Commentary for Riddle 16

Happily (or boringly, you decide), this is one of the few riddles for which there is little to no argument about the solution. Ever since Franz Dietrich proposed ‘anchor’ in the 19th century, people have looked at it, nodded appreciatively and moved on. So, what can we say about it? Well, first of all, it’s (presumably) based on a Latin riddle by a chap called Symphosius (whose name literally means ‘party-er’ – which is not only cool in and of itself but may also give us a hint about when riddles might have been performed), though the Old English riddler expands on the original. So, for example, the anchor (an inanimate object) speaks of itself as if it were a living creature – it has a steort (which I have translated as ‘end’ but can also mean ‘tail’) and, as Dieter Bitterli puts it, strives against wind water like a restless exile or a wild beast. The paradox is that despite these struggles it remains stiff and still, a description that tells us that it’s probably not an actual living thing.

But let’s look a bit more carefully at this riddle. Like a lot of Old English riddles, this one can be read on two levels – on the one hand we have the literal solution of ‘anchor’, an everyday object, but on the other we can again draw comparisons with the character of the exile in Old English poetry (such as in The Wanderer, which we have already referred to in Riddle 4). The exile has been cast out of his homeland which has become alien to him (compare line 4 – eþel usually specifically means ‘homeland’). He yearns for stability in his life because the transience and constant movement of his restless earthly existence seem horrible to him. What he wants is a place of security, something fixed and unchanging – which he can ultimately only find with God in the afterlife. But like the anchor striving against the elements, he needs to resist the pulls of worldly possessions and enjoyments because they want to ‘ferry away what he is meant to protect’, i.e. his soul and spirit. He needs to find a place where he can be still and fastened to something, otherwise the ‘bad things’ will be stronger than him and overcome him. In this way, what looks like a fairly straightforward riddle about an object that would have been familiar to many Anglo-Saxons becomes a metaphorical description of the trials of an individual soul, anchored in faith.

For some more on this, see:

Jember, Gregory K. “Literal and Metaphorical: Clues to Reading the Old English Riddles.” Studies in English Literature (Tokyo), vol. 65 (1988), pages 47-56.

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