Commentary for Exeter Riddle 84


Date: Thu 20 Jun 2019
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 84

Riddle 84’s commentary is by Beth Whalley, a PhD candidate at King’s College London. She works on water and waterways in early medieval culture and the contemporary arts, so she has a lot of fabulous insights into this poem! Take it away, Beth:


Well, what d’ya know? Our old friend the hot poker rears its head again in this riddle, comprehensively mangling a good one-third of our text. Solving this one should be a doddle, then…

Actually, we’re helped by the fact that Riddle 84 is unapologetically lengthy in riddling terms. At 56 lines it’s the third longest, storming in behind Riddle 3 and Riddle 40 (pun intended). So, although lots of it has been damaged, lots of it still survives. And from what’s left, it’s pretty clear what the solution is. The riddling subject births monigra mærra wihta (many great creatures). It is always on the move. It carries wistum gehladen (food-laden) ships from place to place, it wæstmum tydreð (produces plants) and it erases finere (sin). It is grædgost (greedy) but is also geofum (giving). This riddle is a protracted celebration of powerful, contradictory, dangerous, complex, life-giving, extraordinary water in all its forms.

One of the main reasons that editors of the riddles are in uncharacteristic agreement about this one is because the text is very conventional, in many ways, sharing a close relationship with other classical and medieval poetry and prose about water. Franz Dietrich notices how Riddle 84 borrows from Aldhelm’s seventh-century Latin riddles (those are the ones that were helpfully written down with their solutions) (page 484). Aldhelm’s Enigma 29, Aqua (water), says: Nam volucres caeli nantesque per aequora pisces / Olim sumpserunt ex me primordia vitae (page 109) (“The birds of the sky and the fish swimming in the sea once drew from me the beginnings of their life”: Lapidge and Rosier, pages 75-6, lines 4-5). In Enigma 73, Fons (fountain), we read: Quis numerus capiat vel quis laterculus aequet, / Vita viventum generem quot milia partu? (page 130) (“what number could embrace or what calculation encompass the many thousands of living creatures which I engender through birth?”: Lapidge and Rosier, page 86, lines 4-5). Compare that with Exeter Book Riddle 84’s Modor is monigra mærra wihta (she is mother to many great creatures). Sounds quite familiar, right?

Meanwhile, Frederick Tupper points out that Riddle 84’s account of water is similar to that of the Roman author Pliny the Elder in his 1st-century Natural History (page 222). Just as our riddler goes into exhaustive detail about water’s many different forms and powers, so too does Pliny. He describes waters which can cure insanity and lovesickness, cause drunkenness, improve your singing voice, change hair and skin colour, induce laughter and weeping, and turn things to stone (see Book XXXI, Chapters 1-37). Handy stuff!

However, it’s safe to say that Riddle 84 won’t be winning any popularity contests any time soon. Whether it’s because it’s a bit spun-out or because it pilfers ideas from other texts, the editors and translators of Riddle 84 generally don’t hold it in very high esteem. A. J. Wyatt, who edited the riddles in 1912, wrote that Riddle 84 “holds out a certain promise of beauty which is hardly fulfilled” (page 118). In the introduction to his own 1979 translation, Kevin Crossley-Holland says that the final lines are “fresh,” but the riddle is overall “repetitive” and “wooden” (page 111). Ouch.

Ok, maybe they have a point, especially because there is some fierce competition where water-riddles are concerned. In the face of Riddle 33 (where water is depicted as a totally badass iceberg-woman-warrior) and Riddle 74 (in which the speaker is a watery, fishy, siren-like shapeshifter), poor old Riddle 84 doesn’t really stand a chance.

I do feel compelled to jump to Riddle 84’s defence a bit, though, because it does have some cracking moments, if you ask me.

I especially love, for example, how water is associated with skill (cræft or searwum) not once, not twice, but THREE times in this riddle. How great is the imagery of mægene eacen (skill-swollen) water in line 21? You might have noticed that many of the Exeter Book’s riddles are preoccupied with the idea of skilled human craft as a form of violence against non-human things (run a search on “violence” in the search bar on the right and you’ll see what I mean). Here, however, it is water which is imagined as being the talented crafter; in line 34, it is said that she wuldor wifeð (weaves glory), a lovely image of material making which you should all go and read about in Megan Cavell’s book (page 275).

