This commentary comes to us once again from Sharon Rhodes of the University of Rochester. Congratulations on successfully defending your thesis this week, Sharon!
There have been three major solutions proposed for Riddle 53: battering ram, gallows, and cross. Battering ram seems the most literal — something that was a once tree, but was then chopped down, outfitted with metal fittings and used to storm castles. But gallows and cross stretch our perspectives. In any case, the development of these modern solutions has a history.
In 1859, F. Dietrich solved Riddle 53 as “battering ram.” The iron work involved in battering rams allows us to read line 6 quite literally: deope gedolgod, dumb in bendum (deeply wounded, silent in his shackles). Cross and gallows are less clear and more dependent on context: there are multiple ways of constructing a gallows, crucifix or otherwise. The first solution also allows for an easy reading of lines 8b through 10a: Nu he fæcnum weg / þurh his heafdes mægen hildegieste / oþrum rymeð (Now he, through the might of head, clears the path to another treacherous enemy). If the solution is “battering ram,” then this is a simple description of attacking and then plundering a castle.
But “battering ram” is a solution that is contextually lacking: there were no battering rams in Anglo-Saxon England! At least, according to Craig Williamson, “there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of an Anglo-Saxon battering ram,” which makes sense when we recall that there were no Anglo-Saxon castles to lay siege to with a battering ram (page 297). Of course, there’s no reason to think that Anglo-Saxons couldn’t comprehend battering rams and Aldhelm’s Riddle 86 — a Latin riddle written in Anglo-Saxon England — suggests a battering ram at least twice (Williamson, page 297):
Sum namque armatus rugosis cornibus horrens.
Herbas arvorum buccis decerpo virentes,
Et tamen astrifero procedens agmine stipor;
Culmina caelorum quae scadunt celsa catervis.
Turritas urbes capitis certamine quasso
Oppida murorum prosternens arcibus altis.
Induo mortales retorto stamine pepli;
Littera quindecima praestat quod pars domus adsto.
(Aldhelm, ed. by Juster, pages 52-3)
(Yes, armed with wrinkled horns, I’m quite a fright. / I chew huge mouthfuls of the meadow grass, / Yet starry swarms escort me as I pass; / They rise in hordes to Heaven’s highest height. / Headstrong, I bang the turrets of the town / So its tall fortress walls will tumble down. / With twisted thread I fill man’s clothing needs; / I’m right at home if letter fifteen leads.)
However, while Aldhelm’s riddle dances between the idea of a ram (male sheep) and the siege weapon — the Latin word aries can refer to either — there’s no real sheep reference in Exeter Riddle 53, unless you consider sheep inveterate thieves of the night.
So too, the imagery of Riddle 53 is strikingly similar to that of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood. For instance, the dreamer describes the Rood tree as forwundod mid wonnum (sorely wounded with wounds) at line 14, which is reminiscent of Riddle 53’s line 7: wriþen ofer wunda, wonnum hyrstum (racked all over with wounds, adorned with dark ornaments). In fact, Jonathan Wilcox reads Riddle 53 as an analog of The Dream of the Rood and, accordingly, suggests the solution of “gallows,” and Andy Orchard reads The Dream of the Rood as a riddle writ large and, consequently, solves 53 as “cross”: a very specific gallows.
Image of crows and gallows from Bewick, page 71.
As Orchard points out, The Dream of the Rood uses the word beam — which occurs in Riddle 53 — with a number of meanings. Beam can mean “tree,” “gallows” or “sunbeam” — the cross’s function as Christ’s retainer — so this singular word accounts for the rood-tree’s three states, a trinity, so to speak. Through its homonyms, beam points to multiple aspects of the rood-tree’s function and identity. And beam of course is exactly how we’re introduced to the solution of Riddle 53 in line 1: Ic seah on bearwe beam hlifian (I saw a tree towering in a wood).
Each of these solutions — battering ram, gallows and cross — reconfirms that the Exeter riddles are poems that force us to consider the parallels between different things by viewing them from unfamiliar perspectives. John D. Niles points out that the cross is a gallows — an instrument of execution — and a source of life in the Christian tradition (page 147; note that Niles suggests the Old English solution of gealg-treow (gallows-tree)).
Perhaps most significantly, Riddle 53 stands with The Dream of the Rood and other riddles of torture in forcing the audience to consider the world from the point of view of what humanity typically views as “raw materials” for our built world. As Jennifer Neville points out, “in Exeter Book Riddles 53 and 88, [. . .] a tree and the antler of a deer, both dwelling happily and naturally in the forest (bearu, holt), are seized, removed from their environment, wounded and used by human beings; as tools, as battering rams and ink-horns” (page 115). These things “are forced on wera æhtum ‘into the possessions of men’ (Exeter Book Riddle 88, 23b)” (page 115).
If we keep “battering ram” while adding “cross” and “gallows,” then we can start exploring the idea of Christ and the crucifix as invaders. Perhaps this is an oblique reference to the harrowing of hell — when Christ invaded hell to bring salvation to the righteous who died before his crucifixion, thereby “stealing” souls from Satan. As with so many of the Exeter riddles, no one solution is totally satisfying; it’s the collection of possible answers that allows us to see a tree in a forest for all of the potential lives it may lead after its felling.
References and Suggested Reading:
Aldhelm. Saint Aldhelm’s ‘Riddles.’ Edited and translated by A. M. Juster. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.
Bewick, Thomas. A History of British Birds. Vol. I (Newcastle: R. Ward and Sons, 1885) [Memorial Edition]
Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009 (esp. pages 151-69).
Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Breopols, 2006.
Orchard, Andy. “The Dream of the Rood: Cross-References.” In New Readings in the Vercelli Book. Edited by Samantha Zacher and Andy Orchard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, pages 225-53.
Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pages 393-408.
Williamson, Craig. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.