Commentary for Exeter Riddle 89


Date: Wed 24 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 89

This is easily the trickiest riddle I’ve had to write a commentary for! How do I analyse and solve such a fragmentary little, burned up scrap? So scrappy is this riddle that many of the early editors of the Exeter Book didn’t bother to include it, let alone solve it.

But I suppose I can start by telling you that those folks who did grapple with Riddle 89 went in for the solutions: Bellows and Leather Bottle. Frederick Tupper, Jr. is responsible for proposing these, basing his tentative suggestions on the words wombe (belly) and leþre (leather) in lines 2-3 (page 229). Bellies come up in A LOT other riddles. In fact, apart from describing the birdy’s colourful belly in The Phoenix (line 307a), the word womb really only appears in poetic riddles and an assortment of prose texts. No. Other. Poetry. Interesting!

Large water-powered bellows

Photo (by Daderot) of water-powered bellows in a reconstructed forge, Saugus Iron Works, Massachusetts, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

The most intriguing and relevant references to bellies in other riddles appear in Riddles 37 and 87 (lines 1b and 1b), which have both been solved as Bellows, and Riddle 18 (line 3), which has been solved as Jug, Leather Bottle, etc. Nip over and read those now because Riddle 37 especially has a lot to offer us here, with its reference to a wiht (creature) that has a womb (belly) on hindan (in the back/behind; line 1), much like the one in Riddle 89. Bellows is looking like a solid bet.

A 19th-century leather bottle

Here’s a leather water bottle used during the Crimean War, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Leather Bottle solution draws on that reference to leþre (leather) in line 3. This word is wonderfully concrete and specific for a riddle full of holes! Except…sigh…Craig Williamson casts doubt on whether we should be translating leþre as “leather” at all. He notes that this word might actually be a form of ly‏þre, which means “evil” or “wicked” (page 383). So that just leaves us with a lot more questions.

But let’s focus on the words that we can translate with certainty. We know that we have a wiht (creature; line 1b) of some sort – this refers to the riddle-subject and could be pretty much anything. This creature has a wombe/belly (line 2a) – so, perhaps a place to store something, literally or metaphorically. Something is located or happening on hindan (at the back of/behind; line 4b) the creature. That’s the opening riddle gambit.

Then we get into the closest this riddle comes to action! Someone – either the creature or another character in this confusing little vignette – grette (line 5a), which is translated here as “approached,” but could also mean “visited,” “touched,” “attacked,” “greeted,” “welcomed,” etc. etc. Line 6b tells us that someone (again, the creature? someone else?) listum worhte/artfully made something. And then in the final three lines we have receiving (þygan) and thanking (þoncade) and food (swæsendum).

From this scanty textual evidence, we can – just about – piece together a reading of the riddle that focuses on a skillfully-made object, which a person handles and fills with something life-sustaining (liquid into a bottle, air into bellows?). So, yeah, I can see how the two tentative solutions come together here.

Engraving of man working bellows

Photo (by Wolfgang Sauber) of a 1st-century forge bellows in an archeological museum in Aquileia, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Gregory K. Jember, who likes to solve riddles as “Phallus” willy-nilly (harhar, but seriously, he proposes this solution to no fewer than 23 riddles!), also suggests that sexuality is the main motif of Riddle 89 (page 56). It’s true that those other bellies I mentioned above tend to appear in sexual contexts, which is certainly the case of Riddles 37 and 87. In fact, Riddle 37 is pretty obviously fixated on reproduction when it mentions the bellows making sons and fathering himself. It’s a shame to think that we may well have had another hilariously rude riddle to play with if the Exeter Book hadn’t been so badly damaged by the infamous hot poker (not a euphemism).

Okay, so we’ve covered textual evidence, possible solutions and a bit of hanky-panky. What more could you want from a riddle commentary? Well, you might not have known that you want this, but I give you Miller Wolf Oberman’s musings on how he translates fragmentary poems into modern English: “While many translators attempt to smooth over missing language, I am fascinated by the ways in which Old English poetry allows me to walk through its bones, and part of my translation instinct is about paying respect to gaps in these poetic remains, rather than attempting to force a seeming wholeness onto them” (page 278). Oberman’s discussion of his poetic process is fascinating and beautifully expressed – as we might expect from a poet! – and I encourage you to read it as soon as you possibly can. He discusses Riddle 89 in some detail and provides a series of translations that show how he grappled with this riddle and turned it into something new.

I’d like to leave you with a final thought from Oberman: “In some sense, though, all riddles are fragmentary. They operate through withholding crucial and obvious information; they aim to cleverly trick, revealing themselves, and their ‘meaning’ through unusual description, through misdirection, through removal of the ordinary means of communication” (page 278). So, we can read Riddle 89, the fragmentary little scrap that it is, as simply a more difficult puzzle than the riddles that survive intact, with additional layers of obfuscation caused by the manuscript’s fire damage. How profound!


References and Suggested Reading:

Jember, Gregory K., trans. The Old English Riddles: A New Translation. Denver: Society for New Language Study, 1976.

Oberman, Miller Wolf. “Dyre Cræft: New Translations of Exeter Riddle Fragments Modor Monigra (R.84), Se Wiht Wombe Hæfde (R.89), and Brunra Beot (R.92), Accompanied by Notes on Process.” In Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020, pages 277-87.

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

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  Riddle 89 

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