Commentary for Riddle 28

I know what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking: “Goodness gracious me! What a lot of past participles!” See – I’m psychic. But I’ll tell you what: not only does this riddle contain all the past participles in the world, it also has a ridiculous number of suggested solutions. Pretty much everyone who has a crack at it solves it differently. So we’re going to have to opt for a speedy run-through according to group. (I almost used the word “cluster” here, but then I decided not to because it sounds too much like “crusty” and that word can only legitimately be used of bread. True story.) Please note that I’m going to be skipping some solutions, specifically Barrow and Trial of Soul (suggested by Jember) because the poem’s direct reference to death makes these seem a bit too obvious (and because Jember suggests Trial of Soul for like a million riddles). If I were going to talk about barrows, I’d probably post a photo kind of like this one:

Riddle 28 Uley_Long_Barrow_-_End_chamberPhoto inside Uley Long Barrow (by Pasicles) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Group Number One: Alcohol

Forget picking up a quick bottle or two from a shop on your way to a party. And forget picturesque images of vineyards and stomping on grapes in giant barrels. And definitely forget every hipster-ish micro-brewery tour you’ve ever gone on. Because according to this poem, getting your hands on alcohol ain’t convenient and it certainly ain’t pleasant. One of the earliest suggested solutions for Riddle 28 was John Barleycorn, the barley-man known to us through folk literature and ballads (perhaps most famous from the Robbie Burns version). The harvesting of this much put-upon, personified cereal crop is depicted as torture and murder…hence the link to Riddle 28’s turning, cutting and binding. Of course, the speculative leaps required to trace John Barleycorn back to Anglo-Saxon England mean that some scholars prefer Beer/Ale/Mead (or Wine Cask, for that matter, since there’s no mashing, boiling or fermenting in this riddle) as the solution – that’s beor/ealu/medu in Old English (and I suppose “wine cask” would be something like win-tunne, although this compound isn’t attested). These solutions are certainly possible, especially when we take into account the fact that the preceding riddle very likely describes alcohol. Mightn’t Riddle 28 be a companion riddle? Indeed, it might…or perhaps the scribe/compiler of the manuscript understood it that way. The power dynamics are flipped, of course, since Riddle 27 focuses on alcohol’s ability to completely thrash people, while those in charge of crafting whatever Riddle 28 describes are very much in control. But what about lines 7b onward? That’s where the next solution seems a better fit. But first, beer:

Riddle 28 GravityTapThis is what beer looks like today. Photo (by SilkTork) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Group Number Two: Musical Instrument

If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the construction-y words at the beginning of the poem could really be applied to almost any object. They’re all vague enough that their meanings could be stretched to fit more than one solution, and some of them may well have been included simply because they rhyme. Old English poetry doesn’t often rhyme, by the way, so the poet is clearly interested in being a bit flashy. That means what we should be doing is focusing on the second half of the poem when we’re looking for a solution. Except that this is where things get confusing. Grammatically-speaking, these lines have a lot of people flummoxed. That’s right, flummoxed. Here are some of the reasons why: 1) we don’t really know what clengeð means (although we’ve got some good guesses based on similar words in Middle English), and 2) þara þe is plural, but the verbs in lines 9-10 are all singular. So the question is: does the relative phrase in lines 9-10 refer back to line 7b’s dream (joy) or line 8a’s cwicra wihta (of living beings)? Or should þara þe really read þær þær (there where) instead? (see Williamson, page 224) Your guess is as good as mine. What is clear from these lines is that there’s a living-dead, silent-vocal contrast going on: whatever object we have was made from a living thing that only gained a voice in death. It’s this suggestion that links the riddle to the earlier work of the Latin riddler, Symphosius. His Enigma 20, Testudo reads:

Tarda, gradu lento, specioso praedita dorso;
Docta quidem studio, sed saevo prodita fato,
Viva nihil dixi, quae sic modo mortua canto.
(Glorie, vol. 133A, page 641)

(Slow, with sluggish step, furnished with a beautiful back; shrewd indeed through study, but betrayed by fierce fate, living I said nothing, but dead I sing in this way.)

See the link? Quiet in life and singing in death? To really drive this link home, we should note that Old English dream, which I’ve translated as “joy” also means “song.” This is one of many reasons that Laurence K. Shook (building on earlier suggestions of harp/stringed instrument) solves Riddle 28 as Latin testudo (tortoise/musical instrument).

Riddle 28 British Lib tortoise lyreIn case you wondered just what exactly a tortoise lyre was. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum and subject to the Standard Terms of Use.

