Commentary for Riddle 36

I gotta confess: I’ve never been a puzzler. This might come as a thoroughly shocking announcement from someone who spends her time wading through scholarship on Old English riddles, but it’s not the solving that I like…it’s all the other bits. So, you’ll understand when I say that writing up Riddle 36 has been tough. I mean, have you read Riddle 36? It’s a nightmare to solve. But I have learned things, and I intend to share them with you because I’m generous like that.

Soooooooooo, I’m guessing the first thing on your minds is: what, what, what is with line 5? (a reminder of what it looks like: monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs) Is this jumble intentional? Or did the scribe just have some sort of random hand spasm and reckon that no one would notice? A combination of the two? Maybe!

Scholarly opinion has it that line 5 was copied down by mistake. It seems to be a code for the solution that was scribbled between the lines, and some scribe or other managed to merge with the riddle itself. The code places the Old English words monn (man), wiif (woman) and hors (horse) next to a series of letter forms that conceal their Latin equivalents: homo (man), mulier (woman) and equus (horse). In order to get to these forms, we need to swap the consonants b, f, k, p and x with the vowels that precede them in the alphabet (a, e, i, o and u). We also need to account for copying errors, dropped letters and the replacing of “p” with the runic letter “wynn” (google it; they look similar). All this to say that line 5 really ought not to be in this riddle at all.

This particular cryptographic code seems to have been well known to early medieval folks. If you’re curious about puzzles like this, check out Dieter Bitterli’s book in the references below. Should you be at all like me, you may well guffaw loudly at Bitterli’s statement that “the boundaries between recreational mathematics on the one side and literary riddling on the other must have been fluid” at the time (page 68). What a shame that we don’t hear more about “recreational mathematics” these days.

Now back to the riddle in question. I say “riddle,” but of course some scholars think this is actually two separate riddles. Given that line 5 has actually been plunked down in the middle of a verse (the alliteration of lines 4 and 6 indicates that they’re meant to be one line), it’s not such a stretch to imagine that other mistakes have occurred. And the two parts of the riddle do read quite differently.

First we have a numerical, “add’em up”-style riddle, which is rounded off by a challenge to name the solution in line 8. And then we have a descriptive, “it’s sorta like this but not that”-style section with another challenge. Norman E. Eliason has argued that the adding-of-body-parts-section is reminiscent of both riddles that refer to a horse and rider and riddles that refer to a pregnant animal. This leads him to propose that lines 1-8 comprise a riddle that can be solved as “a pregnant horse with two pregnant women on its back,” while lines 9-14 make up a ship-riddle. He actually goes so far to claim “attempts to solve it as a single riddle are unsatisfactory, for the solutions proposed are so fanciful and complicated that the riddle is made to seem absurd” (pages 563-4). Because a pregnant horse carrying two pregnant women isn’t absurd at all. In fact, this poem has attracted sarcasm like no tomorrow. Craig Williamson, commenting on Eliason’s interpretation, writes: “This is a burden too heavy to bear.” HA! Get it? Too much of a burden for the horse AND too much of a burden for the interpretation. You’re terribly droll, Williamson.

I feel like that little debate deserves a picture:

Riddle 36 Pregnant Horse and Women

 Now that you’re all done appreciating my mad artist’s skillz, it’s time to accept that, even if we don’t solve the first section as a pregnancy party, it is very possible that the two sections are separate poems. Or that the second section is an elaboration on the first in a different style. Will we ever know? (prolly not…soz)

But what do we know? Well, we know that we’re dealing with the sort of imagery that crops up in other ship riddles (see Riddle 19 and Riddle 64). In these riddles, the man = the sailor, the horse = the ship and the bird = the sails. That’s why most scholars take Riddle 36 to point to a ship too. Williamson certainly agrees, and he argues that the likenesses of a hound and woman in lines 11-12 indicate figureheads on both the fore and aft. He points out that the Bayeux Tapestry includes an image of such a ship, although I couldn’t find an open access one. Here, have this single figure-headed ship pic instead:

Bayeux_horses_boatsPhoto from the Wikimedia Commons.

Incidentally, Williamson also thinks that this riddle can stand as one text, maintaining that the array of body parts in the first section refer thusly:

  • the four feet below = oars
  • the eight feet above = those of the oarsmen/travelers
  • the two wings = sails
  • the six heads and twelve eyes = those of the oarsmen/travelers and the figureheads

As you know, I’m not that into puzzles. So, as the simplest explanation of a very complicated poem (or poems), I’m inclined to agree with this interpretation. But if you don’t, feel free to rage and rail against me. Just do it in the comments section below…


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 68-74.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

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

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Riddle 36 (or 34)

Ic wiht geseah     on wege feran,

seo was wrætlice     wundrum gegierwed.

