Riddle-solvers have had fun with this one, so brace yourselves. First off, Fry’s riddle-solution article lists the following suggestions: Bell, Millstone, Necromancy, Flail, Lock, Handmill, Pen and Phallus. How could someone possibly associate a bell and a phallus? I’ll leave that up to you.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. In the same year that Fry’s article was published, Ann Harleman Stewart writes an article (full ref details below) suggesting Bucket of Water, which A. N. Doane goes on to refine in another article. According to the Bucket-reading, the various rings that the riddle describes are either links on a chain, the straps surrounding the bucket (i.e. the ones that hold the pieces of wood in place) and/or a sheet of ice on the surface of the water. Certainly, the description of grumbling, chilly, early-rising servants would fit this interpretation, as does the reference to “bursting” the bound ring, if we’re talking about ice.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. In the very same year (1991), we have another two scholars who suggest a pretty fun solution: Dog or Watchdog. These are Wim Tigges and Ray Brown (the scholars…not the dogs). Now the ‘cry’ is a bark, the rings are a collar and leash and someone is really unhappy to be dragged out of bed by a frolicsome pup. I promise to feed and walk it every morning, mom, really!
But the fun doesn’t stop there. If you’re a cat person, you might agree with the next person to take a crack at solving Riddle 4. In 2007, Melanie Heyworth suggests that what we’re actually dealing with here is the Devil. She compares the use of words keywords in the poem to the language of penitentials (outlines of penance for sins) and homilies and finds a lot of overlap. Noting that most of the words in the poem have double meanings, she sees a lot of condemning with fetters and violation of religious worship (not to mention sex, reading the wearm lim as a ‘hot penis’). All of this is to say, if you’re a sleepy Anglo-Saxon, you had better get yourself out of bed and into the church…being tired means you’re not alert and that makes you vulnerable to temptation (see ‘Hrothgar’s Sermon’ in Beowulf (ll. 1700-74), if you don’t believe me).
But, you guessed it, the fun still doesn’t stop there. I’m a big fan of the next solution, Shannon Ferri Cochran’s 2009 suggestion that we’re actually dealing with a Plough Team. This reading takes the various rings as the neck-yoke on the oxen pulling the plough, as well as the wheels of the object itself. The nice, bursty sound now becomes wheels slopping through a muddy field, and the characters in the poem become the driver and his servant. Part of what I like about this interpretation is the way it maps onto a poem we haven’t yet gotten to: Riddle 21, a similarly fettered plough. But you’ll have to wait for that one.
And finally, oh finally, the fun stops (well…for now). Patrick J. Murphy’s 2011 book, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles, brings us full circle to Bell again. That’s right, the solution that had the most supporters in Fry’s 1981 article is back in the spotlight. Here, Murphy concentrates on the rings as puns on ‘to ring’ (you know, like you ring…well…a bell) and the binding as an allusion to the bell’s duty as a servant (it’s ‘bound’ to carry out it’s job…ba-dum ching). Murphy also looks to other texts where bells are governed by the verb hyran, which he points out can mean both ‘to obey’ and ‘to hear’.
So, what do I think? I simply do not know. To be honest with you, all these readings are pretty convincing. That’s why people keep publishing them. I suppose if push came to shove, I’d be inclined to support the Bucket (or OE wæter-stoppa, according to Niles) reading since it seems to cover all the bases. But if I’ve learned one thing from reading up on Riddle 4, it’s that there’s always room for more! Fancy keeping the fun alive? Feel free to comment with your own suggests solutions below.
[Editorial Note: Another solution has now been proposed!: Sword. Check out Corinne Dale’s, “A New Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 4” in Notes and Queries, vol. 64, issue 1 (2017), pages 1-3.]
Brown, Ray. “The Exeter Book’s Riddle 2: A Better Solution.” English Language Notes, vol. 29 (1991), pages 1-4.
Cochran, Shannon Ferri. “The Plough’s the Thing: A New Solution to Old English Riddle 4 of the Exeter Book.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 108 (2009), pages 301-9.
Doane, A. N. “Three Old English Implement Riddles: Reconsiderations of Numbers 4, 49, and 73.” Modern Philology, vol. 84 (1987), pages 243-57.
Heyworth, Melanie. “The Devil’s in the Detail: A New Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 4.” Neophilologus, vol. 91 (2007), pages 175-96.
Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 71-7.
Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006, esp. page 147.
Stewart, Ann Harleman. “The Solution to Old English Riddle 4.” Studia Philologica, vol. 78 (1981), pages 52-61.
Tigges, Wim. “Signs and Solutions: A Semiotic Approach to the Exeter Book Riddles.” In This Noble Craft: Proceedings of the Xth Research Symposium of the Dutch and Belgian University Teachers of Old and Middle English and Historical Linguistics, Utrecht, 19-20 January, 1989. Edited by Erik Kooper. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991, pages 59-82.