When I was little, bonfires were all the rage. My siblings and I used to run around our backyard gathering up heaps of fallen twigs and then we’d BURN THEM ALL! I am not an arsonist. Proper permits were observed. But there was still something exciting about huddling around a warm outdoor fire on a chilly Canadian evening and slowly feeding the flames until they ate everything up. That’s why Riddle 50 is one of my favourites (I know…I say this about every riddle).
A massive bonfire! Photo (by Fir0002) from the Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).
So, obviously, “fire” is the solution I’m going for, and it’s the one that most scholars accept. I’ll give a brief nod to an alternative that was suggested in the early days of riddle scholarship: dog. The problem with the “dog” reading is that dogs aren’t typically torht (“bright”…as in light, not intelligence), and they’re no more wundrum acenned (wondrously brought forth/born) than humans or other animals (Williamson, page 292). Because of this, “dog” has fallen out of fashion and most people go with “fire.”
Why is “fire” a good solution? All sorts of reasons. First of all, we have the clue that the solution is something that’s bright and potentially violent, and also a treasure for people (smithy connotations here?). Think of life in a dark, wooden hut in rainy ol’ England with no heating and that treasure part will make perfect sense. In fact, I’m now having flashbacks to my days of student accommodation (turn on the heat, you sadists!).
Anywho, the fire in this riddle is also the result of a miraculous birth from dumbum twam (two speechless ones). The speechlessness implies inanimate (or at least non-human) parents, which most scholars read as flint and metal. As for that miraculous birth, well Riddle 50 isn’t the only Anglo-Saxon riddle to associate this sort of thing with fire. There are a whole slew of Latin riddles by Aldhelm and Tatwine (as well as in an anonymous collection from the continent) that deal with fire or sparks in this way. I won’t include them all here, but in case you want to follow up, here’s a list:
- Aldhelm: Enigmata 44, De Igne (On fire) and 93, De scintilla (On a spark)
- Tatwine: Enigma 31, De scintilla (On a spark)
- Bern collection: Enigma 23, De scintilla (On a spark)
These riddles also all deal with the immense power of a small thing that grows up quickly, which kind of goes with the Old English riddle’s reference to feeding and to the fire as a wiga (warrior).
Here’s some more fire. Photo (by Awesomoman) from the Wikimedia Commons.
There’s also another riddle by Tatwine, which focuses on the varying gifts fire can give. Enigma 33, De Igne (On fire) reads:
Testatur simplex triplicem natura figuram
Esse meam, haut mortales qua sine uiuere possunt;
Multiplici quibus en bona munere grata ministro,
Tristia non numquam; tamen haut sum exorsus ab illis.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 200)
(My single nature gives evidence of my existing triple form, without which mortals can by no means live; I supply to them pleasing profits through variable tribute, sometimes sorrowful ones too; but I am not derived from them.)
I can think of a number of sorrowful gifts that fire can give, but let’s focus on the pleasant ones, since Riddle 50 talks about this too. The most obvious gift is cooking (yum! I love food!), which Riddle 50’s description of a woman binding fire seems to referring to. The Old English verb form is wrið, which has been read in a number of ways. It’s usually assumed that this form comes from the verb wriðan (to bind, tie, wrap around), but it could also be a form of wreon (to cover) (Williamson, page 292). Both of these interpretations work just fine: a fire is covered by cooking pots, but it’s also imprisoned or bound by any good cook who wants to ensure she (in the highly gendered Anglo-Saxon world) doesn’t burn the village down.
I like the idea of a woman binding a warrior, since this would be massively subversive in an Anglo-Saxon context. This is precisely the sort of topsy-turvy hierarchical play that Jennifer Neville talks about when she reads this riddle as a safely contained discussion of the dangers of a ruling class becoming too proud (see the riddle’s final line). She says, “Just as a fire raging out of control can destroy all in its path, so a warrior-class can destroy society if it is not restrained by the prosaic requirements of daily life and obligations to those whom they rule” (page 519). Neville is, of course, careful to note that this riddle is not a call to arms for the labourer class, since the poem accepts its hierarchies without question. But it’s still the role of riddles to subvert power relationships in all sorts of ways.
These power relationships are emphasized in the second half of the riddle when we have all those references to obeying and ministering to and feeding the flames. The feeding imagery also links this riddle to the one that comes before it (Salvador-Bello, page 365). Remember all that swallowing and servitude in Riddle 49? And, of course, both Riddles 48 and 49 depict speechless creatures, so these riddles do seem to be a thematic bundle (Salvador-Bello, page 365).
Speaking of bundles, the last shout out I want to give is to the suggestion that this riddle could be solved with a double solution. Marie Nelson reads the poem on two levels, arguing that it’s about both fire and anger. According to Nelson, “Anger is good if it helps you stay alive, but, uncontrolled, anger becomes a destroyer” (page 448). I quite like this association, especially since so much of Anglo-Saxon psychology is focused on the idea that powerful emotions swell up and boil over inside your body. Ever feel all hot and bothered when someone insults you? Well, the mental and bodily worlds haven’t always been considered as separately as they often are today, and the physical heat of anger was once linked to a hydraulic model of the mind (which, coincidentally, was thought to be located in the chest). If you’re interested in this idea, then I can’t recommend highly enough Leslie Lockett’s phenomenal Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. It’s terribly clever. Go read it now.
But, anyway, the link between fire and anger is clearly there in Anglo-Saxon psychology, and it may well be this link that the poet’s gesturing toward with that final reference to fire grimly repaying those who let it become proud. A kind of disturbing image to end on…so, here, have some Pixar-related comic relief:
References and Suggested Reading:
Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.
Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
Nelson, Marie. “Four Social Functions of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Neophilologus, vol. 75 (1991), pages 445-50.
Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles.” Review of English Studies, vol. 62, issue 256 (2011), pages 505-19.
Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 359-60.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.