Hæfde feowere     fet under wombe

ond ehtuwe

5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs

ufon on hrycge;

hæfde tu fiþru     ond twelf eagan

ond siex heafdu.     Saga hwæt hio wære.

For flodwegas;     ne wæs þæt na fugul ana,

10     ac þær wæs æghwylces     anra gelicnes

horses ond monnes,     hundes ond fugles,

ond eac wifes wlite.     Þu wast, gif þu const,

to gesecganne,     þæt we soð witan,

hu þære wihte     wise gonge.


I saw a creature travel on the way,

she was curiously adorned with wonders.

She had four feet under her belly

and eight

5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs

up on her back;

she had two wings and twelve eyes

and six heads. Say what she was.

It travelled the water-ways; nor was it only a bird,

10     but there was the likeness of every one of these:

of horse and of man, of hound and of bird,

and also the appearance of a woman. You know, if you understand

speaking, what we know [to be] the truth,

how the nature of that creature goes.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ship; Man woman horse; Two men, woman, horses, dog, bird on ship; Waterfowl hunt; Pregnant horse, two pregnant women; Hunting; Sow and five piglets

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Commentary for Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle

Ding ding ding! It’s official, folks, we’ve reached the most popular Anglo-Saxon riddle in the world. I’m not just saying that because I’ve done research on early medieval textiles and this riddle includes pretty much ALL the Old English textile terms (k, slight exaggeration). And I’m not just saying that because scholars have been squabbling over the meaning of ONE of its half-lines for years (line 6a: “through the pressure of weights”?; “through the crowded many”?; “through the violence of blows”?; what does it mean?!). I’m saying that because this riddle exists in not one, not even two, but THREE versions!

“But wait, Megan,” I hear you saying. “You’ve been holding out on us. I distinctly remember the term BOGOFF being used in your translation post, and that means two.” And you’re not wrong. But there’s also a sneaky little Latin version – Enigma 33, De lorica (on the mail-coat) – that I neglected to mention. Let’s rectify that now:

Roscida me genuit gelido de uiscere tellus;

Non sum setigero lanarum uellere facta,

Licia nulla trahunt nec garrula fila resultant

Nec crocea seres taxunt lanugine uermes

Nec radiis carpor duro nec pectine pulsor;

Et tamen en ‘uestis’ uulgi sermone uocabor.

Spicula non uereor longis exempta faretris. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 417)

(The dewy earth brought me forth from its icy innards; I am not made from the bristly fleece of wool; no loom-leashes pull me nor do noisy threads rebound, nor do Chinese worms weave me from their yellow floss; I am not tortured by beams nor beaten by the cruel comb; yet, lo, I am called a coat in common speech. I do not fear arrows drawn from long quivers.)

This lurvely little gem appears in a late seventh-century metrical treatise, known as the Epistola ad Acircium, which the Anglo-Saxon poet Aldhelm sent to King Aldfrith of Northumbria. What’s that? Northumbria? Isn’t there a Northumbrian Old English riddle bouncing around too? OH YES THERE IS! Sorry, I’m getting carried away with the caps lock. I’ll try to calm myself down.

Dating the Northumbrian version has presented a few problems (dating always does, my dears; it always does), but it has recently been assigned to the eighth century. That would be the poem, not the manuscript in which the Leiden Riddle is copied at a later date. This manuscript also includes Latin enigmata by Symphosius and Aldhelm, so the Old English riddle isn’t terribly out of place.

The biggest differences between the poems (aside from language/dialect) are the differing final lines of Exeter Book Riddle 35, as well as the shifting of clues in both Old English versions (so the torturey image occurs after the fate-filled silkworms, rather than before, as in the Latin poem). There are also minor differences here and there, like the very fact that the silkworms are associated with wyrda (“fates,” plural) in the Exeter Book version and only uyrdi (“fate,” singular) in the Leiden Riddle. Any talk of fate in relation to textiles and scholars start to get antsy (think Greek Fates spinning/measuring/snipping your life-thread), so I feel like I should point out that there doesn’t seem to be anything fate-ish in the Latin enigma. There, the worms are associated with the silk-producing region of their origin.

An image should’ve gone here. But you trying googling “silkworms.” EURGH!

Of course, the textiley imagery in these poems has been quite popular in and of itself. The riddles are some of the only poetic texts to preserve information about daily life, so this poem often gets read alongside the list of textile implements found in Gerefa, an eleventh/twelfth-century guide for an estate manager or reeve. From this list, we learn all sorts of interesting terms, like gearnwindan (yarn-winder), amb (beater?) and sceaðele (shuttle).

Riddle 35 textiles

Here are some textiley bits from the Viking Craft Fair in York, February 2010.

