RIDDLE POSTS BY TAG: 'SOLUTIONS'

Response to Exeter Riddle 39

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 10 Jun 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 39

Didn’t I say at the end of my last post that Riddle 39 is one of the hardest to solve? Well, it’s because of the riddle’s tricksy-ness that The Riddle Ages can now offer you a special, extra post with another option for solving this bad boy.

Our response post comes to us from Bob DiNapoli, a medievalist who has lectured on Old and Middle English texts at universities in North America, England and Australia. He’s currently working on a translation/commentary of Beowulf and, as the founder/director of The Melbourne Literature Seminars, he offers courses for the public on all manner of medieval and literary things.

Righto, take it away, Bob!:

The opening lines of Riddle 39 make claims for its “creature” (wiht) that are both imposing and maddeningly vague:

Gewritu secgað    þæt seo wiht sy
mid moncynne     miclum tidum
sweotol ond gesyne.   Sundorcræft hafað
maram micle,   þonne hit men witen.
Heo wile gesecan   sundor æghwylcne
feorhberendra,     gewiteð eft feran on weg.
Ne bið hio næfre     niht þær oþre,
ac hio sceal wideferh   wreccan laste
hamleas hweorfan;   no þy heanre biþ. (lines 1-9)
(Writings say this creature is obvious, many times seen among the race of men. A peculiar power it wields, far greater than people comprehend. It will seek out each and every living thing, then departs on its way, never standing still from night to night, but without a home it must wander far and wide along the exile’s path, yet none the more wretched for that.)

Did I mention contradictory? This critter is an exile, but it’s not wretched – unlike every other exile in Old English literature (ask The Wanderer). Its power is uncanny, and it gets around, as we know from “writings” or “scripture” (gewritu). Much of the rest of the riddle seems to tell us what this being is not: it has no limbs and no face, no soul nor spirit. It resides nowhere: endlessly restless on earth, it touches neither heaven nor hell. In the Middle Ages that’s tantamount to saying it lives nowhere.

Once again the riddle references gewritu:

                             gewritu secgað
þæt seo sy earmost     ealra wihta,
þara þe æfter gecyndum     cenned wære. (lines 13b-15)
(writings say that it is the most disadvantaged creature of all that were ever brought forth according to kind.)

Note how the idea of textual literacy seems to float somewhere above this wiht, characterizing it and assessing it for us with unquestioned authority, and with no little condescension: “most disadvantaged,” indeed! That will turn out to be part of the joke, by the time we get to the end.

“Yet,” the riddle continues from line 21,

ac hio sceal wideferh     wuldorcyninges
larum lifgan.   Long is to secganne
hu hyre ealdorgesceaft     æfter gongeð —
woh wyrda gesceapu;     þæt is wrætlic þing
to gesecganne. (lines 21-5a)
(in the teaching of the glory-King it lives forever. It would take long to tell how its life is appointed to go thereafter – the twisting courses of its appointed fate; that is a complex matter to relate.)

“The teaching of the glory-King” could refer only to the teachings of Christ in the gospels, where this creature “lives forever.” Remember that Christ taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him orally: like Plato’s Socrates, he left the scribbling of his words (gewritu again) to others. This is one of the riddle’s key tell-tales, for, along with Craig Williamson, I reckon its solution has got to be “the spoken word.” Greenfield’s objection to this solution is not supported by the poem’s reference to the wiht not speaking with mouth to men. “Spoken” words don’t speak. They are spoken. Humans actually “speak” them. It’s a bit of grammatico-syntactic jiggery-pokery, what I call “riddlic camouflage” in my article, but that’s what the riddles often traffic in, no?

Also, remember that the Old English poetry we know from its many manuscript survivals represents a textualised variant of an originally oral tradition. Most early English poets seem consciously or subliminally aware of their native literature’s pre-textual history. Along comes Christianity in 597, with all its monks, monasteries and scriptoria in tow, and suddenly the scop’s oral authority finds itself trumped by the new culture’s textual authority.

This riddle celebrates the traditional spoken word’s deft evasion of the monolithic claims to authority staked by the textual culture administered by the monks. Look at its cheeky stashing of its solution in plain view where it says the creature’s later history would be long to gesecganne (“to say” or “to speak”). Does this hint that Christ’s spoken teachings made their way into the written record of the gospels by overly complex or devious routes? Might Christ’s sayings in the written gospels then somehow differ from what he actually said? Perhaps not literally, but the issue’s left dangling uneasily.

Much more jolly is this riddle’s conclusion, which assures us that

Soð is æghwylc
þara þe ymb þas wiht     wordum becneð. (lines 25b-6)
(True is anything that signifies about this creature in words.)

In other words, anything we might say in response to this riddle, whose answer is “the spoken word,” constitutes a correct answer: “sword” or “Jane Austen” or “chicken tikka masala” would all constitute satisfactory answers. Bear in mind that the culture of textual authority that dominated the monastic Christianity of early medieval England fostered a certain anxiety: in the reading and interpretation of scripture, there was a fairly restricted range of correct responses to authoritative text and a literal infinity of incorrect ones. And getting it right mattered. This riddle represents a kind of holiday from that anxious culture of textual authority.

Try it. You can’t go wrong!

 

[One last note from The Riddle Ages: Bob reckons the gendered portrayal of the Spoken Word stems from the grammatically feminine term wiht. This is possible, but some riddles do use masculine pronouns alongside wiht and I think we should at least entertain the possibility that the solution is supposed to be a grammatically feminine one. Williamson’s proposed solution in Old English – word – is neuter, but something like the equally common term spræc (speech) would do away with the issue of why the speaker is female, because it is in fact grammatically feminine.]

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading

DiNapoli, Robert. “In the Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is a Seller of Garlic: Depth-Perception and the Poet’s Perspective in the Exeter Book Riddles.” English Studies, vol. 81 (2000), pages 422-55.

Greenfield, Stanley B. “Old English Riddle 39 Clear and Visible.” Anglia, vol. 98 (1980), pages 95-100.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 39  bob dinapoli 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 39
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 81
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 86

Exeter Riddle 40

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 24 Jun 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 40

This riddle is super-duper long! You’ll understand why when you get to the solution…



Original text:

Ece is se scyppend,      se þas eorþan nu
wreðstuþum wealdeð      ond þas world healdeð.
Rice is se reccend     ond on ryht cyning
ealra anwalda,      eorþan ond heofones,
5     healdeð ond wealdeð,      swa he ymb þas utan hweorfeð.
He mec wrætlice      worhte æt frymþe,
þa he þisne ymbhwyrft     ærest sette,
heht mec wæccende     wunian longe,
þæt ic ne slepe      siþþan æfre,
10     ond mec semninga     slæp ofergongeþ,
beoð eagan min     ofestum betyned.
Þisne middangeard     meahtig dryhten
mid his onwalde     æghwær styreð;
swa ic mid waldendes      worde ealne
15     þisne ymbhwyrft      utan ymbclyppe.
Ic eom to þon bleað,     þæt mec bealdlice mæg
gearu gongende      grima abregan,
ond eofore eom     æghwær cenra,
þonne he gebolgen     bidsteal giefeð;
20     ne mæg mec oferswiþan     segnberendra
ænig ofer eorþan,      nymþe se ana god
se þisne hean heofon     healdeþ ond wealdeþ.
Ic eom on stence      strengre micle
þonne ricels      oþþe rose sy,
25     [a half-line is missing here] on eorþan tyrf
wynlic weaxeð;     ic eom wræstre þonne heo.
Þeah þe lilie sy     leof moncynne,
beorht on blostman,     ic eom betre þonne heo;
swylce ic nardes stenc     nyde oferswiþe
30     mid minre swetnesse      symle æghwær,
ond ic fulre eom     þonne þis fen swearte
þæt her yfle      adelan stinceð.
Eal ic under heofones      hwearfte recce,
swa me leof fæder     lærde æt frymþe,
35     þæt ic þa mid ryhte      reccan moste
þicce ond þynne;     þinga gehwylces
onlicnesse     æghwær healde.
Hyrre ic eom heofone,      hateþ mec heahcyning
his deagol þing     dyre bihealdan;
40     eac ic under eorþan      eal sceawige
wom wraðscrafu      wraþra gæsta.
Ic eom micle yldra     þonne ymbhwyrft þes
oþþe þes middangeard     meahte geweorþan,
ond ic giestron wæs     geong acenned
45     mære to monnum     þurh minre modor hrif.
Ic eom fægerre     frætwum goldes,
þeah hit mon awerge     wirum utan;
ic eom wyrslicre      þonne þes wudu fula
oððe þis waroð     þe her aworpen ligeð.
50     Ic eorþan eom     æghwær brædre,
ond widgielra      þonne þes wong grena;
folm mec mæg bifon      ond fingras þry
utan eaþe     ealle ymbclyppan.
Heardra ic eom ond caldra      þonne se hearda forst,
55     hrim heorugrimma,     þonne he to hrusan cymeð;
ic eom Ulcanus     up irnendan
leohtan leoman     lege hatra.
Ic eom on goman      gena swetra
þonne þu beobread      blende mid hunige;
60     swylce ic eom wraþre     þonne wermod sy,
þe her on hyrstum      heasewe stondeþ.
Ic mesan mæg     meahtelicor
ond efnetan      ealdum þyrse,
ond ic gesælig mæg     symle lifgan
65     þeah ic ætes ne sy     æfre to feore.
Ic mæg fromlicor     fleogan þonne pernex
oþþe earn oþþe hafoc     æfre meahte;
nis zefferus,     se swifta wind,
þæt swa fromlice mæg      feran æghwær;
70     me is snægl swiftra,      snelra regnwyrm
ond fenyce     fore hreþre;
is þæs gores sunu     gonge hrædra,
þone we wifel      wordum nemnað.
Hefigere ic eom micle      þonne se hara stan
75     oþþe unlytel     leades clympre,
leohtre ic eom micle      þonne þes lytla wyrm
þe her on flode gæð      fotum dryge.
Flinte ic eom heardre     þe þis fyr drifeþ
of þissum strongan      style heardan,
80     hnescre ic eom micle     halsrefeþre,
seo her on winde      wæweð on lyfte.
Ic eorþan eom      æghwær brædre
ond widgelra     þonne þes wong grena;
ic uttor eaþe      eal ymbwinde,
85     wrætlice gewefen     wundorcræfte.
Nis under me      ænig oþer
wiht waldendre     on worldlife;
ic eom ufor      ealra gesceafta,
þara þe worhte      waldend user,
90     se mec ana mæg      ecan meahtum,
geþeon þrymme,     þæt ic onþunian ne sceal.
Mara ic eom ond strengra      þonne se micla hwæl,
se þe garsecges      grund bihealdeð
sweartan syne;      ic eom swiþre þonne he,
95     swylce ic eom on mægene     minum læsse
þonne se hondwyrm,      se þe hæleþa bearn,
secgas searoþoncle,      seaxe delfað.
Nu hafu ic in heafde      hwite loccas
wræste gewundne,      ac ic eom wide calu;
100     ne ic breaga ne bruna     brucan moste,
ac mec bescyrede      scyppend eallum;
nu me wrætlice      weaxað on heafde
þæt me on gescyldrum     scinan motan
ful wrætlice      wundne loccas.
105   Mara ic eom ond fættra      þonne amæsted swin,
bearg bellende,     þe on bocwuda,
won wrotende      wynnum lifde
þæt he … [a page is missing in the manuscript here at the end]

Translation:

The creator is eternal, he who now controls
and holds this earth to its foundations.
The ruler is powerful and king by right,
the lone wielder of all, he holds and controls
5   earth and heaven, just as he encompasses about these things.
He wondrously created me in the beginning,
when he first built this world,
commanded me to remain watching for a long time,
so that I should not sleep ever after,
10     and sleep comes upon me suddenly,
my eyes are quickly shut.
The mighty lord controls in every respect
this middle-earth with his power;
just as I by the word of my leader
15     entirely enclose this globe.
I am so timid that a spectre quickly
travelling can frighten me fully,
and I am everywhere bolder
than a boar when he, enraged, makes a stand;
20     no standard-bearer in the world
can overpower me, except the one God
who holds and controls this high heaven.
I am in scent much stronger
than incense or rose are,
25     [a half-line is missing here] in the turf of the earth
agreeably grows; I am more delicate than she.
Although the lily is beloved to humankind,
bright in blossom, I am better than she;
likewise I necessarily overpower the nard’s scent
30     with my sweetness everywhere at all times,
and I am fouler than this dark fen
that stinks nastily here with its filth.
I rule all under the circuit of heaven,
just as the beloved father taught me in the beginning,
35     so that I might rule by right
the thick and thin; I held the likeness
everywhere of everything.
Higher I am than heaven, the high-king calls commands me
secretly to behold his mysterious nature;
40     I also see all the impure, foul dens
of evil spirits under the earth.
I am much older than this world
or this middle-earth might become,
and I was born young yesterday
45     famous among humans through my mother’s womb.
I am fairer than treasure of gold,
though it be covered all over with wires;
I am more vile than this foul wood
or this sea-weed that lies cast up here.
50     I am broader everywhere than the earth,
and wider than this green plain;
a hand can seize me and three fingers
easily enclose me entirely.
I am harder and colder than the hard frost
55     the sword-grim rime, when it goes to the ground;
I am hotter than the fire of bright light
of Vulcan moving quickly on high.
I am yet sweeter in the mouth
than when you blend bee-bread with honey;
60     likewise I am harsher than wormwood is,
which stands here grey in the wood.
I can feast more mightily
and eat as much as an old giant,
and I can live happily forever
65     although I see no food ever again.
I can fly faster than a pernex
or an eagle or a hawk ever might;
there is no zephyr, that swift wind,
that can journey anywhere faster;
70     a snail is swifter than me, an earth-worm quicker
and the fen-turtle journeys faster;
the son of dung is speedier of step,
that which we call in words ‘weevil’.
I am much heavier than the grey stone
75     or an not-little lump of lead,
I am much lighter than this little insect
that walks here on the water with dry feet.
I am harder than the flint that forces this fire
from this strong, hard steel,
80     I am much softer than the downy-feather,
that blows about here in the air on the breeze.
I am broader everywhere than the earth
and wider than this green plain;
I easily encircle everything,
85     miraculously woven with wondrous skill.
There is no other creature under me
more powerful in this worldly life;
I am above all created things,
those that our ruler wrought,
90     he alone can increase my might,
subdue my strength, so that I do not swell up.
I am bigger and stronger than the great whale,
that beholds the bottom of the sea
with its dark countenance; I am stronger than he,
95     likewise I am less in my strength
than the hand-worm, which the children of warriors,
clever-minded men, dig out with a knife.
I do not have light locks on my head,
delicately wound, but I am bare far and wide;
100     nor might I enjoy eyelids nor eyebrows,
but the creator deprived me of all;
now wondrously wound locks
grow on my head, so that they might shine
on my shoulders most wondrously,
105     I am bigger and fatter than a fattened swine,
a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully
bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away,
so that he … [a page is missing in the manuscript here at the end]

