Commentary for Riddle 39

I can’t help it, guys, I keep thinking about Harry Potter. “But you’re a grown-up academic, Megan! Whatcha doin’ thinking about children’s books?” I hear you saying. To which, I reply, respectfully of course, that people from all walks of life can (and should) read Harry Potter, and it’s totally steeped in medieval references, and, anyway, who do you think you are questioning my life-choices and acting all hoity-toity?

But, imagined attacks based on what I keep my bookshelf aside, I keep thinking about Harry Potter because of one of the proposed solutions to this riddle: Death (see Erhardt-Siebold). In fairness, interpreting this riddle as Death also has me thinking about Chaucer, but that’s sort of encouraged in my line of work. Not familiar with either of those references? Allow me to expand.

Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale tells the story of three greedy, boastful chaps who set out to defeat Death, only to be tricked by an old man into killing each other. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows picks up on this personification of Death and the folktale motif of three brothers trying to outwit him, and includes it in a story within the story (meta, right?). And, yes, I know that Riddle 39 doesn’t have three dudes in it, but, according to some, it most certainly does have a personified Death character who – neither properly alive nor dead – wanders in exile and seeks out each and every mortal. I know what you’re thinking: grim reaper, much?

Riddle 39 Grim Reaper kosmolaut

Photo by kosmolaut, subject to a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


But the Old English depiction is less scary, and more, well…wistful…I suppose. The figure is the earmost ealra wihta (saddest/poorest of all creatures) (line 14), but also a comfort (frofre) (line 19b) to people (the poem says bearnum, “children,” but this is a fairly common way of speaking about all human beings). Marie Nelson points out that the obsession with the lives of saints and martyrs in the medieval period may have meant that some viewed death in a fairly positive light (see page 430, footnote 22).

Of course, this Death figure is also depicted as female in Riddle 39. Notably, the Old English term deað is NOT grammatically feminine, which means – if we accept this solution – we’re dealing with a deliberate choice on the part of the poet. There are other words for “death” that are feminine, but these tend to be quite specific (like cwalu, meaning “violent death”) or fairly rare (like the various “travelling forth” terms, forþferednes / forþfering / forþgeleoredness / forþfor, which typically appear as translations or glosses of Latin terms).

But Death is not the only solution. In fact, if we push Death to one side (I HAVE DEFEATED DEATH! KNEEL BEFORE ME, MORTALS!), we find quite a few other contenders in our path. Suggested in the past, but not greatly taken up, are Day, Moon and Time. Despite those being unpopular, the closely related Cloud has attracted a following. The Old English term wolcen, notably, is a feminine one. And two separate chaps in the 1970s pointed out the appropriateness of the riddle-subject’s wandering, suspension between heaven and earth, lack of body, and visibility, in relation to this solution (see Kennedy and Meyvaert).

Riddle 39 Castle and CloudsPhoto of clouds courtesy of yours truly. The castle is an added bonus.


Paul Meyvaert also suggested that Riddle 39 derives from Aldhelm’s Anglo-Latin Enigma 3, De nube (on the cloud):

 Versicolor fugiens caelum terramque relinquo,

Non tellure locus mihi, non in parte polorum est:

Exilium nullus modo tam crudele ueretur;

Sed madidis mundum faciam frondescere guttis.

(Glorie, vol. 133, pages 384-5)

(With changing colours, I, fleeing, abandon sky and land, there is no place for me on the earth, nor in the region of the heavens: no one else fears so cruel an exile; but with wet drops I make the world flourish.)

Of course, as Stanley B. Greenfield points out, this Latin riddle has a few clues that the Old English one doesn’t, namely the reference to rain and the cloud’s changing of colour (see pages 97-8). The Old English riddle also has a number of clues that separate it from Enigma 3, including the fact that the riddle-subject seeks people out individually (lines 5-6) and doesn’t return a second night (line 7). This reference to niht is key – do clouds tend to be sweotol ond gesyne (plain and perceivable) (line 3a) at night?

Not only does Greenfield aim to do away with Cloud as a solution, he also deftly defeats Craig Williamson’s idea of Speech (page 259), pointing out that line 12’s reference to not having a mouth and not speaking with people (ne muð hafað, ne wiþ monnum spræc) roundly contradicts that particular solution (Greenfield, page 98).

Greenfield’s own suggestion is Dream, which is quite a tidy solution and fits most of the riddle’s clues. He has lots of clever things to say about dreams in biblical scripture, about Old English glosses of Latin hymns that have similar exilic imagery and about the cryptic image in line 24a, woh wyrda gesceapu (the twisted shapes of events), which he takes as a reference to how difficult it is to interpret dreams (see pages 99-100).

