Commentary for Exeter Riddle 17


Date: Tue 24 Dec 2013
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 17

This post once again comes from Wendy Hennequin:

Translation is a tricky business at its best. Lines 4b-5a, for instance, has a grammatical structure that we rarely use in Modern English, and its first word, sped, has multiple and varied meanings.  Which one of these meanings should I choose? How should I render that grammatical structure?  Riddles add another layer to the problems, as riddles often play on multiple meanings, sounds, and puns. The word fylle, “fullness,” in line 5a, may be a pun on fiell, also spelled fyll, “destruction, death, fall.” How do I translate a pun which doesn’t exist anymore?

To make matters more difficult for myself, I like to render my Modern English translations into the correct Old English poetic form, as much as is possible without losing meaning. Meaning must be the ultimate priority, since a translation is useless if it doesn’t tell the reader, as far as is possible, what a text says.

But it is also good to preserve the poetry, to give the reader an idea of the sound and feel of the original text. I therefore try to put the text into the correct Old English meter and adhere to the rules of Old English alliteration. I use Sievers’ types for the meter (Sievers’ types, named for the scholar who codified them, are the five patterns of stress in Old English half-lines. You can read about them here), though I don’t try to match the meter of the original half-line with the meter of the translation. It is often impossible to match the original metrical type and preserve the meaning, though sometimes it does happen.

Sometimes, it is not possible to translate meaning and render proper meter and alliteration. In those cases, I preserve meaning but relax the poetry. Generally, it is possible to keep the meter if I let the alliteration go. But in some cases, I am able to rescue both meter and alliteration by using the Old English poetic technique of variation. Line 1b in Riddle 17, when translated literally into Modern English, doesn’t have enough syllables to make a half-line: “I am protector of my flock.”  In cases like these, I often use an alternate meaning for a word already in the line: mundbora, “protector,” is literally “hand-ruler.” By putting both meanings in the line—in other words, repeating mundbora as a variation of itself—I can render the poetry without adding or losing meaning, though it does regrettably add emphasis.

Even in the best of times, my Modern English translations are not as poetic as the originals. Modern English grammar sometimes makes for clumsy Old English poetry, as it does in lines 4a and 9a of my translation. And Modern English syntax often necessitates moving words from one line to another, and even moving entire half-lines, in order to make grammatical sense.

Perhaps my translations are not the best or most accurate, nor even the most poetic. But I hope to preserve the meaning of the poem and give at least a good idea of what Old English poetry sounds like.


References and Suggested Reading:

Clark Hall, J. R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 4th ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960.

Osborn, Marijane. “‘Skep’ (Beinenkorb, *beoleap) as a Culture-Specific Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 17.” ANQ, vol. 18 (2005), pages 7-18.

Sorrell, Paul. “A Bee in My Bonnet: Solving Riddle 17 of the Exeter Book.” In New Windows on a Woman’s World: Essays for Jocelyn Harris. Edited by Colin Gibson and Lisa Marr. Dunedin, NZ: University of Otago Press, 2005, pages 544-53.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990): pages 393-408.

Note that this post and the related translation were edited and restructured for clarity on 15 January 2021.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  riddle 17  translation style  wendy hennequin 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 27


Date: Tue 02 Sep 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 27

Here’s Wendy Hennequin‘s follow-up to her translation:


The general consensus about Riddle 27 is that the solution is “mead” (Tupper Jr., page 132; Rodrigues, page 131; Niles, page 135). Tupper and Rodrigues note that whip and sleep have also been proposed (pages 132; 131). Niles has recently proposed a double solution: “nectar (honey-dew) and mead” to account for both the first part of the poem regarding the origins of honey and the second part of the riddle, which describes mead’s effects (pages 135-36). Certainly, Niles is correct in identifying two parts of the riddle—a sort of “before and after.” At first, the mysterious object is found everywhere: mountains, valleys, woods, and cities. Then, afterwards, the object fells men. The transition between these two stages is the bath in a barrel (or bucket). The other proposed solutions, whip and sleep, do not account for that transition.


Here’s a picture of some home-brewed honey-fruit mead. Photo (by Evan-Amos) from Wikimedia Commons.

Except for Niles’ very brief discussion of word play in Riddle 27 (pages 135-36), I have not found any critical discussion of Riddle 27. Only a few of the Exeter Book Riddles have been examined extensively beyond the search for their solutions and their relationships to other riddles, Latin or Old Norse. [editorial note: Elinor Teele’s PhD thesis does devote a section to this riddle, but it is — very unfortunately — not widely available. If you are ever in Cambridge, a trip to the University Library to read it is highly recommended]

I am struck, however, by the image of the riddle’s object being a scourger, a hurler. This image is noteworthy not only for its vividness, but for its repetition: we are told twice that the riddle’s object can knock people flat on their backs. This wrestling imagery brings to mind the Snorri Sturluson’s Old Norse story of Thor’s journey to the house of Útgarða-Loki. While there, Thor wrestles an old woman named Elli in order to prove his strength and prowess. Elli forces him to kneel even though Thor is the god of strength (Sturluson, pages 44-45). Elli turns out to be Old Age. (Kevin Crossley-Holland retells this story as “Thor’s Journey to Utgard” in The Norse Myths; the story has also appeared frequently in children’s books). Elli, like the mead in the riddle, can fell anyone, “for there never has been anyone, and there never will be anyone, if they get so old that they experience old age, that old age will not bring them all down” (Sturluson, page 45).

In contrast, Riddle 27 emphasizes that overindulgence in mead is foolish (lines 12 and 17) and that it is a choice. We don’t have to wrestle with mead: we can stop seeking folly before it’s too late (line 12). Elli’s victory is inevitable. But mead wins only when we allow it. This emphasis on the imprudence of getting drunk—and that getting drunk is a choice—may indicate something of the early English attitude towards alcohol and drunkenness. Certainly, poems like Beowulf and The Wanderer tell us that sharing mead was an integral part of the communal culture of the comitatus (war-band) and the mead hall. But Riddle 27’s portrayal of drunkenness as folly and defeat, and its invocation of an image of defeat by an old woman, tells us that early medieval culture did not consider intoxication an inevitable part of mead sharing but rather as an unfortunate and foolish loss of self-control that leads to the defeat of one’s body and senses—if one is lucky. For some of Hrothgar’s thanes in Beowulf are not so lucky: their drunken boasts to defeat Grendel lead to their deaths (lines 480-87). Certainly, Riddle 27 emphasizes a metaphorical and temporary defeat: the loss of physical and mental control while intoxicated. But in a world of feuds and Viking incursions (let alone mythical monster attacks), a drunk warrior might well suffer a more permanent and lethal defeat if he chose to fall to the power of mead.


References and Suggested Reading:

Beowulf. Ed. Francis Klaeber. 3rd ed. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1950.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

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

Rodrigues, Louis J. Sixty-five Anglo-Saxon Riddles. 2nd ed. Felinfach, Wales: Llanerch, 1998.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Ed. and trans. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman / J.M. Dent, 2002.

Teele, Elinor. “The Heroic Tradition in the Old English Riddles.” Diss. University of Cambridge, 2004.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. and introduction. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 27  wendy hennequin 

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