Click to show riddle solution?
Creation


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 110r-111v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pages 200-3.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 38: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 91-4.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 40 

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Exeter Riddle 88
Exeter Riddle 26
Exeter Riddle 73

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 40

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 10 Jun 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 40

I hope that you’ve all enjoyed reading the marathon of a poem that is Riddle 40. It reaches a grand total of 109 lines before a missing manuscript page deprives us of its no doubt beauteous ending. And, indeed, Riddle 40 is a work of beauty. Where else do you hear seamlessly poetic phrasing like: “I am fouler than this dark fen that stinks nastily here with its filth” (lines 31-2), or “I am more vile than this foul wood or this sea-weed that lies cast up here” (lines 48-9), or “the son of dung is speedier of step, that which we call in words ‘weevil’” (lines 72-3)? This is truly a poem after my own heart.

Admittedly, there are pretty images in here too. In fact, that’s kind of the point: the riddle puts forward a list of paradoxes as if to ask what can be both all the goods things and all the bad things. That’s why the poem reminds me of a combination of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and the Monty Python spoof song “All Things Dull and Ugly.” Because, of course, this is a creation-riddle. What makes me so sure? Riddle 40 is one of those occasional Old English riddles with a known Latin original. In this case, the final text in Aldhelm’s riddle collection: Enigma 100, De creatura (on creation). And so we have, creatura, gesceaft (in Old English), creation, the world, nature – whatever you want to call it – depicted as the biggest riddle of all.

Now when it comes to the relationship between the Old English and its Latin source, you’re going to have to bear with me. As you might have guessed, like Riddle 40, the Latin original is also pretty frickin’ long. So, I’m not going to quote it in full. But I will say that the first 81 lines of the Old English poem stick fairly closely to the Latin source. After that, the poet (or perhaps another poet?) goes off book a bit (this starts, as you may have noticed, with the wholesale repetition of lines 50-1 at 82-3).

But even when the poem is fairly faithful to its source, there’s a fair bit of room for improvising. My favourites relate to strange creatures. Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a made-up bird, an old giant or a gender-bending piggy?

Let’s start with the bird. Lines 66-9 of the Old English riddle read: Ic mæg fromlicor fleogan þonne pernex / oþþe earn oþþe hafoc æfre meahte; nis zefferus, se swifta wind, / þæt swa fromlice mæg feran æghwær (I can fly faster than a pernex or an eagle or a hawk ever might; there is no zephyr, that swift wind, that can journey anywhere faster). Not familiar with the pernex? That’s because it doesn’t exist. The translator appears to have gotten a tad confused when translating the Latin lines 35-6: Plus pernix aquilis, Zephiri velocior alis, / Necnon accipiter properantior (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533) (faster than eagles, quicker than the wings of the Zephyr, nor [is] the hawk speedier). As Janie Steen notes (page 103), it’s possible that the poet confused pernix (swift) with perdix (partridge)…although the partridge is not the speediest of birds…

Perdix_perdix_(Marek_Szczepanek)

Photo (by Marek Szczepanek) from the Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

You want more strange creatures? How’s about that old, hungry þyrs (giant) in lines 62-3? This famished fella is a translation of the Cyclopes (plural of Cyclops!) that appear at line 33 of the Latin version. It’s a bit strange that the poet chose to paraphrase here, when other classical references are left in (Vulcan and Zephyrus, for example). Maybe there was no good substitute for them, while hungry, hungry giants have a nice, long tradition in the world of Germanic myth.

Giants_and_Freia

Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen from the Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm…what else is odd about Riddle 40? I suppose my favourite change is made to the pig that comes right at the end of the Old English poem. In Riddle 40, we have a single amæsted swin, / bearg bellende, þe on bocwuda, / won wrotende wynnum lifde (lines 105b-8) (fattened swine, a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away). In other words, a male pig enjoying his freedom and wild lifestyle. The Latin version, on the other hand, shows us a very different critter:

Pinguior, en, multo scrofarum axungia glisco,
Glandiferis iterum referunt dum corpora fagis
Atque saginata laetantur carne subulci
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 535, lines 48-50).
(See, I grow far fatter than the grease of sows, as they carry 
their bodies back again from the acorn-bearing beech trees, and the swineherds rejoice at the fattened flesh).

The Latin pig is female and fat because she’s a food animal. So, joyous, romping dude-pig on the one hand, and domesticated female who’s destined to be eaten on the other. Erin Sebo notes that the Old English translator adapts this image and removes the only other reference to food in the Latin poem, arguing that the Old English poet is more interested in awe-inspiring creation than tense hierarchies of creator/created (and in this case, human/nonhuman).

Pig in mud at Bede's World

A pig at Bede’s World in Jarrow stares me down. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

This isn’t the only time that the Old English poet intentionally changes the tone/meaning of the Latin source. We also end up with a reference to bee-bread in lines 58-9: Ic eom on goman gena swetra / þonne þu beobread blende mid hunige (I am yet sweeter in the mouth than when you blend bee-bread with honey). In the Latin version, we have: Dulcior in palato quam lenti nectaris haustus (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533, line 31) (Sweeter on the palate than a draught of smooth nectar). As Patrick Murphy notes (pages 155-6), the wording of Riddle 40 implies that the translator was familiar with Psalm 18.11: Desiderabilia super aurum et lapidem pretiosum multum; et dulciora super mel et favum (More to be desired than gold and many precious stones: and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb) (from Douay-Rheims). “Bee-bread” is honeycomb, as Latin/Old English glosses tell us. But it’s also a pretty awesome compound in and of itself. Remember that next time you order yourself up a double-scoop of honeycomb ice cream.

Wait…did someone just say ice cream? Sorry to leave you there without a proper conclusion, but…uh…ice cream.

I’m off.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

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

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Exeter Riddle 40: The Art of an Old English Translator.” Proceedings of the Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Conference, vol. 5 (1983 for 1980), pages 107-17.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “The Text of Aldhelm’s Enigma no. c in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson C.697 and Exeter Riddle 40.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 14 (1985), pages 61-73.

Sebo, Erin. “The Creation Riddle and Anglo-Saxon Cosmology. In The Anglo-Saxons: The World Through Their Eyes. Edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Brian W. Schneider. Oxford: Archeaopress, 2014, pages 149-56.

Steen, Janie. Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 40 

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Exeter Riddle 40

Exeter Riddle 41

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 15 Jul 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 41

Riddle 41 is brought to you by the very clever and talented Helen Price. Helen recently finished her PhD at the University of Leeds, and she’s currently working on ecocritical approaches to water in medieval and modern Icelandic literature. Didn’t I say she was clever? I’m positively green with envy.

Take it away, Helen!



Original text:

…. edniwu;
þæt is moddor      monigra cynna,
þæs selestan,      þæs sweartestan,
þæs deorestan      þæs þe dryhta bearn
5     ofer foldan sceat      to gefean agen.
Ne magon we her in eorþan      owiht lifgan,
nymðe we brucen      þæs þa bearn doð.
Þæt is to geþencanne      þeoda gehwylcum,
wisfæstum werum,      hwæt seo wiht sy.

Translation:

…. renewed;
that is mother of many kins,
of the best, of the darkest,
the dearest that the children of the multitudes
5     over the surface of the earth rejoice to own.
We cannot, by any means, live here on earth
unless we enjoy what those children do.
That is something to think about for every nation,
for men who are wise of mind, what that creature may be.

Click to show riddle solution?
Water, Wisdom, Creation


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 203.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 39: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 95.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 41 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 41
Exeter Riddle 31
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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 41

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 21 Jul 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 41

Riddle 41’s commentary, like its translation, comes to us from the fab Helen Price:

 

Poor Riddle 41, it’s unlikely to ever be named anyone’s favourite Exeter Book riddle. In fact, it has struggled to receive any real attention whatsoever *cue sad violin music*. Most riddle commentators have either glossed over it or attempted to brush it under the carpet in the hope that it’ll go away…it hasn’t. The longest discussion I have been able to find on Riddle 41 is actually arguing that it is a continuation of the previous riddle (see Konick). *Sigh*. However, this absence of discussion is not entirely unjustified, and is mainly due to the fact that the beginning of the riddle appears to be missing, leaving only the final eight and a half lines intact. Apparently, it has proved difficult and unappealing to discuss something when a chunk of it seems to be absent. Well fear not noble readers, because I am about to do just that! Well, not quite, but here’s hoping I can say something to give this plucky half of a riddle a moment in the spotlight.

Somewhat surprisingly for a text from the Exeter Book, the missing first lines of Riddle 41 are not due to damage of the actual folio page of the manuscript, as is the case with folios 117-130 of the Exeter Book – these folios are scarred by a large burn which increases in size the further through the manuscript you go. However, the fact that Riddle 40 seems to end as abruptly as Riddle 41 starts suggests that something has definitely gone awry.

Some scholars have suggested that the incomplete state of both riddles is due to a scribal error. The Exeter Book manuscript appears to have been copied by just one scribal hand. I suppose when you are hand-copying that much text, probably by candle light, a little missed page here and there is forgivable. However, it is impossible to know (unless the missing Exeter Book page somewhat miraculously turns up from behind a dusty shelf somewhere) whether this is a mistake on the part of the scribe or whether a folio just never made it into (or has been removed from) the bound manuscript. But this uncertainty can also give us food for thought. Thoughts such as: how do we read texts which are (excuse the expression) not all there? What can we glean from the bit of Riddle 41 which we do have? And how can literary context help us to make sense of these few disjointed lines?

And so to the text itself… I can’t help but smile every time I start reading Riddle 41. Edniwu (“renewed!”) it chimes, completely out of the blue. I had to resist placing a little exclamation mark after this opening word in my translation (it turns out I couldn’t resist adding it in here). Scribal error or missing folio, it is a wonderful coincidence that the start of this surviving bit of the riddle happens to have landed at this point. “Renewed” from what? By what? As what? Riddles are fond of their internal mysteries and games (as you will no doubt be more than familiar with from the other riddles and fantastic commentaries posted so far on this website), but here it is the manuscript itself which has landed us with these questions to ponder…and ponder I shall.

Aside from those who have argued that Riddle 41 is a continuation of Riddle 40 (see Konick), the solution “water” has almost unanimously been agreed by editors and commentators alike. I am firmly in favour of this solution for a number of reasons, most of which are drawn from evidence outside of the riddle itself.

Close-up of water droplet

“Water Droplet” photo (by fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au), licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The surviving lines offer a reasonable indication of Riddle 41’s solution; a substance which is vital to human beings and which plays a key part in the production of life. But, let’s face it, on the surface of this text there is little to conclusively make water, as opposed to say “air” or “food” or some other important life-sustaining substance, the most viable solution. However, when we read and understand Riddle 41 in the context of both other water riddles and water in early medieval poetic texts more generally, then things start to become a little clearer and more convincing.

One of the stock ways to conceptualise water which circulates in early English poetic contexts is the idea of water as a mother figure. This idea appears in the form of two different motifs across the riddles. Firstly, there is the notion that water is a substance which begets itself in different forms i.e. water becomes ice and ice melts back into water (this was discussed far more competently by Britt Mize in his marvellous commentary post for Riddle 33). Obviously, we can’t see this directly at work in Riddle 41 but, bearing in mind the way that the riddles tend to draw on similar themes and stock descriptions, I would like to muse that perhaps this is the point where we enter the surviving part of Riddle 41. Remember that opening declaration “renewed” which forms the first half line? Well, it might not be too farfetched to suggest that the first part of the riddle has described water in one state (perhaps in the form of ice as in Riddle 33), and when ice melts it is “renewed” in a new form of itself, i.e. liquid water.

Seal's head above water

This seal agrees with the metaphor. Photo by Megan Cavell.

As you may well already be familiar with from previous posts, the Exeter Book riddles were copied and circulated in an intellectual context of book-learning. As such, the Exeter Book riddles often riff on a theme or way of describing something. Quite often these ideas are drawn from Anglo-Latin riddles from the likes of Aldhelm (7th century) and sometimes the even earlier (5th century) enigmata of Symphosius.

A key example of water as “life-giver to all things” motif can be seen at work in Aldhelm’s fountain enigma.