Riddle 39 Dreamcatcher WiderbergIt’s really hard to find a picture of a dream on the internet! Here, have a dreamcatcher instead. Modified photo by Lisa Widerberg, subject to a CC BY 2.0 license.


The solution Dream is backed by a number of critics who aim to refine Greenfield’s suggestion, including Eric G. Stanley and Antonina Harbus. Harbus in particular points out the visual emphasis of the poem, and says this riddle depicts a Revelatory Dream. This is important, given that the riddle-subject says she doesn’t speak to people in line 12. A dream vision, of course, doesn’t have to include speech – the images do the talking (metaphorically-speaking).

I know I spent a long time dwelling on Death at the beginning of this post, but between the two of them, Greenfield and Harbus make a pretty damn good case for Dream based on particular keywords – like recene (at once) (line 28b), near homophone of recenes (interpretation) – and references to other Old English accounts of “dreams as roaming, noisy bearers of information” (Harbus, page 144).

What’s the Old English word for “dream,” then? Well, swefn, of course…which is a neuter noun. So, now we’re back to wondering about grammatical versus natural gender. Should we be using a far less common Old English term that is feminine, like mæting (dream)? Or did the poet make the Dream figure female on purpose? Should we be looking to other texts that depict personified women bringing visions to individuals, like, say, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (which we know was very popular, and which was translated into Old English prose and verse)? Is this Dream figure linked to Lady Wisdom, who would go on to lead a very full literary life in the later Middle Ages (see Schaus, page 840)?

So many questions…it’s not hard to see why this riddle has been considered “one of the finest of the Old English riddle collection” (Erhardt-Siebold, page 915). It’s also, I think, one of the hardest to solve. So, I’ll leave the final word on the matter up to you lot. I’ve got a sudden hankering to listen to the Everly Brothers.


References and Suggested Reading

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “Old English Riddle No. 39: Creature Death.” Publications of the Modern Language Association, vol. 61 (1946), pages 910-15.

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

Greenfield, Stanley B. “Old English Riddle 39 Clear and Visible.” Anglia, vol. 98 (1980), pages 95-100.

Harbus, Antonina. “Exeter Book Riddle 39 Reconsidered.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 70 (1998), pages 139-48.

Kennedy, Christopher B. “Old English Riddle No. 39.” English Language Notes, vol. 13 (1975), pages 81-85.

Meyvaert, Paul. “The Solution to Old English Riddle 39.” Speculum, vol. 51 (1976), pages 195-201.

Nelson, Marie. “The Rhetoric of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Speculum, vol. 49 (1974), pages 421-40.

Schaus, Margaret, ed. Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Stanley, Eric G. “Stanley B. Greenfield’s Solution of Riddle (ASPR) 39: ‘Dream’.” Notes and Queries, vol. 236 (1991), pages 148-9.

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


5 thoughts on “Commentary for Riddle 39

  1. albertine

    PS. I am so glad that my son was growing up while the Harry Potter books were being published – gave me a great excuse to read them with attention..

  2. Sorry. I’m with Williamson. The answer is, unmistakeably, ‘the spoken word’. That’s why anything you might SAY in response to the riddle is correct. A brilliant joke and comment on the oral/textual cultures at play (and war) across the whole riddle. See my article ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is a Seller of Garlic’. English Studies 1 (2000): pp.422-55.

  3. Pingback: Response to Riddle 39 | The Riddle Ages

  4. David

    I’ve always assumed (perhaps naively!) that the feminine subject of many AS riddles is referring to “wiht”, which was used by the AS poets as a kind of standard metonym for a riddle’s actual solution, so as not to offer any clues to the audience in the form of gender-specific endings.

    1. Hi David! You’re right that the grammatically feminine noun “wiht” is often used in the riddles, but occasionally it’s accompanied by masculine personal pronouns — Riddle 38 is a great example, since it has both a “heo” agreeing with “wiht” and a “he” referring to the sex of the bullock. The way I usually approach “wiht” is to assume that it’s governing the gender of demonstrative pronouns when they appear on their own. So, I’d translate any instances of “seo” as just “that creature” or “it”. But I look a little closer when personal pronouns are also involved, since they’re not really necessary (i.e. “seo” could be subbed in just as easily). When they’re used repeatedly, I think we should be open to the idea that the gender they flag up is intentional. Although this may well be an arbitrary distinction!

      Riddle 33 is another good example of a poem that most scholars assume has a female subject, even though the gender could simply be down to the presence of “wiht.” I suppose there the fact that different generations of mothers and daughters are involved might have led us to assume the speaker is also female.

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