But these riddles don’t actually show us a textile, do they? That’s, well, sort of the whole point. For a long time, scholars focused on the poetic paradox of a shirt that vocally negates any relationship to weaving. “I’m not woven!” it seemed to say. “Not even a little bit!” Then along came the very sensible Benjamin Weber to remind us that this shirt most definitely IS woven, just not with the materials that are used to weave textiles. He reminded us that the interlocking of metal rings to make mail-coats is referred to as “weaving” all over the place in early medieval literature.

Riddle 35 mail

Photo (by MatthiasKabel) of 2nd-century Roman replica mail armour from the Wikimedia Commons.

This is a common way of describing the making of mail in Beowulf, Elene and even Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: Lorica vocata eo quod loris careat; solis enim circulis ferreis contexta est (The lorica is called thus because it lacks leather ties; for it is woven from entirely iron hoops) (2: XVIII.xiii.1). So, the paradox of this poem isn’t: “I’m not a woven shirt; what am I?” It’s: “I’m a shirt that’s woven, but not out of what you might think.” Does that make sense? I feel like it’s an important distinction, but then again I do like me a good bit o’ textilin’.

But you know what I like more? Sleep. So no more writey tonighty.


References and Suggested Readings:

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

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive Originum libri XX. Edited by W. M. Lindsay. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.

Weber, Benjamin. “The Isidorian Context of Aldhelm’s “Lorica” and Exeter Riddle 35.” Neophilologus, vol. 96 (2012), pages 457-66.

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Riddle 35 (or 33) and the Leiden Riddle

It’s BOGOFF day at The Riddle Ages! For the low, low (free) price of one riddle, you get two related poems! First, take a look at Riddle 35 from the (West Saxon) Exeter Book. Then scroll down to see the Leiden Riddle, a very similar version in another Old English dialect (Northumbrian). Notice any interesting differences?


Riddle 35

Mec se wæta wong,    wundrum freorig,

of his innaþe     ærist cende.

Ne wat ic mec beworhtne    wulle flysum,

hærum þurh heahcræft,     hygeþoncum min.

5     Wundene me ne beoð wefle,   ne ic wearp hafu,

ne þurh þreata geþræcu    þræd me ne hlimmeð,

ne æt me hrutende     hrisil scriþeð,

ne mec ohwonan   sceal am cnyssan.

Wyrmas mec ne awæfan   wyrda cræftum,

10     þa þe geolo godwebb   geatwum frætwað.

Wile mec mon hwæþre seþeah   wide ofer eorþan

hatan for hæleþum   hyhtlic gewæde.

Saga soðcwidum,   searoþoncum gleaw,

wordum wisfæst,   hwæt þis gewæde sy.


The wet plain, wonderfully cold,

first bore me out of its womb.

I know in my mind I was not wrought

of wool from fleeces, with hair through great skill.

5    Wefts are not wound for me, nor do I have a warp,

nor does thread resound in me through the force of blows,

nor does a whirring shuttle glide upon me,

nor must the beater strike me anywhere.

The worms who adorn fine yellow cloth with trappings

10     did not weave me together with the skills of the fates.

Nevertheless widely over the earth

someone calls me a garment joyful for warriors.

Say with true words, clever with skillful-thoughts,

with very wise words, what this garment might be.



The Leiden Riddle

Mec se ueta uong,     uundrum freorig,

ob his innaðae     aerest cæn[.]æ.

Ni uaat ic mec biuorthæ   uullan fliusum,

herum ðerh hehcraeft,     hygiðonc[…..].

Uundnae me ni biað ueflæ,   ni ic uarp hafæ,

5     ni ðerih ðreatun giðraec    ðret me hlimmith,

ne me hrutendu     hrisil scelfath,

ni mec ouana     aam sceal cnyssa.

Uyrmas mec ni auefun    uyrdi craeftum,

ða ði geolu godueb     geatum fraetuath.

10     Uil mec huethrae suae ðeh    uidæ ofaer eorðu

hatan mith heliðum   hyhtlic giuæde;

ni anoegun ic me aerigfaerae   egsan brogum,

ðeh ði n[…]n siæ     niudlicae ob cocrum.

[Old English text from Smith, A. H., ed., Three Northumbrian Poems. London: Methuen, 1933.]


The wet plain, wonderfully cold,

first bore me out of its womb.

I know in my mind I was not wrought

of wool from fleeces, with hair through great skill.

5     Wefts are not wound for me, nor do I have a warp,

nor does thread resound in me through the force of blows,

nor does a whirring shuttle shake upon me,

nor must the beater strike me anywhere.

The worms who adorn fine yellow cloth with trappings

10     did not weave me together with the skills of fate.