Per cava telluris clam serpo celerrimus antra
Flexos venarum girans anfractibus orbes;
Cum caream vita sensu quoque funditus expers,
Quis numerus capiat vel quis laterculus aequet,
Vita viventum generem quot milia partu?
His neque per cselum rutilantis sidera sperae
Fluctivagi ponti nec compensantur harenae.

(I creep stealthily and speedily through empty hollows of the earth, winding my twisted route along the curves of its arteries. Although I am devoid of life and utterly lacking in sensation, what number could embrace or what calculation encompass the many thousands of living creatures which I engender through birth? Neither the stars of the glowing firmament in the sky nor the sands of the billowing sea can equal them.) (Lapidge and Rosier, pages 85-6)

Though the title of the enigma is “fountain”, it is the properties of the water which are most prominent in the poem. As you can see, the poem focuses on the life-giving properties of water, specifically characterizing it as engendering all living creatures.

Water is also presented as engendering multitudes of living things elsewhere in the Exeter Book riddles and more widely in Old English poetry. [SPOILER ALERT: reference to a later Exeter Book riddle about to come up!] Riddle 85 which is also usually solved as “water”, shows this idea at work with the lines:

nænig oþrum mæg
wlite wisan     wordum gecyþan
hu mislic biþ     mægen þara cynna (lines 6-8)

(none to any other can, with wise words, expound its features, how copious is the multitude of its kin.)

Riddle 85 also directly refers to its subject as moddor (mother) a few lines later. I don’t want to spoil the fun of Riddle 85 by giving too much away, so enough said about that for now. But you get the picture – the life-giving/sustaining properties of water are presented by characterising it as mother to all life.

So we can begin to see that when Riddle 41 refers to its subject as þæt is moddor monigra cynna (line 2) (which is the mother of many kins), that there is a literary context which supports the answer specifically as water rather than another life-sustaining object/substance such as food or air. But there are also other clues which support the solution “water” which we can pick up from looking elsewhere in the surviving body of early English poetry.

As you will have surely picked up from this website, the Exeter Book riddles love puns. Water is a substance whose qualities make it ripe for punning – a poet brims with verbs and participles to flood their lines with gushing descriptions, overflowing with watery associations! Raymond Tripp (pages 65-6) talks through one such particular passage in Beowulf (lines 2854-61) where Wiglaf attempts to save Beowulf after the fight with the dragon. Tripp explains that these lines of Beowulf demonstrate how the Christian poet’s worldview is reflected in the poems use of humour by using an “extended concatenation of ‘water’ images […] to show the utter uselessness of pagan ‘baptism’ to save dying men” (Tripp, page 65).

The latter part of Riddle 41 may be read as no exception to this tradition of punning. Lines six and seven of Riddle 41 state:

Ne magon we her in eorþan      owiht lifgan,
nymðe we brucen      þæs þa bearn doð.
(We cannot, by any means, live here on earth unless we profit as those children do.)

The word brucen can mean either “to profit” or “consume” food or drink – marking the subject as something which is taken into the body. Bearing in mind the use of water puns in poems such as Beowulf, it is also possible that the word brucen is itself nodding to the noun broc (brook). While these two words do not share the same root, the word (ge)brocen is a past participle form of (ge)brucan which has the attested spelling variation of (ge)brocen, suggesting that a lexical connection between brucen (to profit/consume) and the noun broc (a brook) may have made sense to an early medieval reader/listener as a water-based pun.

So, it might be that Riddle 41 is a little bit broken but it definitely still has its charms. Its brokenness forces us to think about Riddle 41’s place in a wider literary context, and highlights the shared motifs which circulate not only in early medieval riddle poems but more broadly across surviving early English poetry. Now, in Riddle 41’s very own words, þæt is to geþencanne þeoda gehwylcum (that is something for people to think about).

Notes:

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

Dictionary of Old English: A-G Online. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, Dorothy Haines, Joan Holland, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, with Pauline Thompson and Nancy Speirs. Web interface by Peter Mielke and Xin Xiang. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007. [with the next roll-out, you’ll be able to access the DOE a set amount of times for free!]

Konick, Marcus. “Exeter Book Riddle 41 as a Continuation of Riddle 40.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 54 (1939), pages 259-62.

Lapidge, Michael and James Rosier. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Woodbridge: Brewer, 1985.

Muir, Bernard J., ed. The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. Vol II Commentary. Exeter: Short Run, 2000.

Tripp, Raymond P. “Humour, Word Play, and Semantic Resonance in Beowulf.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Ed. by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000, pages 49-70.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 41  helen price 

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Exeter Riddle 42

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 30 Jul 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 42

This riddle translation comes to us from Jennifer Neville, Reader in Early Medieval Literature at Royal Holloway University of London. She has published on several of the riddles and is currently working on a book about them. You may remember her from her brilliant translation and commentary of Riddle 9.



Original text:

Ic seah wyhte      wrætlice twa
undearnunga      ute plegan
hæmedlaces;     hwitloc anfeng
wlanc under wædum,      gif þæs weorces speow,
5     fæmne fyllo.      Ic on flette mæg
þurh runstafas      rincum secgan,
þam þe bec witan,      bega ætsomne
naman þara wihta.     Þær sceal Nyd wesan
twega oþer      ond se torhta æsc
10     an an linan,     Acas twegen,
Hægelas swa some.      Hwylc þæs hordgates
cægan cræfte      þa clamme onleac
þe þa rædellan      wið rynemenn
hygefæste heold      heortan bewrigene
15     orþoncbendum?      Nu is undyrne
werum æt wine      hu þa wihte mid us,
heanmode twa,     hatne sindon.

Translation:

I saw two amazing creatures —
they were playing openly outside
in the sport of sex. The woman,
proud and bright-haired, received her fill under her garments,
5     if the work was successful.  Through rune-letters
I can say the names of both creatures together
to those men in the hall
who know books. There must be two needs
and the bright ash
10     one on the line — two oaks
and as many hails. Who can unlock
the bar of the hoard-gate with the power of the key?
The heart of the riddle was hidden
by cunning bonds, proof against the ingenuity
15     of men who know secrets. But now
for men at wine it is obvious how those two
low-minded creatures are named among us.

Click to show riddle solution?
N N Æ A A H H = hana & hæn, or Cock and Hen


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pages 203-4.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 40: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 95.

This post, specifically the lineation of the translation, was edited for clarity on 30 November 2020.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 42  jennifer neville 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 42

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 24 Sep 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 42

We’re stepping back in time this week to revisit a riddle translation from last year! The fabulous Jennifer Neville (from Royal Holloway, University of London) shares some thoughts on early medieval chickens, sex and hall-life:

 

Riddle 42 is often classified as one of the double entendre riddles, but actually this is a single entendre riddle: when the text tells us, in its very first sentence, that it’s about sex (hæmedlac), it isn’t lying and it isn’t being metaphorical (although it does resort to metaphor a couple lines later).  Unlike any other Old English text, this one does not cloak its depiction of sex in either euphemism or double-meaning. Everything is up front and open (undearnunga), public and outside (ute): if the man is up to the job, the lady will get her fill. This openness would make Riddle 42 even less prudish than most modern media, if it were about people, but, of course, it’s not. It’s about chickens.

Two chickens

Photo of a cock and hen (by Andrei Niemimäki) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0).

Chickens are interesting, and there are some things we could note here about early medieval husbandry. For example, the chickens are apparently running loose outside, not contained in a pen. The hen, at least, is not boring brown but proudly blonde (wlanc, hwitloc); perhaps some early medieval farmer has been practising selective breeding for colour. But the text doesn’t invite us to linger on those things. Rather, it wants us to think about sex.

We are used to hearing how negative early medieval writers were about sex, but here we see something different. Depending on how you look at them, the heanmode chickens are either "high-spirited" (frisky?) or "low-minded" (having their minds focused on worldly things?); regardless, their activity is not characterised as sinful. We are also familiar with the idea that sex should be only for the purposes of reproduction, but here there is no reference to offspring. Instead, the activity seems to take place purely for its own sake, and it is not a slothful leisure activity: the metaphor used to sum it up is weorc "work." Interestingly enough, most of the other twelve Old English riddles with (apparently) sexual content (Riddles 12, 20, 25, 37, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, 63, 80, and 91) also use the idea of work to indicate the sexual act. Is this how the early English really felt about sex? Was it simply hard "work"? If so, they share the idea with us in the 21st century: the 2015 song by Fifth Harmony, "Work from Home", for example, explores the metaphor in great detail.

But the always fascinating topic of sex takes us only as far as line 5. At this point, we have to change gears and move into the world of the hall: the social centre of early English noble society, the place where kings presented gifts to their followers, where social drinking occurred, and where the speaker of this text offers to reveal the names of the sexy couple to the men drinking wine in the hall.[1] Again, this statement is tantalising: did the early English exchange riddles with each other in the hall, just as Symphosius did, centuries earlier, at his Saturnalian feast?[2] Before it was written down in the Exeter Book, was Riddle 42 part of an evening’s entertainment, an alternative to playing board games, singing a song in turn (as Caedmon refused to do), or listening to a professional singer?

Reconstructed hall

The hall at the place formerly known as Bede’s World. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

Perhaps. But the only people who could solve this riddle would be those who could assemble and unscramble the letters named in the text, and most early medieval laymen were not literate. A normal gathering in the meadhall would have very few of those þe bec witan "who know books" (line 7a). Literacy was a technology reserved—for the most part—for the clergy. Once again, then, we need to change gears and move into another world, the world of the monastery and the scriptorium.

In the world of the scriptorium, there were plenty of people who could read ordinary letters, but in this text even that education wouldn’t be enough. The successful solver of the riddle would have to recognise the names of the run-stafas "runic letters" that have been woven into the metre and alliteration of this poem (Nyd, Æsc, Ac, and Hægl), assemble the collection of letters (some of which have to appear twice), and then rearrange them into not one but two words, hana "cock" and hæn "hen." The runic letters themselves don’t appear in the manuscript: a reader (or listener) would have to know that the words "need," "ash," "oak," and "hail" represent letters in order to understand what the text was asking him or her to do next.

riddle-42-runes

This is what the runes would’ve looked like if they had been included (and rearranged to spell hana and hæn).

It’s thus unsurprising that the text taunts us: who here is smart enough to unlock the orþonc-bendas [3] "cunning bonds" that conceal the solution of this text? Not me: I’m very glad that Dietrich managed to work it out back in 1859. Otherwise, there would be no way to see the chickens. We could probably guess that they weren’t human beings having sex out in public, but, without the letters, their identity would most definitely not be undyrne "manifest, revealed, discovered."

Another puzzle remains, however: why are well-educated monks talking about fornicating fowls? And how did they get away with writing it down? The fact that we can’t answer those questions tells us that we still don’t know as much about the early English as we might have thought.

 

Notes:

[1] Or on the floor: flet literally means "floor," but it can be metonymy for the whole building.

[2] There’s a recent edition by T. J. Leary, or you can read Symphosius’ riddles (in Latin and in two published translations) on the LacusCurtius site.

[3] Tolkien uses this word, Orþonc, as the name of Saruman’s tower, which is unassailable by human or entish hands.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Dewa, Roberta. “The Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book: Language Games and Anglo-Saxon Scholarship.” Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 39 (1995), pages 26-36.

Dietrich, F. “Die Rätsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-490.

Lerer, Seth. “The Riddle and the Book: Exeter Book Riddle 42 in its Contexts.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 25 (1989), pages 3-18.

Nolan, Barbara, and Morton W. Bloomfield. “Beotword, Gilpcwidas, and the Gilphlæden Scop of Beowulf.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 79 (1980), pages 499-516.

O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. Cædmon’s Hymn: A Multi-media Study, Edition and Archive. SEENET 8. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2006.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96.

Smith, D. K. “Humor in Hiding: Laughter Between the Sheets in the Exeter Book Riddles.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000, pages 79-98.

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 42  jennifer neville 

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Exeter Riddle 43

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 11 Aug 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 43

This riddle comes to us from James Paz, Lecturer in early medieval English literature at the University of Manchester. He’s especially interested in ‘thing theory’ and medieval science. Take it away, James!



Original text:

Ic wat indryhtne    æþelum deorne
giest in geardum,      þam se grimma ne mæg
hungor sceððan      ne se hata þurst,
yldo ne adle.      Gif him arlice
5     esne þenað,    se þe agan sceal
on þam siðfate,     hy gesunde æt ham
findað witode him    wiste ond blisse,
cnosles unrim,    care, gif se esne
his hlaforde      hyreð yfle,
10     frean on fore.      Ne wile forht wesan
broþor oþrum;    him þæt bam sceðeð,
þonne hy from bearme    begen hweorfað
anre magan    ellorfuse,
moddor ond sweostor.    Mon, se þe wille,
15     cyþe cynewordum      hu se cuma hatte,
eðþa se esne,      þe ic her ymb sprice.

Translation:

I know a worthy one, treasured for nobility,
a guest in dwellings, whom grim hunger
cannot harm, nor hot thirst,
nor age, nor illness. If the servant
5     serves him honourably, he who must possess him
on the journey, they, safe at home,
will find afforded to them well-being and bliss;
an unspeakable progeny of sorrows shall be theirs,
if the servant obeys his lord and master
10     evilly on the way, if one brother will not fear
the other; that will harm them both,
when they turn away, eager to flee
from the breast of their only kinswoman,
mother and sister. Let he who holds the willpower
15     make known in fitting words what the guest is called,
or the servant I speak about here.

