again, partly because we don’t always agree on the solutions, but also because of the beauty of the poetry. A riddle offers joy to the plunderer (hiþendra hyht), even if we already know the solution.

Front panel of Franks Casket with runic inscription and engraved figures

An image of the delightfully enigmatic Franks Casket with its runic whale riddle from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0).


References and Suggested Reading:

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “Old English Riddle No. 95.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 62 (1947), pages 558-9.

Kiernan, Kevin S. “Cwene: The Old Profession of Exeter Riddle 95.” Modern Philology, vol. 72, issue 4 (1975), pages 384-9.

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

Tupper, Frederick Jr. “Solutions of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 21, issue 4 (1906), pages 97-105.

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

Note that you may also wish to read this article, which was published after this commentary post was first written:

Bitterli, Dieter. "Exeter Book Riddle 95: ‘The Sun’, a New Solution." Anglia, vol. 137, issue 4 (2019), pages 612-38.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  brett roscoe  riddle 95 

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