Nevertheless widely over the earth

one calls me a garment joyful for warriors;

nor do I fear terror from the peril of a flight of arrows,

though they be eagerly pulled from the quiver.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the solution: Mail-coat (i.e. armour)


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Commentary for Riddle 34

This week’s commentary is also by Corinne Dale of Royal Holloway. Go, Corinne:


Riddle 34 has been widely solved as “rake.” This solution makes perfect sense; anyone who has had the good fortune of becoming acquainted with the simple but effective rake, if only by watching others use one from afar whilst being fanned by palm leaves, will know that its predominant feature is the many “teeth” affixed to its bar. They will also have observed that a rake travels across the ground as it is pulled towards the user. A similar motion is described in Riddle 34; the subject’s nebb (nose) points niþerweard (downwards) and the creature is described as travelling ham (home) (lines 3-4). A rake can be used for weeding, thus explaining the way Riddle 34’s subject leaves behind only the beautiful plants (line 7a), although apparently there is little evidence to say exactly how weeding was carried out in Anglo-Saxon England (see Banham and Faith, pages 59-60).

A rake can also collect dead grass or dying plants, explaining those plants that fæst ne biþ (are not firmly rooted) in Riddle 34 (line 6b), and can be used to gather in hay, hence the riddle-subject’s ability to feed the feoh (herds) in line 2a. Presumably, the riddle’s wera burgum refers to a human setting, such as a farmstead (line 1b). The reference to weallas (line 5a) takes a little more explanation; Williamson suggests that it could refer to domestic gardening, the walls being the perimeters of the settlement, but also suggests emending the word to wealdas, meaning “forest” (Williamson, page 243). Though forests and woods were used in farming for pasture (Banham and Faith, page 203), it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a rake would be used among trees.

Very little has been said about Riddle 34 in Old English scholarship; Williamson’s notes and commentary on the riddle are particularly short, among the shortest (perhaps the shortest) in his edition. Yet there are some pretty interesting aspects to the riddle that invite investigation and comment.

Riddle 34 Wooden Rake

Photo of a wooden hand rake (by Chmee2) from the Wikimedia Commons.


Firstly, the riddle-writer’s explicit reference to wyrtum (plants) removes much of the ambiguity from the riddle – why not choose a more ambiguous term to help disguise the answer? Why refer explicitly to blooming and growing as well? Perhaps all this raking business is a metaphor for something else, something that requires a more imaginative leap?

I suggest the answer to the riddle could also be “scholar” or “successful scholar.” The riddle’s description of a creature that has many teeth and a nose pointing downwards brings to my mind the somewhat comic image of a human being with his or her nose buried in a book. We medievalists have all been there, nebb niþerweard…


This gentleman may be an avid scholar or may simply enjoy the smell of books, in which case, fair play. Photograph by Henti Smith, subject to CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


In the growing dark, with just a flickering candle for light, the medieval scholar’s nose would have quite literally been in the pages, much like this fellow’s threatens to:

Riddle 34 Eadwine

Portrait of Eadwine (public domain) from the Wikimedia Commons.


Nebb, however, can also be translated as “nib,” which, if we are to read the riddle’s solution as “successful scholar,” would refer to the nib of a scholar’s pen. Interpreted this way, it would be the nib that points downwards and moves across the page (the page being the ground/field), before returning to ham (home), i.e. back to the beginning, the margin. There are depictions of pages as fields in other early medieval riddles, including Aldhelm’s Enigma 59, Penna and Eusebius’s Enigma 32, De membrano.

My interpretation of Riddle 34 is inspired by Fred C. Robinson’s reading of Riddle 47’s bookworm as an unsuccessful scholar who does not take in the words he reads. Robinson notes a number of puns throughout the riddle, including the play on swealgan, meaning both “to swallow” and “to take into the mind, accept, imbibe (wisdom)” (Robinson, page 357). It is possible that Riddle 34 depicts the contrasting concept of the successful scholar in its depiction of a subject that hiþeð holdlice (faithfully plunders), findeð (finds) the ones (i.e. plants or words) that fæst ne biþ (are not firmly rooted) and læteð (leaves) þa wlitigan, wyrtum fæste, / stille stondan on staþolwonge (the beautiful ones, firmly rooted, standing still in their foundation place) (lines 4a-9b). The idea is that the attentive scholar can root out those words that are not valuable but leave those that are more valuable to stand firm, either in his or her mind or on the page. Perhaps this is just the imaginings of a PhD student used to a supervisor’s scrupulous weeding-out of weaker ideas within her thesis and leaving the stronger ones to bloom, but I think the notion is worth pursuing.