Click to show riddle solution?
Soul and Body


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 112r-112v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 204.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 41: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 96.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 43 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 43

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 17 Aug 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 43

Riddle 43’s commentary is once again by the terribly clever James Paz, Lecturer in early medieval English literature at the University of Manchester.

 

I imagine that solving Riddle 43 would have been fairly easy for most contemporary readers of the Exeter Book, especially if we’re to picture this riddling taking place in a monastic setting. It might not be as immediately obvious for a modern reader today, given the changes to our religious beliefs across time. Even so, literary scholars have arrived at an uncontroversial solution: “soul and body.”

As such, this is a riddle whose solution is not a single word but two, a pairing of some kind (others include “moon and sun” and “cock and hen”). The key to solving this riddle, then, lies in identifying not one wiht (creature/created thing) but two disguised figures: the noble guest and the servant. The closing lines (14b-16) of the riddle point us in this direction, instructing the would-be solver to make known in fitting words (OE cyþe cynewordum) what the guest (cuma) or the servant (esne) is called.

Social and cultural tropes (evocative of Beowulf as well as other heroic and elegiac poems) are referenced but also played with, in order to lead us to the right answer. The riddle asks us to puzzle over the proper relationship between host and guest, the hierarchy of lord and servant, to consider the threat of hunger and disease and old age, the joys of feasting and the mead hall. It also creates confusion over traditional familial roles (why should one brother fear, or be in awe of, the other? how can one woman be both mother and sister?) and privileges honourable conduct while raising the threat of its disruption (what happens when a servant obeys his master evilly?).

A basic explanation of the “soul and body” solution would be as follows. The noble guest is the soul, which, as the riddle explains, is not vulnerable to hunger pangs or burning thirst or even old age. Its servant is the body, whose proper role is to tend to this guest honourably (arlice) before it departs for a journey. Having some knowledge of Old English kennings for “body” such as ban-hus (i.e. bone-house) help us to reach this solution. These compressed metaphors (miniature riddles, if you like) suggest that human bodies are temporary dwellings, sheltering and safeguarding something dear that must nevertheless be on its way again before long.

Franks casket

Photo of the 8th-century whalebone Franks Casket (by Michel wal). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The woman referred to in lines 13-14 has proved a little trickier to identify, but most critics and translators think that she represents the earth. She is called a mother, because the body of Adam was made from dust (see Genesis 2:7), and a sister because she (the earth) was shaped by the same father, God.

The critic John D. Niles has recently encouraged us to answer the Exeter Book Riddles in their own (Old English, though sometimes Latin) tongue whenever possible. If we’re to do so with Riddle 43, one half of the answer should correspond to the masculine noun hlaford (i.e. “lord”) and the other half to the masculine noun esne (i.e. “servant”). For Niles and, before him, Moritz Trautmann, the spoken solution should be the Old English doublet gæst ond lic-hama.

But speaking the solution is not where this riddle ends; it is, perhaps, where it begins to reveal its meaning. I’ve said that this riddle is “easy” to solve but, actually, its solution encourages us to contemplate “soul and body” as a concept at a far deeper level.

Regular readers of this website might have gained the sense that the Exeter Book Riddles are all about what we’d nowadays call the “nonhuman” world in its various forms: shields, swords, swans, leather, horns, mead, moon and sun, storms and earthquakes. But Riddle 43 examines medieval ideas about what it means to be a human being: embodied yet rational of mind or soul, of this world yet alienated from it, intellectually curious yet driven by carnal desire.

For an early medieval Christian audience, humans are essentially embodied souls. So the owner of a body really ought to be its master. But that servile role is tested throughout these riddles. Recall Riddle 25 (onion?). As we read this riddle (and, tellingly, Riddles 44, 45, 46), genitalia and sex acts shift in and out of focus… and our body responds?

Even the act of reading a non-obscene riddle is not purely intellectual. Riddles are about body parts and they call on body parts: eyes, ears, mouths, even hands. Riddling asks for a reader who’ll engage with the words on the page in a sensuous way. Recurring phrases that run throughout the Exeter Riddles support this claim: ic seah, ic gefrægn, saga hwæt ic hatte (see, hear, say). And so the relationship that Riddle 43 sets up between our “higher” intellectual faculties and our “baser” or more servile bodily functions is particularly appropriate to this enigmatic collection.

Mastery of the body is central to Riddle 43. It’s all about how the body should respond to its hlaforde (lord) and frean (master). The body, described as an esne, must keep his noble guest honourably, serve him, and fear retaliation after death should he disobey the superior soul. Notice how Riddle 43 uses this term, esne, three times in sixteen lines to emphasise the role of the body.

Leslie Lockett has shown that in the Old English laws, esne is a term for a servant of indeterminate status, higher than the slave (ðeow or wealh) but subordinate to the free labourer (ceorl). Therefore, an esne performs a servile role yet has more autonomy than a slave. This is definitely worth remembering when thinking about the relationship between soul and body in Riddle 43.

When I teach Riddle 43 on my “Things that Talk” course at the University of Manchester, it starts to spark deeper discussion when compared with the other Soul and Body poems found in Old English literature. The issue of the soul’s control over the body was obviously very important to early medieval readers, as a longer Soul and Body poem exists in two versions, which is unusual for an OE text. Those two versions appear in the Vercelli Book and in the same Exeter Book that contains the riddles.

What’s interesting here is that the two versions of the Soul and Body poem provide a different take on the master-servant relationship to that portrayed in Riddle 43. In this poem, the damned soul speaks to an offending body which, during their life-journey together, indulged its own desires, worked against the soul, starved it of spiritual sustenance, and imprisoned, even tortured, it. The soul’s apparent helplessness in the Old English Soul and Body poems has surprised some critics, who expect a deeply Christian text to depict a soul endowed with free will and reason, capable of disciplining the body. Yet the soul that emerges from these poems often seems to be an entity incapable of completely independent thought or action, an entity that struggles to bring about the fulfilment of its desires, as long as it’s enclosed in flesh.

The contrasting depictions of a servile body labouring for its noble guest on the one hand, and a damned soul addressing a domineering body, to which it was bound unwillingly, suggest that early medieval poets had complex ways of comprehending the human condition. Of course, these issues remain fascinating (and maybe even disquieting) for us as modern readers of early medieval poetry…

… To what extent are we responsible for our own actions? Who or what is in control of our everyday thoughts, words and deeds during life? Do we know where our dreams and desires come from? Does our body always behave as we want it to? Are our bodies us, or are we our brains, or minds, or do we still believe our true identity to be spiritual in nature? The Exeter Riddles seem to be about speaking objects. Yet where do we locate the speaking and thinking and acting “I” within our own, human selves? In the body? In the mind? Or within that elusive concept of a soul?

That’s the real mystery at the heart of Riddle 43, and, over one thousand years on, we are not much closer to solving it.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading

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

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pages 451-72.

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

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

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

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



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 43  james paz 

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Exeter Riddle 44

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 27 Aug 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 44
Original text:

Wrætlic hongað      bi weres þeo,
frean under sceate.      Foran is þyrel.
Bið stiþ ond heard.      Stede hafað godne.
Þonne se esne     his agen hrægl
5     ofer cneo hefeð,      wile þæt cuþe hol
mid his hangellan      heafde gretan
þæt he efenlang ær      oft gefylde.

Translation:

A wondrous thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
under its lord’s clothing. In front there is a hole.
It stands stiff and hard. It has a good home.
When the servant raises his own garment
5     up over his knee, he wants to greet
with his dangling head that well-known hole,
of equal length, which he has often filled before.

Click to show riddle solution?
Key and lock, Phallus, Dagger sheath


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pages 204-5.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 42: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 96.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 44 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 44

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 21 Sep 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 44

So…this riddle is pretty unambiguously raunchy, am I right? Something stiff that hangs under a man’s clothing by his thigh? The filling of an equally long hole? All the basics of a nudge-nudge joke are there for even the most sheltered of individuals to catch.

With imagery as blatantly obvious as this, the question then becomes “what other object acts this way?”

The answer seems to be a key, although “dagger” has also been suggested in the past. But key makes a great deal of sense, especially when we look at other medieval and biblical references to a sexy sort of unlocking. The favourite, here, is #49 of The Cambridge Songs, sometimes referred to as Veni dilectissime (for its first line):

Veni, dilectissime
et a, et o,
gratam me invisere.
et a, et o, et a, et o!

In languore pereo,
et a, et o!
Venerem desidero,
et a, et o, et a, et o!
[…]
Si cum clave veneris,
et a, et o,
mox intrare poteris,
et a, et o, et a, et o!
(Come, dearest love, with ah! and oh! to visit me with pleasure, with ah! and oh! and ah! and oh! I am dying of faintness, (refrain)! I am longing for love, (refrain)! […] If you come with your key, (refrain) you will soon be able to enter (refrain)!)

Catchy, right? Well, maybe not to everyone…someone took offence to this eleventh-century ditty and tried to erase parts of it from the manuscript. So, the version I’ve posted above involved a great deal of reconstruction by Peter Dronke (vol. 1, page 274; see also Ziolkowski, pages 126-7).

Lincolnshire key from several angles

Behold, an early medieval slide key! Copyright: Lincolnshire County Council (Attribution-ShareAlike License).

Mercedes Salvador-Bello has written on the links between Riddle 44 and Veni dilectissime, and she argues that both verses should be read in the context of the Song of Songs/Solomon (Salvador, page 78). All the kissing and seeking out of lovers there can be read allegorically, with Christ as the lover of the church or of an individual’s soul. Here are just a few verses to give you a taster:

Dilectus meus misit manum suam per foramen, et venter meus intremuit ad tactum ejus. Surrexi ut aperirem dilecto meo; manus meae stillaverunt myrrham, et digiti mei pleni myrrha probatissima. Pessulum ostii mei aperui dilecto meo, at ille declinaverat, atque transierat. Anima mea liquefacta est, ut locutus est; quaesivi, et non inveni illum; vocavi, et non respondit mihi (Song of Solomon 5.4-6).

(My beloved put his hand through the key hole, and my bowels were moved at his touch. I arose up to open to my beloved: my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh. I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved: but he had turned aside, and was gone. My soul melted when he spoke: I sought him, and found him not: I called, and he did not answer me).

[I’m going to go ahead and suggest that “bowels” is the worst possible translation decision for venter here, but I’ve left it in since it’s from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate bible. Venter can also mean “belly” or “womb” (so, basically, an unspecific term for the lower part of the torso), either of which is far more appropriate in this case.]

Salvador-Bello goes on to map out the wider context of key imagery that involves Christ unlocking heaven’s doors and locking up demons in hell. Given all this, she concludes that unlocking is an especially Christ-like thing to do…which goes a long way to explaining the presence of Riddle 44 in a manuscript belonging to a cathedral. But, even so, the raunchiness is not to be denied.

Of this erotic imagery, D. K. Smith says: “the riddler’s success, and the resulting laughter, rests on the potential for shame and embarrassment – the chance to catch his victims with their imaginative pants down. Yet, if these riddles have the power to threaten their victims with the potential for humiliation, that is only half the equation. Even more important is their ability, through the humor they generate, to defuse that same implicit threat” (page 82). In other words, raunchy riddles allow people living in a shame culture to discuss taboo topics.

If you were a monk and the enjoyment of sex was off-limits (okay, maybe just “sex was off-limits,” since no one – monk or otherwise – was supposed to be enjoying it at that time), you could still make a veiled reference to it in a riddle and hide behind the innocent solution if someone called you out. In fact, in order to call out the riddler, the audience would have to admit that their minds were also veering down a dark and dirty path (Magennis, page 16-17). So, cue the uncomfortable giggle and the drawn-out pause as solvers attempted to read past the sexual veneer and determine a socially acceptable solution.

And I feel like not much has changed when it comes to the English-speaking world’s sense of humour. Sure, there’s a lot more open discussion about sex, and sexually explicit material is all over the place. But giggly, taboo-based, penis jokes remain quite firmly in the public’s consciousness. Yeah, I said “firmly.” What’s wrong with that? You pervs.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Dronke, Peter. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965-66.

Magennis, Hugh. “‘No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons!’ Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry.” Leeds Studies in English, vol. 26 (1995), pages 1-27 (esp. 16-18).

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96 (esp. 76-82).

Smith, D. K. “Humor in Hiding.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000, pages 79-98 (esp. 88-94).

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland, 1994.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 44 

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Exeter Riddle 45

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 07 Oct 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 45
Original text:

Ic on wincle gefrægn      weaxan nathwæt,
þindan ond þunian,      þecene hebban.
On þæt banlease      bryd grapode,
hygewlonc hondum.      Hrægle þeahte
5     þrindende þing      þeodnes dohtor.

Translation:

I heard that something was growing in the corner,
swelling and sticking up, raising its roof.
A proud bride grasped that boneless thing,
with her hands. A lord’s daughter
5     covered with a garment that bulging thing.

Click to show riddle solution?
Dough


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 205.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 43: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 96-7.



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Exeter Riddle 44

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 45

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 07 Oct 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 45

Riddle 45 is yet another example of a riddle that’s simply throbbing with double entendre. In case you hadn’t noticed.

The interpretation most widely accepted is that the riddle refers to bread dough (OE dag). After it rises, the woman in the riddle kneads and shapes it and then puts a piece of cloth over it. But of course this is all masked by the har-dee-har-har references to a bride grasping a banleas (bone-less), swelling thing and then covering it with her garment. Apparently, bread-making is an erotic activity. Who knew?

Riddle 45 Kneading dough
Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Look at that sexy, sexy kneading.

Riddle 45 Bread dough 1
Photo (by ElinorD) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Dough after kneading. Looking good.

A bowl of dough that has risen

Photo (by ElinorD) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Dough after rising. My how you’ve grown.

