Commentary for Riddle 32

Hello, readers. Have you missed me? I’m sure that you have, but my need for validation means I just gotta ask. I’ve had a busy-busy term, and have been oh so very lucky that all sorts of lovely guest bloggers have turned up to entertain you. But now it’s the holidays, which means it’s my turn again.

Let’s talk about ships.

But is the subject of Riddle 32 a ship? You are, perhaps, not convinced. There are other suggestions for the solution, which include Wagon, Millstone, Wheel and Wheelbarrow. Naturally, the library has none of the books I need to tell you all about the folks who suggested these things (it’s the holidays, so the library has already been pillaged from pillar to post by keen vacationers). However, I can tell you that Ship is a scholarly favourite. How’s about I explain why I like it and then you write in if you prefer one of the other readings? Yes, let’s do that.

Right, so ships. The first thing I’ll say is that the screaming we see in line 4b (giellende) is quite a bird-like act. Huh? Let me rephrase: in other Old English poems, the verb gyllan (to scream/yell/call) is applied to the sounds of birds. So in Solomon and Saturn II, the strange, apocalyptic bird referred to as the Vasa Mortis gilleð geomorlice and his gyrn sefað (Anlezark, line 90 or ASPR, line 282) (calls miserably and mourns its misfortune). Equally, The Seafarer is marked by avian imagery when it describes the gifre ond grædig (eager and greedy) anfloga (lone-flier), which gielleð (calls) in line 62. Finally, Riddle 24’s magpie hwilum gielle swa hafoc (line 3b) (sometimes calls like a hawk). And, as we know from poems like Beowulf, ships are the giant manmade birds of the sea (write that in an essay…I dare you!). Hence, the poem refers to the flota famiheals fugle gelicost (line 218) (foamy-necked ship most like a bird) and the swanrad (line 200a) (swan-road), the latter of which is a kenning for the sea (also appearing in Andreas, line 196b). So, the sound that the subject of Riddle 32 makes gels with other Old English poetic approaches to ships.

VikingshipkilsHere’s the famous Norwegian Oseberg ship. Photo (by Uwe kils) from the Wikimedia Commons.

What about all that grinding? Surely grindan in line 4a could be better linked to a millstone, non? Well, yes, but that’s not to say that ships don’t also grind (best mental image ever: Old English dance-party…ships grinding to hiphop music…shocked monks looking on from the sidelines). In fact, in Guthlac B, we have almost the exact same half-line applied to a ship:

                              Lagumearg snyrede,

gehlæsted to hyðe,     þæt se hærnflota

æfter sundplegan     sondlond gespearn,

grond wið greote. (1332b-5a)

(The sea-steed hastened, laden to the landing, so that the wave-floater after the swim-play perched upon the sandy land, ground against the grit.)

The half-line is again repeated in Andreas, as grund wið greote (line 425a). These three instances are the only times that grindan and greot are linked in Old English literature. So, what we can now see is clearly a poetic formula (a repeated, variable verse unit) – grindan wið greote – has clear shippy connotations. These aren’t the only formulas in Riddle 32: the opening and closing half-lines can be found in the riddle directly before this one in the manuscript. These poets know their shiz, man.

Anywho, the formulaic stuff I’ve just discussed has me convinced of the ship reading, although I recognize that faran ofer feldas (line 8a) (going over fields) is a better literal description of a wheelbarrow. To that I say: since when are riddles literal? Directly following this half-line, we have ribs, which are almost certainly not literal ribs. This metaphor could be applied to any rounded object, but I like the image of the ship’s wooden planks as the creature’s ribs.

PHOT0050.JPGIt’s a bit blurry, but check out this model of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Look ribby enough for you? Photo (by Steven J. Plunkett) from the Wikimedia Commons.

A ship is also a terribly cunning contraption that looks a heck of a lot like a giant foot (á la line 6b). Fact. So, I’m throwing my lot in with Ship.

If you want to know just what type of ship this might be, then look no further than lines 9b-13. Here, the poet tells us that the riddle-subject brings food and treasures (metaphorical or literal) to people rich and poor. This reference points to the use of ships as transport vessels for all things mercantile – hence Niles has solved the riddle in Old English as Ceap-scip (merchant ship) (page 141). The transportation of goods via waterways in Anglo-Saxon England was common (Williamson, page 236). Katrin Thier talks about ships of various breeds and creeds in her article on nautical material culture, but…as with all the other books in the library, her article is currently unavailable to me.

