Response to Riddle 39

Didn’t I say at the end of my last post that Riddle 39 is one of the hardest to solve? Well, it’s because of the riddle’s tricksy-ness that The Riddle Ages can now offer you a special, extra post with another option for solving this bad boy.

Our response post comes to us from Bob DiNapoli, a medievalist who has lectured on Old and Middle English texts at universities in North America, England and Australia. He’s currently working on a translation/commentary of Beowulf and, as the founder/director of The Melbourne Literature Seminars, he offers courses for the public on all manner of medieval and literary things.

Righto, take it away, Bob!:

The opening lines of Riddle 39 make claims for its “creature” (wiht) that are both imposing and maddeningly vague:

Gewritu secgað    þæt seo wiht sy
mid moncynne     miclum tidum
sweotol ond gesyne.   Sundorcræft hafað
maram micle,   þonne hit men witen.
Heo wile gesecan   sundor æghwylcne
feorhberendra,     gewiteð eft feran on weg.
Ne bið hio næfre     niht þær oþre,
ac hio sceal wideferh   wreccan laste
hamleas hweorfan;   no þy heanre biþ. (lines 1-9)
(Writings say this creature is obvious, many times seen among the race of men. A peculiar power it wields, far greater than people comprehend. It will seek out each and every living thing, then departs on its way, never standing still from night to night, but without a home it must wander far and wide along the exile’s path, yet none the more wretched for that.)

Did I mention contradictory? This critter is an exile, but it’s not wretched – unlike every other exile in Old English literature (ask The Wanderer). Its power is uncanny, and it gets around, as we know from “writings” or “scripture” (gewritu). Much of the rest of the riddle seems to tell us what this being is not: it has no limbs and no face, no soul nor spirit. It resides nowhere: endlessly restless on earth, it touches neither heaven nor hell. In the Middle Ages that’s tantamount to saying it lives nowhere.

Once again the riddle references gewritu:

                             gewritu secgað
þæt seo sy earmost     ealra wihta,
þara þe æfter gecyndum     cenned wære. (lines 13b-15)
(writings say that it is the most disadvantaged creature of all that were ever brought forth according to kind.)

Note how the idea of textual literacy seems to float somewhere above this wiht, characterizing it and assessing it for us with unquestioned authority, and with no little condescension: “most disadvantaged,” indeed! That will turn out to be part of the joke, by the time we get to the end.

“Yet,” the riddle continues from line 21,

ac hio sceal wideferh     wuldorcyninges
larum lifgan.   Long is to secganne
hu hyre ealdorgesceaft     æfter gongeð —
woh wyrda gesceapu;     þæt is wrætlic þing
to gesecganne. (lines 21-5a)
(in the teaching of the glory-King it lives forever. It would take long to tell how its life is appointed to go thereafter – the twisting courses of its appointed fate; that is a complex matter to relate.)

“The teaching of the glory-King” could refer only to the teachings of Christ in the gospels, where this creature “lives forever.” Remember that Christ taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him orally: like Plato’s Socrates, he left the scribbling of his words (gewritu again) to others. This is one of the riddle’s key tell-tales, for, along with Craig Williamson, I reckon its solution has got to be “the spoken word.” Greenfield’s objection to this solution is not supported by the poem’s reference to the wiht not speaking with mouth to men. “Spoken” words don’t speak. They are spoken. Humans actually “speak” them. It’s a bit of grammatico-syntactic jiggery-pokery, what I call “riddlic camouflage” in my article, but that’s what the riddles often traffic in, no?

Also, remember that the Old English poetry we know from its many manuscript survivals represents a textualised variant of an originally oral tradition. Most Anglo-Saxon poets seem consciously or subliminally aware of their native literature’s pre-textual history. Along comes Christianity in 597, with all its monks, monasteries and scriptoria in tow, and suddenly the scop’s oral authority finds itself trumped by the new culture’s textual authority.

This riddle celebrates the traditional spoken word’s deft evasion of the monolithic claims to authority staked by the textual culture administered by the monks. Look at its cheeky stashing of its solution in plain view where it says the creature’s later history would be long to gesecganne (“to say” or “to speak”). Does this hint that Christ’s spoken teachings made their way into the written record of the gospels by overly complex or devious routes? Might Christ’s sayings in the written gospels then somehow differ from what he actually said? Perhaps not literally, but the issue’s left dangling uneasily.

Much more jolly is this riddle’s conclusion, which assures us that

Soð is æghwylc
þara þe ymb þas wiht     wordum becneð. (lines 25b-6)
(True is anything that signifies about this creature in words.)

In other words, anything we might say in response to this riddle, whose answer is “the spoken word,” constitutes a correct answer: “sword” or “Jane Austen” or “chicken tikka masala” would all constitute satisfactory answers. Bear in mind that the culture of textual authority that dominated the monastic Christianity of Anglo-Saxon times fostered a certain anxiety: in the reading and interpretation of scripture, there was a fairly restricted range of correct responses to authoritative text and a literal infinity of incorrect ones. And getting it right mattered. This riddle represents a kind of holiday from that anxious culture of textual authority.

Try it. You can’t go wrong!


[One last note from The Riddle Ages: Bob reckons the gendered portrayal of the Spoken Word stems from the grammatically feminine term wiht. This is possible, but some riddles do use masculine pronouns alongside wiht and I think we should at least entertain the possibility that the solution is supposed to be a grammatically feminine one. Williamson’s proposed solution in Old English – word – is neuter, but something like the equally common term spræc (speech) would do away with the issue of why the speaker is female, because it is in fact grammatically feminine.]


References and Suggested Reading

DiNapoli, Robert. “In the Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is a Seller of Garlic: Depth-Perception and the Poet’s Perspective in the Exeter Book Riddles.” English Studies, vol. 81 (2000), pages 422-55.

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


4 thoughts on “Response to Riddle 39

  1. Hi Terry! Sun was suggested by a few editors, but no one has written it up or defended it against other solutions (yet!). I also think it works — this is such a vivid but vague riddle — but then I quite like the idea that there might be multiple solutions and the fun is in the solving.

  2. I may have to come back here: I’ve never much liked riddles, seeing them as in the same clever-dickery as cross-word puzzles. But this 39 and the response (above) as got me thinking; for one thing Bob seems to be suggesting that speech (written down!) can in some way be seen as a challenge to ‘official’ written texts with their hint of fundamentalism and the need for initiated exegesis. I don’t like long words, either . . .

    1. Yes, there’s definitely something complicated going on here with authority, orality, literacy, etc. all working together and at odds with one another. Coincidentally, it’s the riddles that are hardest to solve that I love the most — they push back against the sorts of ‘official’ solutions that other sorts of puzzles demand!

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