Commentary for Riddle 5

This riddle is most commonly solved as ‘shield’ and this is the solution I’m adopting here. The shield is one of the most common accessories of the protagonists of heroic poetry (see for example the importance of this piece of battle-equipment in poems like Beowulf or The Battle of Maldon) and as such is one of the most important symbols of this social world. In this riddle, the usual connotations are subverted. While the poem uses the common associations of the shield with swords (ecg, bill) and battle (wig, beadoweorc), the shield is cast in the role of an exile, as suggested by the poetic term anhaga, familiar to readers of Old English poetry from the first line of The Wanderer (Oft him anhaga are gebideð…, ‘Often the solitary man himself experiences favour…’), a poem which explores the mental landscape of somebody who is no longer a part of the heroic social world.* It may for example also be considered significant that the shield cannot find any security in the burg, the ‘stronghold’, a word that is etymologically and semantically connected to other words relating to ‘safety’ in Old English.


Here’s a reconstructed Viking shield from the Barrow-in-Furness Dock Museum.

Like the main character of The Wanderer, the shield is unable to do anything about what’s happening to it – note that it talks about the things being done to it, with me as the object of the sentences in the middle of the poem and the final two lines. Where the shield is the subject, the verbs are not ones of action (seo ‘I see’, forwurðe ‘I perish’, findan meahte ‘I might find’). As we have already seen in some of the other riddles, the shield – an inanimate object – speaks in the first person (a literary technique known as ‘prosopopeia’). Through this, the shield to a certain extent takes on the persona of a human warrior, scarred by many battles and left without companions.

The riddle therefore plays with several aspects of the shield’s identity: it is a heroic object, used in potentially glorious battles, but its essentially defensive nature means it’s less glamorous than an active, attacking weapon like a sword – it has things done to it and can do nothing to change its fate. Like the exiles whose plight is evoked in the Old English elegies, the description of the shield shows what one might call the flipside of the heroic world: the scars, the injuries, the grittiness of battle, the potential for the individual to be left without help or companionship.


* The Wanderer, in both Old and Modern English, can be found here.


2 thoughts on “Commentary for Riddle 5

  1. Graham Paterson

    At the end of Riddle 5 on 102v of the Exeter Book manuscript, between ‘nihtum’ and the sigel rune there are other scribal markings, specifically a mark resembling a modern day colon, then what resembles a hyphen, then a ‘colon’ again, then a character I do not recognise, followed by a long space and then the sigel rune. Are you able to enlighten me as to what that character is which precedes the sigel rune? If you tell me how I could send a scan of the relevant part of the MS, should you not have access to same.

    1. Hi Graham,

      Those marks are called ‘distinctiones’, and they usually indicate the end of a section. My terribly clever palaeography friend, Christine Voth, recommends M.B. Parkes’ book — Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West — as a good guide to punctuation if you’re interested in reading more about them.

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