Well hello there, riddlers!

The Riddle Ages took a little foray into some exciting, cutting-edge, riddle research last week at the International Medieval Congress. Let the following report soothe the sadness of any readers who weren’t able to make it all the way to the exotic climes of Leeds, UK.

The blog sponsored three sessions (Riddling in Anglo-Saxon England and Beyond I-III), which Jennifer Neville and I co-organised.


Session I: Engaging with the Physical World

In “Encounters of the Third Kind: Materiality and Some Exeter Book Riddles,” Pirkko Koppinen explored the insights into Anglo-Saxon material objects gained by translating the riddles into Finnish. She focused particularly on fire imagery, and proposed that Riddles 30a and b be solved as “ore” with the aid of personal experience. Pirkko’s paper was an expansion of the post she wrote for this very blog! We also learned that it’s possible to taste fire…if you strike a flint too close to your face…

In “Shields and Other Animals: Riddling Approaches to the Natural World in Early Scandinavia,” Hannah Burrows both mined the Old Norse riddles for perceptions of the natural world, and used these perspectives to examine riddling practices in early Scandinavia. She demonstrated that the Norse riddles play with local and traditional conceptions of the natural environment while participating in a complex dialogue with wider European riddling traditions.

In “Models of Mutation and Mutilation in Anglo-Saxon Riddles,” Cameron Laird compared the Exeter Book’s riddles about the transformation of natural materials with Anglo-Latin sources and analogues. He took us through a wide range of texts, and argued for a connection between the enigmatic tradition and the descriptive passages of the Hisperica Famina.


Session II: Eco-criticism and Animal Studies

In “Be sonde, sæwealle neah: Place as Descriptor in the Exeter Book Riddles,” Corinne Dale looked at the ways in which some riddles resist the human-centred focus that characterises a great deal of Old English poetry. She argued for eco-centric depictions of places beyond the human world and a sense of nostalgia for an Edenic past.

In “A Poetics of Empathy?: Non-human Experience in Anglo-Saxon Riddles,” Megan Cavell (aka moi!) discussed the usefulness of elegiac riddles for gaining insights into the perceived experiences of non-humans animals in the early medieval world. The paper focused especially on the bovine riddles and the empathy of Riddle 72.

In “Monstrous Healing: Aldhelm’s Leech Riddle and the Nature of Appearance,” Peter Buchanan spoke about the abject leech of Aldhelm’s Latin enigmatic collection as a surprisingly active critter. He read the poem as depicting the leech in terms of its kiss of salvation, which redeems both the leech itself and those it feeds from.


Session III: Marvelous Metaphors

In “Wundor and Wrætlice: Seeing Anew Through Old English Riddles,” Sharon Rhodes explored some risqué riddles (45, 54, 44 and 37) and their defamiliarising techniques. She argued that the obscene solution to some riddles lead their audiences to appreciate the wondrous qualities of the common/not-obscene solutions.

In “Warriors and their Battle Gear: Conceptual Blending in Riddles 5 and 20 of the Exeter Book,” Karin Olsen examined two riddles with multiple solutions, one of which is related to warfare. She approached their metaphorical connections via the theory of cognition known as “conceptual blending” – according to which thought involves constantly combining words and ideas to form a complex network of meaning.

In “Enigmatic Tropes in Exeter Book Riddle 49 (and Another New Solution),” Jennifer Neville discussed the way Old English riddlers exploited their audience’s knowledge of the genre in order to trip them up. She looked at Riddle 49’s imagery of implements/users and benefit/use, which she argued were foils for the (new!) solution “beehive.”


In addition to the sessions hosted by The Riddle Ages, we also heard the following papers about riddles:

  • Harriet Soper, “Parental Feeling in the Exeter Book Riddles and Elsewhere in Old English Literature” (arguing that children are depicted as tenuously connected to the world around them in their early years, resulting in a difficult parent/child relationship that involves both closeness and separation)
  • Francesca Brooks, “The Crafting of Sound and the Shaping of Voice in the Riddles of the Exeter Book” (arguing that a range of riddles linking imagery of sound and craft – “acoustic craft riddles” – indicate a riddlic self-reflexivity and residual orality)

All in all, it was a great conference! Albeit lacking in epic riddle-battles between eminent academics. We’ll save that one for next year, shall we?