Riddle 47’s bookworm is a thief, a plunderer; in Riddle 34 the rake is also a plunderer, but it “plunders faithfully” (or “attentively”) – a bizarre word pairing that perhaps suggests the creature is careful of what it roots up. Both texts refer to foundations, too; Riddle 47 refers to the staþol the worm swallows, whilst Riddle 34 refers to the staþolwonge in which the plants grow. Staþol, says Robinson, can be used to refer to a book’s foundations but can also be used in an abstract sense “to refer to intellectual foundations or to the context of a thought or an argument” (Robinson, page 357). This dual meaning can also be applied to Riddle 34. Likewise, the weallas of Riddle 34 could refer to the “walls” of the book – its covers – whilst also referring to natural walls or the walls of a human settlement. This theory could explain the somewhat peculiar use of weallas in the riddle.

I wonder if the last four lines have religious connotations. Scripture contains references to good and bad seeds, to cultivation and weeds; for example, in the Parable of the Growing Seed, Christ says that a “sower” – one who spreads the Word – will sow some seeds that will necessarily fall by the wayside. He says of these people, “Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts”; but there are some people in whom the seed will grow, bloom and bear fruit (Mark 4:14-20). Could Riddle 34’s plants be metaphors for human beings, for the sinners that are uprooted and the faithful that stand firm, bloom and grow? The Exeter Book’s largely pious readership – monks – would no doubt have noted the evocative nature of the imagery, even though the first half of the riddle invites a mundane solution (exhibiting the miraculous in the mundane is what the riddle-writers do, after all). Monks often cultivated their own plots within the monastery grounds, but this metaphorical “weeding” is a type of gardening they would also have been familiar with.

Riddle 34 Monk Gardening

Gardening, Medieval monk-style. Photo by Hans S, subject to CC BY-ND 2.0 license.


An afterthought: I have been talking about male scholars, but the subject of Riddle 34 is apparently female (seo is a feminine pronoun). Why is this? Could this disqualify my solution? Or could this be evidence of (thriving?) female literacy in late Anglo-Saxon England?


References and Suggested Reading:

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

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: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pages 355-75.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

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Riddle 34 (or 32)

Riddle 34 comes to us from Corinne Dale. Corinne is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she works on riddles and eco-criticism.


Ic wiht geseah      in wera burgum

seo þæt feoh fedeð.      Hafað fela toþa;

nebb biþ hyre æt nytte,      niþerweard gongeð,

hiþeð holdlice      ond to ham tyhð,

5     wæþeð geond weallas,      wyrte seceð;

aa heo þa findeð      þa þe fæst ne biþ;

læteð hio þa wlitigan,      wyrtum fæste,

stille stondan      on staþolwonge,

beorhte blican,      blowan ond growan.


I saw a creature in men’s dwellings,

the one who feeds the herds. It has many teeth;

its nose is at use; downward it goes,

plunders faithfully and proceeds towards home,

hunts through walls, seeks plants.

It always finds the ones that are not firmly rooted;

it lets the beautiful ones, firm in their roots,

stand still in their foundations,

shine brightly, bloom and grow.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Rake

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Commentary for Riddle 33

As with the translation, the commentary for Riddle 33 comes to us from Dr. Britt Mize. Take it away, Britt!


When Megan invited me to write a Riddle Ages posting and gave me my pick of Exeter Book riddles, it didn’t take me long to choose. Number 33 has always been my favorite.

The only solution to this riddle that accounts for all the details is “iceberg,” and I agree with those who have thought over the years that the iceberg is colliding with a ship. In other words, I believe that ceol (meaning “ship”) in line 2 is not metaphoric as the Dictionary of Old English assumes in citing this riddle, but a literal ship, and the bordweallas in line 6 are likewise real “walls of board” – here the ship’s hull (although this is also an image from battle poetry, a point I’ll come back to). The iceberg is described as a marvelous, beautiful floating thing, but this one isn’t just floating around beautifully. Although water is beneficial, a fact also referenced in the riddle, as we’ll see, the frozen form that it takes here it is clearly performing an action that is harmful to humans. Otherwise its “laughter,” the noise it makes when it “calls out to shore from the ship,” wouldn’t be, in line 4, egesful on earde (terrible in the land).