 

A hint about why the poem refers to a woman of high status (i.e. the daughter of a þeoden or “ruler” / “lord”) may lie in the Old English word hlafdige. Although this term, which literally seems to have meant “loaf-kneader,” only appears a couple of times in the Old English written record, it’s the root of our modern English word “lady” (compare to hlaford (lord), whose etymological roots point to the meaning: “loaf-keeper”).

The woman is also referred to as hygewlonc (proud in mind), which Mercedes Salvador-Bello reminds us is often associated with sexual activity (page 85). In fact, proud-minded swelling is also found in other texts that are linked to this poem by the use of the term þrindende (swelling) (page 83). Although this particular spelling is unique to Riddle 45, scholars have argued that it’s the same word that appears in the poem Vainglory at line 24b (translation here) and in Riddle 37 at line 2a. In the first example, we see that pride swells up (þrinteð) within an arrogant man. In the second, another rather sexually explicit riddle, the belly or womb of a bellows is swollen (aþrunten) with air. So, if we accept that these words are all related, then there seems to be a basis for playing on a link between sex/pride/swelling.

But there also seems to be a bread/sex link that goes beyond the hard work of kneading a loaf with a pair of particularly grabby hands, like those imagined in Riddle 45. As Thomas D. Hill points out, the tenth/eleventh-century continental bishop Burchard of Worms includes an interesting passage in his treatise on canonical law, the Decretum. Book 19 of this text declares:

Fecisti quod quaedam mulieres facere solent? Prosternunt se in faciem, et discoopertis natibus, jubent ut supra nudas nates conficiatur panis, et eo decocto tradunt maritiis suis ad comedendum. Hoc ideo faciunt, ut plus exardescant in amorem illarum. Si fecisti duos annos per legitimas ferias poenitas. (section 974)

(Hast thou done as certain women are accustomed to do? They lie down on their face and having uncovered their buttocks, they order that bread should be made upon [their] nude buttocks; and having cooked it they give it to their husbands to eat. This they do so that they [their husbands] should burn with love for them [the wives]. If thou hast done this, thou shalt do penance for two years on the appointed days.) (translation from Hill, page 54)

 

Apparently this was a thing that some women did…

And Burchard considered it to be quite a bad thing to do (magic! stomp it out!), judging from the long penance that he demanded. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be thinking of this next time an elderly family member refers to someone’s bottom with the term “buns.” (or is my family just weird?)

The long and the short of all this is that, as Hill points out, “Dough is the material which a woman uses to nourish her family; it is potentially a rich symbol of a woman’s power within the home, and the way in which it rises (apparently) spontaneously can provide the basis for erotic metaphor” (page 59).

While I understand why the sexually-charged imagery of Riddle 45 has been interpreted this way, I still can’t help reading this riddle and thinking of pregnancy rather than penises. It’s the phrase “bun in the oven,” as well as caressing and covering of a swelling, bread-shaped body-part that makes reminds me of a pregnant belly. And this would of course still invite a sexual reading (because of the lead-up to pregnancy, not some yummy-mummy fetish). The only hiccup in this interpretation is the banleas (bone-less) nature of the swelling thing, although a bit of digging into early theories of fetal development demonstrates that this isn’t really an issue.

An Old English text known as De generatione hominis (on the generation of a human) is found on folio 38b of the manuscript London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.iii (see Deegan, page 23). Part of it reads:

On þam feorþan monþe he bið on limum staþolfæst. On þam fiftan monþe […] þa ribb beoð geworden, þonne gelimpð þære manigfeald sar þonne þæs byrþnes lic on hire innoþe scipigende bið. On þam syxtan monþe he byþ gehyd, ond ban beoð weaxende. (Cockayne, vol. 3, page 146)

(In the fourth month it is firm in limbs. In the fifth month […] the ribs are formed, then various troubles occur when the body is forming inside the bearer. In the sixth month it is provided with skin, and the bones are growing.)

 

So, bone-less-ness isn’t a problem for my pregnancy reading of Riddle 45, since even a fetus in the second trimester was thought to not yet have bones by the writer of this early English medical text! You learn something new everyday…

Righto, I’m going to leave it there today. Feel free to sift through my commentary and post any comments/questions that rise up!

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Burchard of Worms. Decretum. Patrologia Latina Database. Vol. 140.

Cockayne, Thomas, ed. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. 3 vols. London: Holland Press, 1961.

Deegan, Marilyn. “Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Anglo-Saxon Medical Texts: A Preliminary Survey.” In Medicine in Early Medieval England. Edited by Marilyn Deegan and D. G. Scragg. Manchester: Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies, University of Manchester, 1987, pages 17-26.

Hill, Thomas D. “The Old English Dough Riddle and the Power of Women’s Magic: The Traditional Context of Exeter Book Riddle No. 45.” In Via Crucis: Essays on Early Medieval Sources and Ideas in Memory of J. E. Cross. Edited by Thomas N. Hall and Charles D. Wright. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2002, pages 50-60.

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96 (esp. 82-6).

I also wrote a piece on this riddle for the British Library's Discovering Literature website, which you can access here.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 45 

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Exeter Riddle 46

VICTORIASYMONS

Date: Wed 21 Oct 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 46
Original text:

Wær sæt æt wine      mid his wifum twam
ond his twegen suno     ond his twa dohtor,
swase gesweostor,      ond hyra suno twegen,
freolico frumbearn;      fæder wæs þær inne
5     þara æþelinga      æghwæðres mid,
eam ond nefa.      Ealra wæron fife
eorla ond idesa     insittendra.

Translation:

A man sat [drinking] wine with his two wives
and his two sons and his two daughters,
the dear sisters, and their two sons,
noble firstborns. The father of each
5    of those princes was in there,
uncle and nephew. In all there were five
warriors and women sitting within.

Click to show riddle solution?
Lot and his family


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 205.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 44: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 97.



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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 46

VICTORIASYMONS

Date: Wed 21 Oct 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 46

At first glance, following on from two very explicitly sexual riddles (“þrindende þing,” indeed), Riddle 46 is almost disappointingly tame – just a family having dinner together. In fact, it is anything but. It may not look like it, but what we have here is yet another riddle that, once again, is all about sex.

It starts with a situation familiar from Old English poetry: a man sitting down to a drink. Keeping him company are his wives – yes, both of them – his two sons, his two daughters, their two sons, and each sons’ father, uncle and nephew. It’s quite a gathering! Except, as we learn in the final line, there are only five people in the room. Like the Tardis, this is a family that’s bigger on the inside.

Blue phone box>

Relevant. Photo (by Steve Collis) from the Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0).

The test of the riddle, then, is to work out how this small group can have quite so many relationships binding them together. The answer starts with sex: this family’s been having rather a lot of it.

Something about incest seems to lend itself to riddles. In Apollonius of Tyre, which was translated into Old English in the eleventh century, the “wicked” King Antiochus requires his daughter’s potential suitors to solve a riddle about his incestuous relationship with her (Lees, pages 37-9; for other examples see Bitterli, pages 57-9). The source material for the similarly incestuous set-up of Riddle 46 is found in the Bible (where else?). After fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and leaving his wife behind as a pillar of salt, Lot finds himself holed up in a cave, together with his two daughters:

And the elder said to the younger Our father is old, and there is no man left on the earth, to come in unto us after the manner of the whole earth. Come, let us make him drunk with wine, and let us lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. And they made their father drink wine that night: and the elder went in and lay with her father: but he perceived not neither when his daughter lay down, nor when she rose up. And the next day… They made their father drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in, and lay with him: and neither then did he perceive when she lay down, nor when she rose up. So the two daughters of Lot were with child by their father. (Genesis 19:31-36)

 

So there you have it. The riddle’s five people are Lot himself, his two daughters, and their sons by him. That makes the boys both the sons of Lot, the sons of his daughters, and each others’ uncle and nephew. Everything is accounted for!

Or at least, almost everything. There’s one relationship in the riddle that doesn’t appear in the Genesis story. In Genesis, Lot is seduced by his daughters, but he doesn’t marry them. In Riddle 46, however, they are referred to as his wifum twam. A reference to multiple wives would, I think, have particular connotations for an early medieval reader. There’s evidence to suggest that, before the Conversion, it was accepted for early English men to have several wives, or concubines (Clunies Ross; Lees). The practice persisted well into the Christian era, although the church was most certainly not ok with it:

Se man ðe rihtæwe hæfð ond eac cyfese ne sylle him nan preost husl ne nan gerihto þe man cristenum mannum deð butan he to bote gecyrre. (Frantzen, Old English Penitential, 2.9)

([Concerning] the man who has a legal wife and also a concubine, let no priest give him the eucharist nor any of the rites which are performed for Christian men, unless he turns to repentance.)

 

Furthermore, Margaret Clunies Ross argues that polygamy was “practiced much more extensively among the upper classes [of early English society] … than in the lower social ranks” (page 3), and Clare Lees describes “serial polygamy and concubinage” as “the prerogative of the ruling family of the West Saxons’ (p. 37). It’s fitting, then, that the characters of Riddle 46 are described variously as freolic, ides, æþeling and eorl: all terms with a predominantly aristocratic flavour.

Now you may find yourself wondering how the early medieval church justified its stance on concubines (not ok), when there’s polygamy a plenty in the Old Testament – as this riddle itself demonstrates. And you wouldn’t be alone. Ælfric specifically discusses this point in his Preface to Genesis:

On anginne þisere worulde, nam se broþer hys swuster to wife and hwilon eac se fæder tymde be his agenre dehter, and manega hæfdon ma wifa… Gyf hwa wyle nu swa lybban æfter Cristes tocyme, swa swa men leofodon ær Moises æ oþþe under Moises æ, ne byð se man na cristen.

(In the beginning of this world, a brother took his sister as a wife, and sometimes also a father had a child with his own daughter, and many [men] had multiple wives… [but] if anyone wishes to live now, after Christ’s coming, in the same way that men lived before Moses’ law, or under Moses’ law, that man is not a Christian.)

 

Ælfric’s argument is that things were different back in the day, and Old Testament practices can’t simply be copied without some interpretation. By presenting an Old Testament story in the guise of contemporary medieval culture, I think our riddler is making a similar point. Take the Old Testament literally, and next thing you know you’ll be sitting down to dinner with your brother-uncle. No one wants that.

Read in the context of these penitentials and homilies, we can see how this riddle engages with some pretty topical social issues. Both the specific subject of marriage, and the more general dangers of incorrectly interpreting Biblical material, are touched upon here, with perhaps a bit of a jab at the upper classes thrown in for good measure. As Jennifer Neville summarises, it’s not every day you find a Bible story repackaged into a joke about sex, masquerading as a number game!

But there’s another way that we can read this riddle, too. For all its playfulness, there’s an underlying suggestion of something darker going on. Because, of course, the story of Lot is not simply the story of a man with one too many wives. It’s also a disturbing narrative about incest and exploitation. And I don’t think that’s lost on the author of this riddle.

We get our first sense of this with the reference to wine in the first line. This detail comes straight from the Genesis story, so in one way it gives us a hint about the riddle’s solution (Murphy, page 144). But it also draws attention to the role played by alcohol in all of this. Drinking was, of course, a not uncommon pastime in early medieval England, but nor was it universally celebrated (see Riddle 27, for example). The poem Judith, another Old English adaptation of an Old Testament story, firmly links drunkenness with sexual wrongdoing.

Painting of Judith beheading Holofernes

This is where too much drinking gets you in Judith. Image of painting by Caravaggio from the Wikimedia Commons.

The words inne and insittendre place a particular emphasis on the interiority of the setting in this riddle. Combined with the insistent repetition of ond in the opening and closing lines, the poet creates an unsettlingly claustrophobic atmosphere. This is a family that, behind closed doors, is rather too close for comfort.

Now, the Genesis story very clearly presents Lot’s daughters as the incestual instigators, up to and including getting their father insensibly drunk first. That’s problematic enough, but Riddle 46 complicates things even further. Here, the father is presented in a much more central role; the words wær and fæder are positioned prominently at the very start and exact middle of the poem, while the three-fold repetition of his in the opening lines emphasises his authority over everyone else present. It’s a subtle change, but it’s one that encourages us to consider the complexity of the power dynamics at play. In combination with its claustrophobic atmosphere and suggestion of drunkenness, the riddle hints at the more troubling implications that undercut the narrative’s superficially playful presentation.

When reading the Exeter Book riddles, it’s always worth having a look at what’s near them in the manuscript. In this case, Riddle 46 follows hot on the heels of two explicitly sexual riddles, full of raunchy imagery and innuendo-laden puns. Riddle 46 continues the focus on sex, but explores it in a much broader way: in relation to society, to the Bible, to families, and to power. It’s at once short and playful, but also serious and, I think, pretty dark. Not bad for a little poem about family dinner!

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Ælfric. “Preface to Genesis.” In The Longman Anthology of Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literatures. Edited by Richard North, Joe Allard and Patricia Gillies. London: Routledge, 2014, pages 740-45.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Clunies Ross, Margaret. “Concubinage in Anglo-Saxon England.” Past & Present, vol. 108 (1985), pages 3-34.

Frantzen, Allen J., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database. 2003-2015. http://www.anglo-saxon.net/penance/index.php?p=index

Godden, Malcolm. “Biblical Literature: The Old Testament.” In The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pages 214-33.

Lees, Clare A. “Engendering Religious Desire: Sex, Knowledge, and Christian Identity in Anglo-Saxon England.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 27 (1997), pages 17-46.