The riddler himself, meanwhile, and by extension all humans, are framed as somewhat lacking in the skills department. This becomes clear near the beginning of Riddle 84, where we read:

… nænig oþrum mæg
wlite ond wisan      wordum gecyþan,
hu mislic biþ      mægen þara cynna

(… no one may
with wise words make known her countenance
or the diversity of her kin)

The point is that water’s powers are beyond humankind’s descriptive capabilities, evading capture even by the verbal skills of the word-weaving riddler. We know (and medieval society knew too) that water is a uniquely strange substance, but according to the riddle it is only God, the fæder (father) who ealle bewat (watches over all), who has the power to fix its extraordinariness in words. Brian McFadden has pointed out that the word wundor (wonder) occurs a whopping four times in this riddle (page 337). It’s as though the riddler is reaching for, but can’t quite find, the right words to do justice to water in all its rich diversity.

Riddle 84 Cuthbert
This manuscript miniature from a twelfth-century version of the Life of St Cuthbert gives us a great sense of water’s ability to evade human cultural frameworks – check out the way it bursts from the manuscript page’s border and flows from one folio to the next! (From Chapter 3 of Bede’s prose Life of St Cuthbert, produced in Durham in the late 12th century. It appears in the following manuscript: © British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26, folios 10v-11r.)

So yes, I suppose what I’m saying is that Riddle 84 is kinda long, repetitive and a bit predictable at times on purpose, repeating, reiterating and re-tracing its words in order to try and come to terms with exactly what water is. The riddle makes the point that sometimes – and even though we literary folks love them – words aren’t quite enough.

And I haven’t yet even touched on the interesting stuff that this riddle does with gender. I’m sure you’ve noticed that water – like in Riddles 33, 41 and 74 – is explicitly made a woman (and a mother) here. The relationship between women, water, motherhood and the monstrous is an old, complex and sticky one which I don’t have the room to do justice to here – I’ve suggested some further reading below, instead.

I’m going to leave you with a video of people surfing on the Severn bore, of all things. I live in the South-West of England, and whenever I read Riddle 84’s opening lines it always makes me think of our strange local annual phenomenon. Several British rivers were given the names of goddesses, and the Severn is perhaps the most famous one of all, named for the British princess turned river-goddess Sabrina/Hafren who was drowned in the river by the order of her step-mother (if Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century account is to be believed). Witnessing the bore make its way down the river channel, the idea of water as a powerful divine agent really starts to make sense – don’t you think?



References and Suggested Reading

Aldhelm [in Latin]. Aldhelmi Opera. Edited by Rudolf Ehwald. For the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptores, Auctores Antiquissimi, vol. 15. Berlin, 1919. Online here.

Cavell, Megan. Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Dale, Corinne. “(Re)viewing the Warrior Woman: Reading the Old English “Iceberg” Riddle from an Ecofeminist Perspective.” Neophilologus, vol. 103, issue 3 (2019), pages 435-49, online here.

Dietrich, Franz Eduard. ”Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.“ Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-90.

Lapidge, Michael, and James L. Rosier, trans. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985.

Lees, Clare A., and Gillian R. Overing. “Women and Water: Icelandic Tales and Anglo-Saxon Moorings.” GeoHumanities, vol. 4 (2018), pages 1-15.

McFadden, Brian. “Raiding, Reform and Reaction: Wondrous Creatures in the Exeter Book Riddles.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 50, issue 4 (2008), pages 329-51.

Mize, Britt. “The Representation of the Mind as an Enclosure in Old English Poetry.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 35 (2006), pages 57-90.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Trans. by John Bostock for Perseus Digital Library (ed. Gregory R. Crane), online here.

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

Wyatt, A. J., ed. Old English Riddles. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1912.


The image at the top of the post is “Waterdrops” by Sander van der Wel via Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 2.0

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 84  beth whalley 

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