Riddle 33 is a little unusual in focusing on a specific, momentary event. Many of the Exeter Book riddles that have a narrative aspect either recount the object’s creation as a lengthy process, like the transition from animal to detached skin to usable parchment to finished gospel manuscript (Riddle 26), or else they describe habitual, repeated, ordinary actions rather than something that happens once at a certain instant in time (examples of this kind include numbers 5 and 16). The riddles’ tendency to typify is consistent with their affiliation with wisdom literature – in many cultures the riddle is a wisdom genre – because they are addressing what the world is like, forcing new perspectives or understandings by defamiliarizing the familiar. Even riddles of the “I saw . . .” type, whose narrative setup of witnessing would seem to promise the particular, generally tell of something commonplace and easily or repeatedly observed, like a hand guiding a pen in Riddle 51, or the chicken love that inspires bizarrely ornate poetic stylings in Riddle 42. But while number 33 is a departure from the usual in offering a snapshot of a more singular occurrence and meditating on it poetically, this is not to say that there are no others like it. You might compare the famous Riddle 47, which perhaps has a similar immediacy if we imagine it capturing the moment of discovery that hungry insect larvae have destroyed a precious book, or, outside of the Exeter collection, the riddle carved on the front of a small whalebone box known as the Franks Casket, which narrates the beaching of a whale.


Photo of the Franks Casket (by Michel wal) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Riddle 33 is organized around two different conceits. If you’re a fan of 17th-century metaphysical verse and thus already know what a poetic “conceit” is, you can skip the rest of this paragraph. If you are still reading: a conceit is a metaphor that a poet holds on to through an extended pattern of images and analogies, in order to structure a whole poem according to some non-literal comparison. When John Donne – in a seduction attempt that surely, please, could not possibly work – humorously describes a flea as if it were a marriage bed or bridal chamber, and then will not let go of the idea but just keeps on about it, he has us (and his reluctant lady) in the grips of a conceit.

We don’t normally use the term “conceit” in application to Old English poems, but I’m going to, because it’s a useful angle of approach in this case. So as I was saying, two conceits help to structure Riddle 33 and generate its content. One emerges in a series of details portraying the iceberg as an entity that is not just vocal, but actually linguistic, endowed with the ability to communicate. This is different from the riddles that are in the first person, as if the object were speaking the riddle about itself to us. Rather, this poet as putative observer of a maritime collision describes the iceberg as possessing voice. It “calls out to shore”; even its “laughter” is intelligible, mocking and causing terror to those on land who hear it. The berg’s articulateness is not limited to sound, either. It also writes, when the poet represents the gash it leaves in the broken hull of the ship as a carved character with meaning, a “hate-rune.”

Most interestingly, the “cunning” iceberg “speaks of her own creation” and serves up a riddle-within-a-riddle (a device occasionally found elsewhere, as in Riddle 1’s allusion to the Great Flood, at lines 12-13). The embedded riddle within 33, occupying the last five lines of the poem, is a logic puzzle based on generational paradoxes:

My mother . . .

   is the one who is my daughter,

grown up strong. (lines 9-11)

This intellectual stunt compares loosely with the one in Riddle 46, where familial relationships get tangled up in the kind of arithmetic that only incest can solve. A more exact comparison, albeit from modern times, is William Wordsworth’s famous line “The child is father of the man” (“My Heart Leaps Up”). The poet of Riddle 33 plays the same game of putting something logical into an illogical form of statement, forcing the reader to squint at the truth sideways and see it in an unaccustomed way.

Here the trick applies to elemental rather than human relations. The short, embedded riddle summarizes a northern version of the hydrologic cycle. An iceberg’s mother is water, “grown up strong” into a glacier or icecap, from which the iceberg calves off into the sea. Its daughter is meltwater. After evaporating and falling again, often as the rain that is welcomed in “every single land,” the water “grow[s] up strong” again into ice and glaciers, and around and around we go.

The other conceit in Riddle 33 is, of course, battle. Several details represent the collision as a violent fight in which the adversarial party is, counter-intuitively, slow-moving and also female. Seemingly contradictory notions like being dangerous yet “slow in combat” are around every corner in the Exeter Book riddles; the imagery here is like describing the sea floor as a “wave-covered land” or saying that “homeland is foreign” to a ship’s anchor (both examples from Riddle 5). Anglo-Saxon riddle writers loved these kinds of formulations, and once the solution is found they always turn out to make impeccable sense after all.

The battle conceit is also where the bordweallas I mentioned earlier fit in. In heroic poetry, a row of wooden shields carried by warriors standing side by side is described as a “board-wall.” What the maker of Riddle 33 does here is literalize a term that is expected to be semi-metaphorical. A reader familiar with conventional battle description could chase this word into the wrong frame of reference. Similarly, the ecge (edges) in line 4 are here just edges, but in Old English poetry the word is more often a metonym for “swords” – so often, in fact, that like bordweallas, the literal meaning needed to make sense of the cryptic presentation here might be too obvious to see at first glance. It’s a clever move, exploiting customary poetic language to make a reader think of swords and shields, while leaving the solution hidden in plain sight.