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

Neville, Jennifer. “Joyous Play and Bitter Tears: The Riddles and the Elegies.” In Beowulf and Other Stories: A New Introduction to Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literature. Edited by Richard North and Joe Allard. London: Pearson, 2007, pages 130-59.

Swanton, Michael, trans. “Apollonius of Tyre.” In Anglo-Saxon Prose. London: Dent, 1975, pages 158-73.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 46  victoria symons 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 27
Exeter Riddle 27

Exeter Riddle 47

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 28 Sep 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 47
Original text:
Moððe word fræt.      Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd,     þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg     wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro,     þrymfæstne cwide
5     ond þæs strangan staþol.    Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra,    þe he þam wordum swealg.
Translation:
A moth ate words. That seemed to me
a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder,
that the worm, a thief in the darkness, swallowed
a certain man’s song, a glory-fast speech
5     and its strong foundation. The stealing guest was not
at all the wiser for that, for those words which he swallowed.
Click to show riddle solution?
Book-worm, Book-moth, Maggot and psalter


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 112v-113r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 205.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 45: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 97.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 47 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 47
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Exeter Riddle 49

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 47

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 23 Nov 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 47

First of all: sorry this post has been so long in the making. I’ve been pretty distracted by spiders recently. That is, I was writing a lecture on early medieval spiders, which ate up all my time. Of course, creepy crawlies eating things up is pretty much the whole point of Riddle 47, so I think this excuses me. See what I did there?

At any rate, this riddle is quite explicit about which critter it most literally concerns. The obviousness of the opening half-line, Moððe word fræt (a moth ate words), has actually annoyed some scholars into claiming this isn’t a riddle at all…like any Old English text is easy to categorise, pigeonhole and explain! Pfft, I say to that.

This riddle is, in fact, so complex and layered and clever and complex (did I say that already?) that it has amassed an absolute heap of scholarship…too much for me to break down into bite-sized chunks for you. So, I’m going to stick to a few basics and suggest that, if you’re academically inclined, you hop over to Martin Foys’ webpage for the pre-publication draft of his forthcoming article on Riddle 47. It’s pretty comprehensive in the scope of its analysis and literature review, so will be much more helpful than my ramblings below.

But ramble I shall.

Let’s start with the critter that the riddle seems most interested in. Moððe (moth) in line 1a and wyrm (worm) in line 3a tell us we’re dealing with a particular sort of insect in both its adult and larval forms.

Pine Processionary Moth

Photo of a Pine Processionary Moth (by Alvesgaspar) from the Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).

Given the reference to just what it is the creature is eating (words!), many people take the riddle’s solution to be “bookworm” or “bookmoth.” Others, however, want to push this further and identify an underlying metaphor. Given the popularity of the concept of ruminatio – a Latin term that literally refers to certain animals digesting their food and figuratively to the understanding of religious literature that comes with careful thought and study – Mercedes Salvador-Bello suggests Riddle 47 may point to a monk or student (pages 356-7). Likewise, Martin Foys says that we’re presumably dealing with a student here, given that it’s the larval form of the moth that’s chomping down on the words in question. I can’t wait to introduce this interpretation to my own students, by the way, since I’m sure they’ll be positively chuffed to be referred to as larvae.

Within this context of education I should also mention that Riddle 47 has a Latin source. That would be Symphosius’ Enigma 16, Tinea (bookworm), which goes a little something like this:

Littera me pauit, nec quid sit littera noui.
In libris uixi, nec sum studiosior inde.
Exedi Musas, nec adhuc tamen ipsa profeci. (Glorie, vol. 133a, page 637)

(Letters fed me, but I do not know what letters are. I lived in books, but am no more studious for that. I devoured the Muses, but still have not myself progressed.)

These two poems are pretty clearly related, but they do have some important distinctions. One is the Old English play on word. As Craig Williamson (pages 285-6), Geoffrey Russom and Nicholas Jacobs all stress, the Old English poem isn’t quite as straightforward as modern folks might think. Because word in Old English doesn’t automatically signify writing. As Riddle 47’s references to songs indicate, we’re dealing with the nexus between orality and literacy here. The early medieval folks trying to solve this riddle have to first figure out what sort of speech can be eaten – that is, they have to figure out that the words are written down. In fact, Jacobs feels that this is so important a point that we ought to be solving the riddle as “writing on vellum.” And John D. Niles reckons line 3b’s reference to wera gied sumes (a certain man’s song) in the riddle actually indicates a particular text: the psalms of King David, which we know were integral to early English religion and culture (page 121-2). He’d have us solve the riddle as maða ond sealm-boc (“maggot and psalter”).

At any rate, once we’ve figured out that this poem refers to written words, the references to a thief in the darkness that appear in the Old English riddle start to make a lot more sense. That is, thieves steal material objects, sort of like this critter. In fact, this poem may well be pointing toward the treasurely nature of written words; keep in mind that books are pretty high status at the time, especially when blinged out with decorative boards and golden illumination. That context is hit home by the reference to moths and thieves and treasures in Matthew 6.19, which in the Vulgate reads:

Nolite thesaurizare vobis thesauros in terra: ubi aerugo, et tinea demolitur: et ubi fures effodiunt, et furantur

(Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal.)

So, we’re dealing with that ever-popular theme of fragility and impermanence (Russom, page 133). Creepy crawlies come up in this context a lot in Old English, partly because they’re small and therefore fundamentally fragile, and partly because they invade homes and bodies and so point to our own fragility. Human concerns about being food for worms were, after all, around well before Hamlet expressed them, as many Old English texts attest (see, for example, the middle of Soul and Body I / Soul and Body II).

I think my favourite quote on this comes from Foys, who says: “Unlike other Exeter Book riddles, this riddle redacts its humanity; the animal here is not used to make the book, but to unmake the self-proclaimed status of the human form within the proclamation. As with Aldhelm’s De Creatura, the lower form of nature paradoxically, humblingly exposes the fragility of human endeavour through the textual artifice that both professes and constitutes it. Humans: 0, dumb bug: 1” (page 21).

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t remind you that the word wyrm, though certainly used in the sense of Modern English “worm” at the time, is also the Old English term for dragons.

attacking dragon

Image from Public Domain Pictures.

Although there’s nothing in this poem to indicate that we should be fleeing in terror from the word-chomping wyrm of Riddle 47, let’s take a moment to think of another creature associated with treasure and thieves and darkness and maybe even swallowing up speeches (while still on the lips of their speakers!). I’m, of course, thinking of the dragon that sends Beowulf to his grave:

Æfter ðam wordum      wyrm yrre cwom,
atol inwitgæst,     oðre siðe
fyrwylmum fah     fionda niosian,
laðra manna—     ligyðum for. (2669-72)

(After those words the angry dragon came another time, terrible and malicious, stained with surging fire to seek out an enemy, the hateful men – travelled with a wave of fire.)

 So, let’s just be thankful that the wyrm of Riddle 47 doesn’t seem at all inclined to breathe fire. Because those poor early medieval folks were living in a fragile enough world as it was…

Notes:

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 191-3.

Jacobs, Nicholas. “The Old English ‘Book-moth’ Riddle Reconsidered.” Notes and Queries, new series, vol. 35 (1988), pages 290-2.

Foys, Martin. “The Undoing of Exeter Book Riddle 47: ‘Bookmoth’.” In Transitional States: Cultural Change, Tradition and Memory in Medieval England, A Festschrift for Allen Frantzen. Edited by Graham Caie and Michael D. C. Drout. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, forthcoming 2017. Pre-publication draft available online: https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:10515/ (if you’re citing this for an essay, keep in mind that the page numbers will change when the book is published)

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

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

Robinson, Fred C. “Artful Ambiguities in the Old English ‘Book-Moth’ Riddle.” In Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation, for John. C. McGalliard. Edited by Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pages 355-62.

Russom, Geoffrey. “Exeter Riddle 47: A Moth Laid Waste to Fame.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 56 (1977), pages 129-36.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 355-9.

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



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 47 

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Exeter Riddle 48

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 08 Dec 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 48
Original text:

Ic gefrægn for hæleþum      hring gyddian, (1)
torhtne butan tungan,      tila þeah he hlude
stefne ne cirmde,      strongum wordum.
Sinc for secgum      swigende cwæð:
5     “Gehæle mec,      helpend gæsta.”
Ryne ongietan      readan goldes
guman galdorcwide,      gleawe beþencan
hyra hælo to gode,      swa se hring gecwæð.

Translation:

I heard a ring sing before men,
bright, without a tongue, rightly with strong words,
although it did not yell in a loud voice.
The treasure, silent before men, spoke:
5     “Heal me, helper of souls.”
May men interpret the mystery of the red gold,
the incantation, may they wisely entrust
their salvation to God, as the ring said.

Click to show riddle solution?
Paten, Chalice, Sacramental vessel


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 113r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pages 205-6.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 46: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 97-8.

Textual Note:

(1) I have followed Williamson’s emendation here. The manuscript reads hringende an, which Krapp and Dobbie interpret as hring endean. Williamson makes a good case for more drastically revising this difficult part of the text on pages 288-9.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 48 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 48

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 25 Jan 2016
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 48

Who doesn’t like gold, right? It’s shiny, malleable-but-also-hard (because metal), you can use it to add a touch of class to all sorts of things (clothing! tapestries! books!), and you can eat it. Seriously, you can. (can you tell I haven’t had my afternoon cup of tea and biscuit yet?)

Native_gold_nuggets.jpg

Gold nuggets! Photo from the Wikimedia Commons.

But enough about my interest in gold, let’s talk about the early English. They were pretty keen on gold too. In fact, when you look up the word in the Dictionary of Old English database, it lists 725 occurrences – and then there are all the compound words like goldbeorht (bright with gold), goldfæt (gold vessel), goldfinger (ring finger…not that Bond character who looks a bit like ex-Toronto mayor, Rob Ford), and MANY more. So gold things, rather than diamonds, are an early medieval person’s best friend. And whatever is described in Riddle 48 is made of gold. Is this important? Possibly, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Hold your horses!

What else is going on in Riddle 48? Well, in addition to being golden and round – i.e. ring-shaped – we have the classic paradox of a something that is silently speaking (this one doesn’t even have a tongue, so we know it’s an object). Mercedes Salvador-Bello’s hot-off-the-presses-new book points out that this feature is shared across the riddles immediately leading up to and following this one (page 365). She also notes that there’s no end punctuation immediately following Riddle 47, which may suggest a thematic link between the two poems (page 360). As you may remember, Riddle 47 describes a little critter (possibly subbing in for a dim-witted monk or young student) devouring a religious book without understanding it, while Riddle 48 describes a loud-but-silent treasure that will lead to salvation for humans.

It’s this salvation that Mary Hayes talks about in an article focusing on voices and the soul. She argues that “the reader’s voice represents his or her own soul, offered to God as the prayer written on the sacred vessel is spoken aloud” (page 124).

So, what treasure or sacred vessel is this riddle talking about? Most people reckon it’s some sort of sacramental vessel – a chalice or paten (dish that holds the Eucharist) – used in Christian worship. This solution seems most likely, although which object in particular has been the subject of some debate. Before I elaborate on that, let me also outline the other proposed solutions.

Elisabeth Okasha gives quite a few possibilities, including: paten, chalice, coin, bell, brooch and finger-ring. She goes through each and weighs them up on the basis of whether not we have surviving evidence – both in the form of archaeological finds and in written references from the time – that points to them being

1) gold

2) inscribed (because this riddle appears to bear writing) and

3) in a large quantity.

Based on her findings, she concludes that because there are quite a few gold, inscribed finger-rings floating around this is the most likely solution. (coincidentally, the Old English word for finger-ring is hring, which might seem quite obvious given its use in the opening line…then again, Riddle 47 seems to begin with its solution too)

Gold finger ring from various angles

6th/7th-century engraved ring from north-west Essex. Image from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (licence: CC BY 2.0).

I personally don’t think an absence of evidence should be used as evidence of absence (in fact Okasha points out that survival rates don’t match up with the number of objects likely in existence at the time), so I’m not terribly inclined to agree with this solution. And anyway, it makes total sense for there to be fewer sacramental vessels than finger-rings, because church equipment is on display to and symbolically shared by the entire congregation in a way that a finger-ring is not.

The fact is we do have very specific written evidence for sacramental vessels made of gold that comes from early medieval England. For example, Ælfric’s Pastoral Epistle states: And witað þæt beo ælc calic geworht of myldendum antimbre . gilden oððe seolfren . glæren oððe tinen . ne beo he na hyrnen ne huru treowen (Thorpe, page 384, section 45) (And see to it that each chalice is made of molten material, gold or silver, amber or tin; let it not be of horn nor indeed wood).

Ornate chalice

In lieu of an early English chalice, check out the early Irish Ardagh Chalice (made of silver, with some decorations in gold and other metals). Photo (by Kglavin) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Craig Williamson argues that the gold in Riddle 48 points to “chalice” (OE calic or husel-fæt) as the more likely solution, since the ecclesiastical laws mention using gold for chalices, rather than patens (page 287). And, for example, Aldhelm’s Carmina Ecclesiastica describes a gold chalice and a silver paten:

Aureus atque calix gemmis fulgescit opertus,
Ut caelum rutilat stellis ardentibus aptum,
Ac lata argento constat fabricata patena:
Quae divina gerunt nostrae medicamina vitae.
(song 3, lines 72-5; Ehwald, page 18)
(and the gold chalice covered with gems glitters, just as heaven set with burning stars glows, and the broad paten fashioned from silver matches: those which carry the divine remedies of our life.)

Metal paten

The early medieval Irish Derrynaflan Paten. Photo (by Kglavin) from the Wikimedia Commons.