 Craig Williamson isn’t so keen on this solution, but does agree with the musical instrument angle. And so, he raises the possibility of Yew-horn in his edition of the riddles (pages 218-24). Yew is a hard wood (hence, line 2a: heardestan (hardest)) and it’s poisonous (hence, lines 2b and 3a: scearpestan (sharpest) and grymmestan (fiercest)). He also points out that a yew-horn dating from between the eighth and tenth centuries was discovered in the River Erne in Northern Ireland. So make of that what you will.

Group Number Three: Other Crafted Object

Williamson’s suggestion was just barely in print by the time the next solution came ’round, so let’s pretend that Yew-horn hadn’t happened yet and jump back to tortoise-lyre briefly. We know that instruments made out of tortoise shells existed in other countries as far back as classical Greece, but the evidence for Anglo-Saxon England is thin on the ground. And by thin, I mean there is none…except for the fact that Symphosius’ works were known in England at this time. Arguing that this lack of evidence rules out the tortoise-lyre solution (what about other instruments?!), Heidi and Rüdiger Göbel solve Riddle 28 as a “pattern-welded sword.” A pattern-welded sword (sweord in OE) is, of course, a weapon made by twisting multiple strips of metal together for extra strength. The Göbels give quite an in-depth breakdown of the processes involved in sword-making, but slightly undermine their interpretation by basing it upon “the desire to take the superlatives heardestan, scearpestan and grymmestan literally” (page 187). Is it just me, or is taking anything in a riddle literally kind of missing the point? At any rate, they also argue for a change in perspective at the end of the poem, when the owner of the sword who was so full of joy to receive the object (lines 7-8) is killed by it. Hence, they translate æfter deaþe deman onginneð, meldan mislice as “after death he changes his opinion and talks differently” (page 191).

Speaking of things that speak without speaking…do you remember Riddle 26? Well, I know that books don’t actually talk for realzies (unless you’ve got an audio-book or one of those birthday cards with the little chip in it that makes it sing really annoyingly whenever you open it), but they do contain words, and the idea that letters speak from the page is an old one. This leads to the final solutions I’m going to discuss: Parchment and Biblical Codex (Boc-fell or Cristes boc in OE).

Bede's World 5 Vellum

Here’s some parchment being stretched in Bede’s World, Jarrow. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

Waltraud Ziegler argued for the first of these after looking at several Latin riddles that cover similar ground. Cattle/parchment-y imagery can be found in the enigmatic collections of the Anglo-Saxons, Tatwine and Eusebius, as well as in other collections known to the Anglo-Saxons. For example, the Bern riddle, Enigma 24, De membrana, reads:

Lucrum uiua manens toto nam confero mundo
Et defuncta mirum praesto de corpore quaestum.
Vestibus exuta multoque uinculo tensa,
Gladio sic mihi desecta uiscera pendent.
Manibus me postquam reges et uisu mirantur,
Miliaque porto nullo sub pondere multa.
(Glorie, vol. 133A, page 570)

(Remaining alive, I provide profit for the entire world, and dead I furnish remarkable gain from my body. Deprived of garments and pressed by many chains, cut by a sword my innards hang down. Afterward kings admire me with hands and sight, and I carry many thousands with no weight.)

Building on Ziegler, Dieter Bitterli suggests Biblical Codex is more apt than simply Parchment, since the object of Riddle 28 is bound and adorned (pages 178-89). You can look back at Riddle 26’s commentary for a discussion of book-making because many of the steps covered there could be applied to the past participle-y list at the beginning of this riddle (and I wouldn’t want to get repetitive, would I?). But for lines 7b onward, we now have a tidy little religious interpretation: the lasting nature of the living joy/song and the posthumous praising/declaring are down to the creature’s recruitment to a martyr’s higher purpose. Keep in mind that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were penned and maintained by clerics. And keep in mind that they were obsessed with martyrdom and general affliction. So obsessed, in fact, that the Old English reading group my co-editor and I used to attend had one rule and only one rule: if you don’t know what a word means, translate it as “affliction” and move on. I think I’ll take that advice now.

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.

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

Göbel, Heidi, and Rüdiger Göbel. “The Solution of an Old English Riddle.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 50 (1978), pages 185-91.

Jember, Gregory K., trans. The Old English Riddles: A New Translation. Denver: Society for New Language Study, 1976.

Shook, Laurence K. “Old-English Riddle 28—Testudo (Tortoise-Lyre).” Mediaeval Studies, vol. 20 (1958), pages 93-97.

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

Ziegler, Waltraud. “Ein neuer Losungsversuch fur das altenglische Ratsel Nr. 28.” Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, vol. 7 (1982), pages 185-190.


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