Given the general library pillaging that has gone on up here in Durham, I can only conclude that it must be the holiday season! So, with that realization, I’m going to stop blogging at you and go eat some mince pies. May the ships of the holiday season bring you all an abundance of food and treasure! That’s a thing, right?

*hastily re-reads riddle to check whether it could in fact describe Santa’s sleigh*


References and Suggested Reading:

Anlezark, Daniel, ed. and trans. The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn. Anglo-Saxon Texts, vol. 7. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Thier, Katrin. “Steep Vessel, High Horn-ship: Water Transport.” In The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Exeter Studies in Medieval Europe. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011, pages 49-72.

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

7 thoughts on “Commentary for Riddle 32

  1. Linden Currie

    Welcome back Megan – of course you were missed! – although it’s nice to have the views of other contributors too.
    Re riddle 32:-
    Anyone living by the sea will be familiar with the ear-splitting mixture of low pitched grinding noises and high pitched shrieks made by a boat being drawn up out of the water so it certainly sounds like a ship.
    But there is a reference to a mouth in its middle – the Ark had a mouth – the only reference I can find to a ship having a mouth. But this is usually interpreted as the door to the Ark.
    Genesis lines 1363-4
    him on hoh beleac heofonrices weard
    merehuses muð mundum sinum
    Would the kind of ship that travelled inland waterways be decked – let alone have a door or hatch? What does Katrin Thier have to say on this in her article? (When the library gets its copy back.)

  2. Hi Linden!

    Yes, the Genesis A lines you quote are the only other reference I can find to a ship with a mouth, although that poem and The Battle of Brunanburh also refer to the ship’s hold as a ‘bosm’ (bosom, breast, chest). I would be tempted to read these together, since thoughts and speech are depicted as coming from the chest via the mouth in Old English.

    I’m not at all certain about the nature of doors/hatches on merchant vessels, although I’ll look into it. It would make sense for a gap in the ship’s planks to be depicted metaphorically as a mouth, given that the doors to the hall in Beowulf are similarly mouthy (lines 721b-24a: Ships and halls share many of the same descriptors in Old English poetry, since they’re both essentially containers for people!

  3. Hello again!

    I now have a slightly more informed answer for you. Katrin Thier splits her discussion of ships into two broad sections: “Smaller craft for daily boating,” which includes logboats, ferries, skinboats and plank boats (pages 54-62) and “Larger craft” (pages 62-66). I would guess that — of the smaller craft that would have been used for traveling inland water-ways — plank boats (which were essentially smaller versions of the big ships that we have come to associate with Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia) would be best for cargo. Linguistic evidence tells us that some of the big ships would be decked with loose boards (OE “þiling” (deck), Thier, page 64). Thier also discusses the large trading ships that are perhaps gestured toward in this poem (at pages 67-8), singling out the Danish Skuldelev 1 as an example of the sort of thing we might see coming to Anglo-Saxon England.

    No doors/hatches come up in this discussion, but I still think “mouth” works for any ship carrying goods and people if you look at the vessel from above. However, as you mentioned, the only other instance of OE “muþ” used in relation to ships relates to the ark, which seems to be imagined as more of a giant building on top of a boat:,-Exodu

  4. Linden Currie

    Thanks Megan
    Katrin Thier’s paper looks very interesting. I will add it to my list of papers to acquire and read. I would love to know more about the transportation of horses and other livestock by water. Several other sections of the volume also look fascinating – especially the ones on agriculture, plants, leatherwork, and the Fuller brooch.
    I think I’ll buy a copy.

  5. David

    A few thoughts on riddle 32:
    If it’s a small boat plying inland or near-shore waterways, might grinding against grit also refer to the keel scraping the tops of sandbanks?
    I get the impression that the OE term “grund” is more often used to refer to the seabed, but maybe the poet was being diversionary and using “feldas” to refer to that here?
    Alternatively, would the Anglo-Saxons transport small boats, between inland waterways and across fields, viking-style?
    Could the mouth in the middle be the hole within which the mast is set?

    1. Hi David,
      I don’t know much about the transport of small boats, but that reading certainly seems like a possibility. As for “grund”: yes, I don’t see why it couldn’t be used in the way you suggest. It’s often applied to the bottom of the ocean in literal instances, but its meaning covers a variety of things, including any low point — on earth or under water. And anyway: this is a riddle. So, it’s bound to be playing with the various meanings of each of its clues!

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