For Old English poets, nature is splendid and God-created, providing abundantly for human needs, but it’s also very, very dangerous. Nature doesn’t care. Death is part of it, at least in the post-Edenic world, and something is eventually going to get every single one of us. Individuals who find themselves isolated from community are painfully subject to the elements, and groups of people are not safe either: natural forces and processes are always, in this literature, potentially antithetical to orderly human enterprise.

This is the context of thought in which Riddle 33 speaks of an encounter between a piece of technology and a natural phenomenon as if it were a battle. Old English poetry shows us strife between animals and their environments; it shows us the vulnerability of individuals in the face of atmospheric and elemental forces; and it shows us conflict between organized human interests (like those that cause a ship to be built and launched) and the disruptive, damaging power of the things around us we can’t control. A sea-surge strands the whale of the Franks Casket. Fire is the “greediest of spirits” (Beowulf and elsewhere). A storm rampages across human habitations and forests too, in a chaos of wind and lightning (Riddle 1). Exiles risk their lives on the frigid sea and are beaten by hail, the coldest of grains (The Seafarer). Winter weather is said to come with hostile intent (The Wanderer), and frost will tear down even the greatest stone buildings in time (The Ruin, The Wanderer). The same water that life requires can also gather into a terrifying and irresistible torrent (Riddle 84) – or, here, freeze rock-hard into an iceberg that strikes a ship, as if in an attack fueled by malice.

An iceberg striking a ship: I’ll bet that at some point, the wreck of the Titanic has flickered through the mind of nearly everyone reading this. Go with me just a few steps down a crooked path.


Photo of the Titanic leaving Southampton in 1912 (by F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923)) from the Wikimedia Commons.

If you did think of the Titanic and instantly dismissed it as irrelevant to Riddle 33, you were right, of course. The 1912 collision of a ship with an iceberg cannot possibly have anything to do with a poem that had been sitting in the Exeter Book for nearly a millennium by then. Except – the very fact that the Titanic likely came to mind suggests that an awareness of the modern event will lurk within present-day subjective reception of a riddle about an iceberg wrecking a ship. Our history affects the way this little text exists in our world now. Because the Titanic has presence in our consciousness, it has some influence on the kind of life Riddle 33 takes on in twenty-first-century eyes, ears, mouths, and minds.

The Titanic’s demise came as such a shock to the public that even a century later, it’s hard to think of icebergs without also thinking of the mechanical leviathan whose promoters notoriously billed it as “unsinkable.” That wreck gave us the most famous iceberg in history, and it also gave lasting fame to the Titanic: although a ship so grand was big news in its day, few of us might recognize the name now had it not sunk in spectacular fashion, with massive loss of life owing in equal parts to error and hubris.

In this sense, you could even say the iceberg and the Titanic made each other. Neither would be remarkable in the long view of history had they passed silently in the North Atlantic darkness; it’s their catastrophic meeting that immortalized both, providing us with a touchstone for transit disasters, and for icebergs. To put it another way, the materially destructive encounter was equally – from the perspective of historiography and the popular imagination – a creative one, in that it took the ship’s and the iceberg’s simultaneous arrival at one pinpoint on a map to make an event that large numbers of humans would remember and interpret and tell about again and again.

The English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) understood this. Late in his long life Hardy responded to the improbable intersection of these two objects in the vastness of time and sea, brought about by the inconceivable coincidence of many unconnected events, with his poem “The Convergence of the Twain,” which represents the disaster as an appointment set by divine powers and punctually kept. It’s a spine-tingling piece worth stopping to read if you haven’t. After a few stanzas contemplating the opulence and wealth that lies mouldering on the seabed, where uncomprehending marine creatures gaze on it vacantly, Hardy backtracks to describe the slow formation of the iceberg and the simultaneous, painstaking construction of the huge ship.

In Hardy’s measured verses the two growing hulks become more tightly associated line by line until Titanic and berg both launch, in perfect synchronicity thousands of miles apart, and journey toward their shared destiny:

. . . the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

                  And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

To Hardy, the Titanic and the iceberg not only made each other; they were also made for each other, from the very start. Hardy is well known for his dark, ironic outlook, and for him the wreck of the Titanic encapsulates the vanity of human ambition and delusions of permanence.

If you’ve read much Old English poetry, even just some of the often-translated pieces like The Wanderer and The Ruin, you may already see one of the directions I’m heading with this. Anglo-Saxon writers return again and again to the idea that earthly grandeur and human achievement, however impressive they may briefly be, do not last. Ephemerality is a constant theme. In this respect, Hardy’s attitude toward the decaying remains of the greatest moving object devised within his lifetime has much in common with how an Old English poet might have analyzed the same shipwreck (although the earlier poets, unlike Hardy, take earthly impermanence as a cue to seek the embrace of a merciful God).