What Williamson doesn’t quote, though, is this reference from the Canons of Ælfric, which makes a fairly explicit link between both objects: Beo his calic eac of clænum antimbre geworht . unforrotigendlic . 7 eallswa se disc (Thorpe, page 349, section 22) (Let his chalice also be made of pure material, incorruptible, and likewise the dish). With no surviving chalices and patens in the archaeological record, it becomes difficult to say for certain whether gold points clearly to chalice over paten.

I have more thoughts on this, but I think I’m going to save them for a future update because I need to do some more digging. So, stay tuned for now and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts in the comments section below.

[UPDATE]

My further thoughts on this riddle are now published in an online first/open access academic article, available here. I’ll update this post with a slightly more accessible version of my findings at some point, I swears!

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Cavell, Megan. “Powerful Patens in the Anglo-Saxon Medical Tradition and Exeter Book Riddle 48.” Neophilologus, vol. 101 (2017), pages 129-38. Available open access here.

Dictionary of Old English: A-G Online. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, Dorothy Haines, Joan Holland, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, with Pauline Thompson and Nancy Speirs. Web interface by Peter Mielke and Xin Xiang. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007.

Ehwald, Rudolf, ed. Aldhelmi Opera. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919.

Hayes, Mary. “The Talking Dead: Resounding Voices in Old English Riddles.” Exemplaria, vol. 20, issue 2 (Summer 2008), pages 123-42.

Okasha, Elisabeth. “Old English hring in Riddles 48 and 59.” Medium Ævum, vol. 62 (1993), pages 61-9.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 359-60.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Ancient Laws and Institutes of England. Vol. 2. London: G. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1840.

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



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 48 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 47

Exeter Riddle 49

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 02 Feb 2016
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 49
Original text:

Ic wat eardfæstne      anne standan,
deafne, dumban,      se oft dæges swilgeð
þurh gopes hond      gifrum lacum.
Hwilum on þam wicum      se wonna þegn,
5     sweart ond saloneb,      sendeð oþre
under goman him      golde dyrran,
þa æþelingas      oft wilniað,
cyningas ond cwene.      Ic þæt cyn nu gen
nemnan ne wille,      þe him to nytte swa
10     ond to dugþum doþ      þæt se dumba her,
eorp unwita,      ær forswilgeð.

Translation:

I know a lone thing standing earth-fast,
deaf, dumb, which often by day swallows
from a slave’s hand useful gifts.
Sometimes in those dwellings the swarthy servant,
5     dark and sallow-nosed, sends others
from his mouth, dearer than gold,
which nobles often desire,
kings and queens. I will not yet
name that race/kind, who thus renders for their use
10     and advantage what the dumb one here,
the dusky fool, swallows before.

Click to show riddle solution?
Oven, Beehive, Falcon Cage, (Book)case, Pen and ink, Barrow, Sacrificial altar, Millpond and sluice


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 113r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 206.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 47: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 98.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 49 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 49

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Fri 12 Feb 2016
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 49

What do we do with Riddle 49, eh? It’s, like, so complex. And I don’t mean that in a sarky way…it really is very difficult to solve.

Some of this difficulty stems from debates about what particular words mean. The main one is gop in line 3a, which most editors and translators reckon might mean a servant or slave of some kind. It’s not clear whether the term is related to Old English geap (crafty) or geopan (to take in/swallow), or perhaps to Old Icelandic hergopa (bondwoman) (see DOE and Bosworth/Toller). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the word derives from Old Irish gop (snout), which has a fairly pejorative sense to it. Since Old English riddles are often quite nasty to slaves and those perceived as lower class, this sense still seems like the best we can do.

There are other phrases in Riddle 49 that’ve been foiling riddlers for many a year because we can’t pin down which particular words they’re using. The key one is gifrum lacum in line 3b, where the first term could be gifre (useful) or gifre with a long “i” (greedy), and the second could be lac (gift) or lacu (stream/pool). This half-line could be read as “with useful gifts” or “with useful streams/pools” or “with greedy gifts” or “with greedy streams/pools.” TOO MANY OPTIONS! Many of Riddle 49’s proposed solutions hinge on how we read this phrase.

But what are the proposed solutions?, I hear you asking.

And so, I list:

  • Oven
  • Beehive
  • Falcon cage
  • (Book)case
  • Pen and ink
  • Barrow
  • Sacrificial altar
  • Millpond and sluice

I’m not going to address “falcon cage,” “barrow” or “sacrificial altar” because these were suggested without elaboration (the first in 1859 by Franz E. Dietrich, the second two in 1976 by Gregory K. Jember). Dietrich later suggested “bookcase” (page 236), which Laurence K. Shook expands upon when solving the riddle as “pen and ink” (pages 224-5) and Craig Williamson gives some credit to when discussing “book” as a possible solution (pages 289-90). Everyone who writes on this sort of solution notes Aldhelm’s Enigma 89, De arca libraria (On a book-chest):

Nunc mea diuinis complentur uiscera uerbis
Totaque sacratos gestant praecordia biblos;
At tamen ex isdem nequeo cognoscere quicquam:
Infelix fato fraudabor munere tali,
Dum tollunt dirae librorum lumina Parcae.
(Glorie, vol. 133, pages 508-9)

(Now my insides are filled up with divine words and all my insides bear sacred volumes; and yet I am unable to learn anything from those: unlucky, I shall be cheated of such tribute by destiny, while the cruel Fates steal the illuminations of books.)

 

There’s defo a similarity, and all of Riddle 49’s talk about silence and lack of voice would make a scriptorium solution pretty ironically appropriate. But as Williamson notes, whether a book or bookcase, it would be weird for such a repository of knowledge to be marked by references to servants, slaves and dirtiness. Knowledge and literacy are nothing to be sneered at in early medieval contexts.

Shook’s “pen and ink” solution stems from his reading of gifrum lacum as “useful pools,” gop as “craftsman” and the dirty-nosed servant as a pen at work (pages 224-5).

Reed pen

A reconstruction of an early modern reed pen. Photo from the University of Cambridge’s (no longer live) Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online project.

While this may get around some of the potential class issues (i.e. dirtiness), if the item in question is a pen swallowing ink then it doesn’t entirely make sense for it to be standing eardfæstne (earth-fast), as Williamson comments (page 290). All this makes the various scriptorium solutions a bit suspect.

Good thing there are millions of other solutions to consider…

Let’s move on to “oven” or OE ofen. This solution, proposed in 1905 by Moritz Trautmann (page 183), seems to be the most widely accepted option today. In fact, most scholars arguing for alternative solutions simply brush past “oven” with little comment. For example, A. N. Doane suggests that “oven” may be right, but it “does not bring the details into sharp focus as a proper solution usually does” (page 250). That seems to me sort of like saying “sure, it could be an oven, but I don’t want it to be.”

Reconstructed medieval oven

Here’s a bread oven under construction at Edcott, the Anglo-Saxon village project in Escot Park, Devon.

Maybe the scholars who’ve written on this riddle before just don’t love bread as much as I do. But let’s give this solution its proper credit. The thinking behind “oven” is that such an object would most certainly be earth-fast, involve darkness/dirtiness (i.e. smoke), and require the labour of servants. An oven also creates something dear to all (especially if covered with garlic…but that’s just my opinion). You may remember from Riddle 45’s commentary that the words hlaford (lord) and hlafdige (lady) are rooted in loafiness…that is the first stems from a term meaning “loaf-protector” and the second from “loaf-kneader.” However, these aren’t the words used here in Riddle 49’s description of noble folk desiring the riddle’s solution (lines 6-7a). Instead, we have æþeling (noble), cyning (king) and cwen (queen)…surely if this is an oven riddle than the riddler has missed a trick.

But there are other aspects to the riddle that seem to imply we’re dealing with something people might want to consume: there are repeated references to swallowing (lines 2b and 11b) and the object in question is depicted as having a mouth (line 6a). Certainly bread is a useful and necessary thing that brings joy, and its use in religious rituals makes it a good candidate for an object that’s golde dyrran (dearer than gold). So “oven” is a contender.

Another option proposed by A. N. Doane is “millpond and sluice” (i.e. water channel with gate). A decent case is made for water being universally needed (page 251), and for it working no matter how we translate gifrum lacum (greedy/useful gifts/streams/pools) (page 252). This solution also works nicely given all the references to swallowing and to its earth-fast-ed-ness. Class issues are similarly put to rest, since Doane imagines the operator of the gate to be a servant (page 253).

But what, oh what, do we do with þæt cyn in line 8a? There, the riddler refuses to name þæt cyn (race/kind), which is rendering for the use of people whatever is shoved into the object’s mouth. Some people translate this term as “kind of thing,” which I suppose works. But really cynn carries connotations of race or nation or generations of a family or species (see DOE). And this, I think, is part of what makes Jennifer Neville’s alternative solution “beehive” so strong.

Bee skep

Here’s a much later bee skep from the Historical Society of Montgomery County. But you get the picture…

Now, Jennifer hasn’t published this solution yet (it’s going to appear in her book on riddles), so I can’t give you many details. But, she did give a brilliant conference paper on this topic at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2015. While you’re waiting to read more about this solution when it comes to print, I’ll leave you with one final question: what’s dearer than gold, precious to royalty, and has every early medieval person in the poetic record a’hankering to swallow it? HONEY? MEAD? BOTH ARE DELICIOUS! Nuff said.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1898; Digital edition. Prague: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2010.

Breeze, Andrew. “Old English Gop ‘Servant’ in Riddle 49: Old Irish Gop ‘Snout’.” Neophilologus, vol. 79 (1995), pages 671-3.

Dietrich, Franz E. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Verfasser, weitere Lösungen.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, vol. 12 (1865), pages 232-52.

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

Doane, A. N. “Three Old English Implement Riddles: Reconsiderations of Numbers 4, 49, and 73.” Modern Philology, vol. 84, issue 3 (Feb. 1987), pages 243-57.

Dictionary of Old English: A-G Online. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, Dorothy Haines, Joan Holland, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, with Pauline Thompson and Nancy Speirs. Web interface by Peter Mielke and Xin Xiang. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007.

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

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

Shook, Laurence K. “Riddles Relating to the Anglo-Saxon Scriptorium.” In Essays in Honour of Anton Charles Pegis. Edited by J. Reginald O’Donnell. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1974, pages 215-36.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Alte und newe Antworten auf altenglische Rätsel.” Bonner Beiträge zur Anglistik, vol. 19 (1905), pages 167-215.

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



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 49 

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Exeter Riddle 50

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Fri 19 Feb 2016
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 50
Original text:

Wiga is on eorþan      wundrum acenned
dryhtum to nytte,      of dumbum twam
torht atyhted,      þone on teon wigeð
feond his feonde.      Forstrangne oft
5     wif hine wrið;      he him wel hereð,
þeowaþ him geþwære,      gif him þegniað
mægeð ond mæcgas      mid gemete ryhte,
fedað hine fægre;      he him fremum stepeð
life on lissum.      Leanað grimme
10     þam þe hine wloncne      weorþan læteð.

Translation:

A warrior is wondrously brought forth on earth
for the profit of people, a bright thing produced
from two speechless ones, which one marshals in anger
foe against his foe. A woman often binds him,
5     the very strong one; he obeys them well,
peaceably serves them, if women and men
minister to him in a fitting manner,
feed him fairly; he furnishes them with benefits,
with the delights of life. Grimly he repays
10     those who let him become proud.

Click to show riddle solution?
Fire, Anger, Dog


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 113r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 206.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 48: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 98.



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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 50

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 10 Mar 2016
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 50

When I was little, bonfires were all the rage. My siblings and I used to run around our backyard gathering up heaps of fallen twigs and then we’d BURN THEM ALL! I am not an arsonist. Proper permits were observed. But there was still something exciting about huddling around a warm outdoor fire on a chilly Canadian evening and slowly feeding the flames until they ate everything up. That’s why Riddle 50 is one of my favourites (I know…I say this about every riddle).

Bonfire against black background

A massive bonfire! Photo (by Fir0002) from the Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).

 

So, obviously, “fire” is the solution I’m going for, and it’s the one that most scholars accept. I’ll give a brief nod to an alternative that was suggested in the early days of riddle scholarship: dog. The problem with the “dog” reading is that dogs aren’t typically torht (“bright”…as in light, not intelligence), and they’re no more wundrum acenned (wondrously brought forth/born) than humans or other animals (Williamson, page 292). Because of this, “dog” has fallen out of fashion and most people go with “fire.”

Why is “fire” a good solution? All sorts of reasons. First of all, we have the clue that the solution is something that’s bright and potentially violent, and also a treasure for people (smithy connotations here?). Think of life in a dark, wooden hut in rainy ol’ England with no heating and that treasure part will make perfect sense. In fact, I’m now having flashbacks to my days of student accommodation (turn on the heat, you sadists!).

Anywho, the fire in this riddle is also the result of a miraculous birth from dumbum twam (two speechless ones). The speechlessness implies inanimate (or at least non-human) parents, which most scholars read as flint and metal. As for that miraculous birth, well Riddle 50 isn’t the only early medieval riddle to associate this sort of thing with fire. There are a whole slew of Latin riddles by Aldhelm and Tatwine (as well as in an anonymous collection from the continent) that deal with fire or sparks in this way. I won’t include them all here, but in case you want to follow up, here’s a list:

  • Aldhelm: Enigmata 44, De Igne (On fire) and 93, De scintilla (On a spark)
  • Tatwine: Enigma 31, De scintilla (On a spark)
  • Bern collection: Enigma 23, De scintilla (On a spark)

These riddles also all deal with the immense power of a small thing that grows up quickly, which kind of goes with the Old English riddle’s reference to feeding and to the fire as a wiga (warrior).