Hardy’s poem, with its notion that the Titanic and the iceberg were two interlocking parts of a single fated creation, also always brings to my mind the Beowulf poet’s insistent pairing of references to the hero and the dragon at the site of the battle that neither survives, a pattern that gradually accumulates into a tableau of the death of ancient powers. When old king and old dragon meet their fates in one another, each arrives riding a foamy crest of deep time. As Beowulf approaches what he seems to recognize as his last fight, the aged king pauses to retrace for his men, too young to know for themselves, the course of his extraordinary reign; and that poet backtracks like Hardy to the dragon’s centuries-long possession of a treasure placed in the ground by the nameless last survivor of a nameless, long-dead tribe. The rings and swords of that treasure were as useless to the dragon as the Titanic’s china and mirrors to Hardy’s staring fishes, and like the submerged luxury liner, will remain so after Beowulf’s people burn and rebury it in their grief.

Scholars of Thomas Hardy’s life and works will be able to say whether he was familiar with any Old English poetry. It would surprise me if he had not read at least the Beowulf translation by William Morris. But what draws me into these winding associations when I muse on Exeter Book Riddle 33 is the sense of tragedy and irrecoverable loss – laced with a hint of fatalism – with which I, a cultural heir of the Titanic disaster (and of Hardy’s refraction of it through his own art), cannot help but consider icebergs and ships. Whether the riddle’s early audiences would have heard in it the same overtones of cataclysm I somewhat doubt.

Yet the danger and especially the malice ascribed to the iceberg in Riddle 33 feel urgent and universal: too much so to be explained by such a wreck’s resulting property loss or even death, risked by Anglo-Saxon seafarers in relatively small numbers. It’s true that no amount of death is small if it belongs to you or someone dear. But I do think scale is key here, perhaps, because this poem is not really about one iceberg and one ship. It’s about the way the world works. If measuring the greatness of a misfortune by its notoriety, shock value, or number of lives lost – as we tend to do – helps us open a back door into that sense of totality that Old English writers might find in the particular, then irrelevance aside, the comparison may reduce a gap of understanding.

The way of the world, in Old English poetry, leads finally to the destruction and decay of everything under the heavens that touches human interests. You may have a good run for a while, but the icebergs are out there waiting. According to the poet of Riddle 33, their beauty and stately movement – and the astonishing fact that they are made of the same water that is “the dearest of maidenkind,” greeted “with joy . . . in every single land” – must not distract from their hardness when “grown up strong” into floating mountains that crush what people make and do.

It all comes back to the board-walls, in which this poem’s battle conceit and its motif of communication brilliantly unite. The image of a hate-rune carved on the ship’s shield/hull is so moving not because we imagine the inscribed character as carrying magic or a nasty message (although those ideas are present), but because we also get the more basic fact that it lets the water in. One meaning of the Old English verb bindan (bind) is to transfix or immobilize – as if miraculously or magically – and I take this to be a salient sense here, when we are told in line 7 that the iceberg “bound” the ship’s hull “with a hate-rune.” The ship will sink; where it is is where it will stay. Like “I now pronounce you man and wife,” this rune as an act of language doesn’t just announce a thing to be true, but causes its truth. When water’s hatred is written by iron-hard water that is both stylus and battering ram, and when it is written on a ship surrounded by this substance that it can’t function without, but which will doom it once the shield-wall is breached, the declaration of hate is itself a weapon with mortal power.

What Thomas Hardy (with his always vexed perspective on the Deity) attributed to some kind of sinister providence, Anglo-Saxon poets put down instead to chaotic, uncontrollable, impersonal forces of the natural world: forces that play havoc with humans’ attempts to organize and manage their surroundings, and which could thus be imagined as figuratively hostile to rational human undertakings. It may seem curious to describe an iceberg as purposeful and inimical, but the choice is quite effective once we realize that Old English nature poetry is really not about nature, but about subjective experience taking place through interactions with nature – and about the necessity of reckoning wisely with our weakness, individually and as a species, against powers bigger than ourselves. Many of the Exeter Book riddles celebrate human artifice and its products; many others ponder with fascination the properties of animals and other parts of the natural world. Number 33 reminds its readers that useful things are also dangerous, and that dangerous things may be magnificent.

If at times we need our own history – with its Titanics and a million other modern ghosts – to hear authenticity in the words chosen by unknown writers long ago as they confronted the wonders and fears of their lives, then so be it. We cannot shed our history in any case, can never stand outside of culture or stop being ourselves. What we can try to do, even knowing that success is always partial, is conduct ever more informed acts of imagination that help us map experiential worlds we will never inhabit. Who’s to say, in learning and teaching, that the path to more sympathetic understanding of the past must never thread across an outcropping anachronism? Let’s just not stop there long, or get too fond of the view.

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