Flames on black background

Here’s some more fire. Photo (by Awesomoman) from the Wikimedia Commons.

 

There’s also another riddle by Tatwine, which focuses on the varying gifts fire can give. Enigma 33, De Igne (On fire) reads:

Testatur simplex triplicem natura figuram
Esse meam, haut mortales qua sine uiuere possunt;
Multiplici quibus en bona munere grata ministro,
Tristia non numquam; tamen haut sum exorsus ab illis.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 200)

(My single nature gives evidence of my existing triple form, without which mortals can by no means live; I supply to them pleasing profits through variable tribute, sometimes sorrowful ones too; but I am not derived from them.)

 

I can think of a number of sorrowful gifts that fire can give, but let’s focus on the pleasant ones, since Riddle 50 talks about this too. The most obvious gift is cooking (yum! I love food!), which Riddle 50’s description of a woman binding fire seems to referring to. The Old English verb form is wrið, which has been read in a number of ways. It’s usually assumed that this form comes from the verb wriðan (to bind, tie, wrap around), but it could also be a form of wreon (to cover) (Williamson, page 292). Both of these interpretations work just fine: a fire is covered by cooking pots, but it’s also imprisoned or bound by any good cook who wants to ensure she (in the highly gendered early medieval world) doesn’t burn the village down.

I like the idea of a woman binding a warrior, since this would be massively subversive in an early medieval context. This is precisely the sort of topsy-turvy hierarchical play that Jennifer Neville talks about when she reads this riddle as a safely contained discussion of the dangers of a ruling class becoming too proud (see the riddle’s final line). She says, “Just as a fire raging out of control can destroy all in its path, so a warrior-class can destroy society if it is not restrained by the prosaic requirements of daily life and obligations to those whom they rule” (page 519). Neville is, of course, careful to note that this riddle is not a call to arms for the labourer class, since the poem accepts its hierarchies without question. But it’s still the role of riddles to subvert power relationships in all sorts of ways.

These power relationships are emphasized in the second half of the riddle when we have all those references to obeying and ministering to and feeding the flames. The feeding imagery also links this riddle to the one that comes before it (Salvador-Bello, page 365). Remember all that swallowing and servitude in Riddle 49? And, of course, both Riddles 48 and 49 depict speechless creatures, so these riddles do seem to be a thematic bundle (Salvador-Bello, page 365).

Speaking of bundles, the last shout out I want to give is to the suggestion that this riddle could be solved with a double solution. Marie Nelson reads the poem on two levels, arguing that it’s about both fire and anger. According to Nelson, “Anger is good if it helps you stay alive, but, uncontrolled, anger becomes a destroyer” (page 448). I quite like this association, especially since so much of early English psychology is focused on the idea that powerful emotions swell up and boil over inside your body. Ever feel all hot and bothered when someone insults you? Well, the mental and bodily worlds haven’t always been considered as separately as they often are today, and the physical heat of anger was once linked to a hydraulic model of the mind (which, coincidentally, was thought to be located in the chest). If you’re interested in this idea, then I can’t recommend highly enough Leslie Lockett’s phenomenal Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. It’s terribly clever. Go read it now.

But, anyway, the link between fire and anger is clearly there in early English psychology, and it may well be this link that the poet’s gesturing toward with that final reference to fire grimly repaying those who let it become proud. A kind of disturbing image to end on…so, here, have some Pixar-related comic relief:

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Nelson, Marie. “Four Social Functions of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Neophilologus, vol. 75 (1991), pages 445-50.

Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles.” Review of English Studies, vol. 62, issue 256 (2011), pages 505-19.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 359-60.

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



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 50 

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Exeter Riddle 51

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 31 Mar 2016
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 51

Riddle 51’s translation is once again by Britt Mize (who translated and provided commentary for Riddle 33). Britt is Associate Professor and Interim Associate Head of English at Texas A&M University where he works on Old and Middle English language and literature, with special interests in linguistics, poetics and drama.



Original text:

Ic seah wrætlice      wuhte feower
samed siþian;     swearte wæran lastas,
swaþu swiþe blacu.      Swift wæs on fore,
fuglum framra      fleag on lyfte;
5     deaf under yþe.     Dreag unstille
winnende wiga,      se him wegas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold      feower eallum.

Translation:

I saw four wondrous creatures
travel together. Dark were the tracks,
very black the footprints. It was swift in its going:
faster than birds it flew through the sky;
5     it dove under wave. Vigorously he labored,
that striving warrior who showed it—all four—
the paths across ornamental gold.

Click to show riddle solution?
Pen and fingers


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 113r-113v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 206.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 49: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 99.



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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 51

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 05 Jan 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 51

This post is once again by Britt Mize from Texas A&M University. Take it away, Britt!

 

Riddles, as a type of wisdom poetry, ask us to learn something by viewing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. When I teach about the Exeter Book riddles, sometimes I turn a chair upside-down on the floor. Then I ask the students to write one sentence describing its “chair-ness” in some way that is made possible only by looking at it from an unusual point of view.

Like this classroom exercise, Old English riddles are a game of perspective manipulation, and this manipulation of viewpoint is often a source of their obscurity. Readers must reverse-engineer the text, using the details that are provided and trying different ways of fitting them together, until they finally catch sight of what the writer has described in a defamiliarizing manner.

Riddle 51 is usually a stumper for people now when they first encounter it. This may have something to do with changes in writing technology (I am typing this on a laptop, not handwriting it with a pen, and even if I were, I wouldn’t be dipping mine in an inkwell). But I think it is mainly because this riddle’s manipulation of perspective involves the additional trick of violating scale. We’ve all seen the photographers’ gimmick of zooming in on something normal, and further and further in, until it becomes bizarre and unrecognizable. This riddle starts out “zoomed in” in exactly that way, and in order to solve it, we must “zoom out” with our mind’s eye and realize that the thing described is connected to the rest of a human body.

After my students make a few guesses, I ask them—the dwindling number of them who are taking notes on paper!—to look down at what they’re doing themselves, right at that very moment. At that point, someone always blurts out the solution: a pen and the three fingers guiding it. The creator of this riddle gives us an extreme close-up of a hand moving a quill tip across the writing surface, and back and forth from inkwell to page, as a scribe (the winnende wiga, “striving warrior”) writes out the text of what is probably imagined to be an expensively decorated or bound gospel manuscript, because such adornments would be most typically given to that kind of book.

640px-tapisserie_moines_mannequins

Photo (by Urban) of some rather creepy, quill-wielding monk mannequins in the Museum of Bayeux from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are two metaphors I’d like to focus on in this riddle.

The more minor one is the “striving warrior” description near the end. This phrase usually provokes a few chuckles in a classroom setting because it seems overblown, if not self-aggrandizing, when used by a monkish writer to describe a person like himself. Similar remarks could be made about many language choices in the Exeter Book riddles, and maybe people a thousand years ago thought it was funny too. But the representation of writing as a kind of combat might also tell us something about how difficult the activity of manual text-copying is, not only in its bodily labor (which does become grueling after as little as a couple of hours: try it and see), but also in the concentration and perseverance that must be maintained to carry out the task with accuracy. Or it may be that a monk writing a holy text could quite seriously see himself as engaged in spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness and not find the martial language high-falutin at all.

The other, more interesting metaphorical pattern in this riddle imagines the act of writing as a journey or expedition—the verb siþian means to go on one of these—by something that leaves tracks behind. The way the fingers and pen are spoken of here defamiliarizes the writer’s hand by making it seem zoological, and the repeated insistence that the object described is somehow both singular and fourfold will probably encourage a reader to think of some sort of quadruped. The animal associations are continued, and the solution further estranged from ordinary viewpoints on a person’s hand, by the comparison with birds, and then by the surprise in the next line that this/these “wondrous creatures” can move deftly in liquid as well as upon the earth and through the air.

I have always loved the image of dark ink on a pale page as tracks across the ground (lastas and swaþu are words for the prints or trail that a person or animal leaves behind). The nuances of this metaphor say something about reading, too, not just about writing: unless somebody comes along later who can understand and follow these traces, they mean nothing. The implication is that a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavoring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.

322px-Harspår_02.jpeg

Photo (by David Castor) of rabbit tracks from Wikimedia Commons

The poet of Riddle 51 and I are not the only ones who have enjoyed contemplating this image, either. At least one 9th-century English prose writer liked it too, because the same metaphor lies behind a famous statement found in the preface to the Old English Pastoral Care. The preface is attributed to King Alfred of Wessex (r. 871–899), and here he, or whoever wrote on his behalf, contemplates the monastic libraries in his kingdom, full of Latin books that he says no one can read anymore. The writer grieves the present, illiterate generation’s terrible loss of earlier generations’ learning and intellectual labor:

Ure ieldran . . . lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan ond us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfterspyrigean. Ond forðæm we habbað nu ægðer forlæten ge ðone welan ge ðone wisdom, forðæmðe we noldon to ðæm spore mid ure mode onlutan. (Sweet, vol. 1, page 5)

(Our predecessors . . . loved wisdom, and through it they gained prosperity and left it to us. One can still see their track here, but we do not know how to follow after them. And for that reason we have now lost both the prosperity and the wisdom: because we would not bend down to the track with our mind.)

bodl_hatton20_roll175c_frame1

King Alfred’s West Saxon Version of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care in MS Hatton 20 (fol. 001r) from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

A modern poet, the Welsh priest R. S. Thomas (1913–2000), also returned more than once to the image of writing on a page as a track or path that something left behind its movement. In his 1961 poem “The Maker,” Thomas describes a poet preparing to create. After taking “blank paper,” the poet

drilled his thoughts to the slow beat
Of the blood’s drum; and there it formed
On the white surface and went marching
Onward through time, while the spent cities
And dry hearts smoked in its wake.
(Thomas, page 42)

The path here is one of military destruction, and it’s all too legible. In a later poem, “The Word” (1975), Thomas comes back again to the metaphor of writing as a track, this time in a way somewhat more similar to Riddle 51:

A pen appeared, and the god said:
“Write what it is to be
man.” And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,

until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out

the word “lonely.” And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: “It is true.”
(Thomas, page 86)

R. S. Thomas’s “footprints of the lost traveller” resonate sympathetically with the disorientation lamented by the writer of the Pastoral Care preface. But there is still an important difference, and it’s one of perspective, which brings us back to the game that the riddles so often play.

For writers in the Old English tradition, the message of a text doesn’t just sit, as “content,” inside the block of writing that is present before the reader like a container, the way we tend to think of it. Instead, the message moves along the writing, or out in front of it (imagine a cursor on a computer screen that keeps going steadily forward), such that the inattentive or uncommitted reader is in danger of being left behind. This has to do with the fact that a thousand years ago writing was normally read aloud to listeners: receiving a text’s meaning was usually a time-bound, unidirectional event, like watching a movie is for us, that made it hard for audiences to go back and re-process the language as we can so easily do now when we privately read books or other textual media that we can freely manipulate. This condition of reception made for a different concept of “where” meaning is, in relation to its written manifestation, and what one must do to access it.

The important point here is that in an early English cultural context, writing suggests a message, a target of pursuit, that is always receding from the reader, a follower who must search for its signs and grasp at it. It must be actively kept up with.

This sense of distance and active pursuit is inherent in following an organic track along the ground. It can be seen, too, in language like that used in Beowulf, when Grendel’s severed arm, torn off at Heorot, is said to last weardian “guard his trail” (line 971b). The phrase simply indicates, in poetic language, that the limb is left behind when Grendel flees; but it does so by invoking the trail extending forward from the arm, a sort of dotted line connecting that dismembered body part with the target of pursuit, Grendel himself. Such a trail may be followed successfully, or may get lost in the faintness or unintelligibility of its signs. The realistic difficulty of tracking one’s prey or one’s fore-goer is captured well by the image, and we need to apply this sense to the metaphor of written language as a track, too.

In his poems cited above, R. S. Thomas always assumes of written tracks that observers can read them, if they wish. In “The Word,” they represent knowledge based on common experience, available to all and lost only if the many voices that affirm it are stifled; in “The Maker,” the written “wake” signals only a poem’s continuing ability to threaten its present readers like an army on a scorched-earth campaign. In both of Thomas’s poems the meaning, the “where” of the message, moves toward readers who may or may not wish to know it.

In contrast, the written traces that interested Old English writers are signs left behind by a message, by wisdom, that elusively moves away from readers and must be followed with great effort. The writer of the Pastoral Care’s preface worries that the trail is cold, that the learned predecessors are too far out of range to follow anymore.

It seems likely to me that the same implicit danger underlies Riddle 51’s controlling metaphor. The holy book whose copying this little Old English poem describes is a materially precious object, adorned with gold leaf. But in order for its value to transcend its material splendor, it must be read—and reading isn’t easy, least of all in Latin in 9th- or 10th-century Britain. Does Riddle 51’s (mock-)heroic tone, its sense of the monk-copyist’s triumphant skill, constitute a challenge to its readers or hearers not to let the wisdom of books get away? That challenging posture would certainly be appropriate to the genre of the riddle. So would a hint that the wisdom of books, like the solutions to riddles, must be sought with diligence, alertness to all possibilities, and readiness to see things from a new, unfamiliar perspective.

Notes:

References:

Fulk, R. D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburh. 4th edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Sweet, Henry, ed. King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care. 2 vols, Early English Text Society, old series 45 and 50. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1871; reprint, Millwood, NY: Kraus, 1978.

Thomas, R. S. The Poems of R. S. Thomas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1985.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 51  britt mize 

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