Commentary for Riddle 58

Well, well, well. Here we go with Riddle 58.

Early critics had little trouble solving this riddle, because apparently early critics were far better versed in basic irrigation technology than I am. Have you ever seen one of these?

Well_sweep._Żuraw_studzienny._-_panoramio.jpegPhotograph (by Rafał Klisowski) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

No, neither have I. It’s a well-sweep, also known as a shaduf or shadoof, a counterpoise lift, a well-pole, or a swep. Also the creature described in Riddle 58 (proposed long ago by Holthausen).

It’s actually a pretty snazzy piece of machinery. That tall vertical pole (the anfot of the riddle) creates a base on which the diagonal rod can pivot. The diagonal rod is weighted on the one end (the heavy tail), and the other (the small head) is attached to a long rope (the tongue), carrying a bucket. When you want water, you pull on the rope to lower the bucket; when it’s full (and heavy), you simply let go – the counterweight does the job of raising the water so you don’t have to. Genius.

Ok, so here’s my first question. Why isn’t this one of the obscene riddles? How is it that Anglo-Saxons found more suggestive imagery in an onion than this particular contraption? Maybe it was just too easy. Low-hanging fruit and all that. Moving on.

Any fan of the Exeter Book riddles knows how fond they are of playing positive and negative attributes against one another: things are in turn portrayed by what they are and what they’re not. But I can’t think of another riddle that manages the balance between the two quite as skilfully as this one. Starting at the start (where else?) we get a very important detail: our wiht is one-footed. But that’s left behind almost immediately, as we move onto a list of the things it doesn’t do. This creature doesn’t get around much on its lone foot: not by riding, nor flying, nor sailing on boats – and that’s pretty much all the travel options covered. But then we’re back to what it is, or at least what it has. Its body parts include a tail, a head, a tongue – but no teeth – and a measure of iron. It doesn’t drink, but it does carry water; it doesn’t boast of life but it does serve its master (nice iteration of the implement trope here; see Neville).

There’s a kind of rhythm that develops as we read through this flip-flopping description. The repeated use of ne gives a secondary alliteration on n-, particularly in lines 2-4, but it’s only in line 5 that we find n- carrying metrical alliteration, and that finishes by describing something that the creature is (a nyt “benefit”) rather than what it isn’t. We could compare these oscillations to the see-sawing motion of the well sweep in action. Or at least, I assume we could. I’ve only seen them in pictures.

riddle-58-well-sweep2A well-sweep in “action” from Wikimedia Commons (license: public domain)

These oscillations continue across the poem. The verb ferian (to carry) is used three times (lines 2, 4, 11). The first two are negative: this is a creature that neither moves itself nor is carried by ships. But then in line 11 we’re told that it fereð (carries) water – and it does it a lot. Water, too, is evoked both positively and negatively. This creature doesn’t drink (line 10a), but it does raise lagoflod (water: line 12a). It’s also a wiht (thing: line 2a), but it ne wiht iteþ (doesn’t eat a thing: line 10b). No nægledbord (nail-boarded) boat carries it (line 5a), but it does have its own share of isern (iron: line 9a), and we might think here of the visual and material affinities between a boat and a bucket. We’re told it doesn’t travel – either on the earth, in the air, or over water (lines 2-4). And yet later we find it traversing an earthen hole in order to lift water into the air (lines 9-12).

I said that critics have had little trouble solving Riddle 58 and that’s true. Sort of. The thing being described does seem to answer to all the attributes of a well-sweep. But what’s the Old English for well-sweep? Apparently it’s a three letter word with rad at the start. Unfortunately, no Anglo-Saxon ever bothered to write it down for us.

I ask because the riddle ends not by describing its subject, but by describing the name of its subject. Specifically, a name comprised of three ryhte runstafas (right rune-letters), and starting with rad (lines 14b-15). Runes aren’t all that common in the Exeter Book riddles, and when they are used they tend to be something of a showpiece: either introduced early (as in Riddles 19, 42 and 64), or discussed over several lines (as in Riddle 24, and also the other three I just mentioned). But Dieter Bitterli isn’t wrong when he describes these closing lines as rather abrupt (page 98). I guess if there’s anything better than runes, it’s surprise runes. The rune here is indicated using its name rather than its letter (a technique we’ve also seen in Riddle 42). In the manuscript there’s an accent over rad, perhaps as a hint at the word’s significance.

On its surface the runic conundrum that ends Riddle 58 is as straightforward as they come. Rad (riding) is the name of the rune ᚱ (‘r’). There’s only so many three-lettered words, and not even most of them start with r-. How hard can it be? Early critics settled on rod (rod). Job done.

Others, though, took the puzzle another way: they put the element rad– at the start of a three-letter word to make a compound, like radlim (riding-pole) or radpyt (riding-pit, well) (see Blakeley and Grein). Williamson notes, entirely in passing, that radrod (riding-rod, sweep?) may be a better fit, since “it is the pole and not the pit that is the subject” (page 312).

riddle-58-well-sweep3And yet, still not about sex.
Photograph (by Jan Stubenitzky) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hang on, though. Radrod? That works both ways! It’s a compound comprising rad– and a second element, with that second element being a three lettered word starting with r- (Murphy, page 65). It even captures tonally the poem’s see-sawing rhythm. Better yet, because runic letters can stand for their names as well as their phonemes, it’s possible to write rad-rod in runes as ᚱ-ᚱᚩᛞ. As Niles points out (page 92), this construction contains only three distinct letters (with ᚱ repeated), and it starts with rad. So much for a creature that ne fela rideð (doesn’t ride much: line 3a), and yes I do think that’s an intentional joke by the riddle’s author (see Bitterli, page 105). By the end of the poem there’s quite a lot riding on ᚱ.

I’ll stop now.

The runic conundrum at the end of this riddle is uniquely peripheral, but it raises an interesting question. When we solve riddles, do we do it with objects or with words?

I have to confess, the term “well-sweep” meant not a thing to me the first time I read it; my “aha!” moment only came when I saw the photo at the top of this post. Niles argues for the importance of answering the riddles in their own language (that is, Old English rather than modern English), but the riddles themselves tend to place much greater emphasis on their subjects’ physical attributes than on their names. Many of the riddles begin by describing the form of a thing (ic seah “I saw,” or ic eom “I am”). Then again, many also end by asking us to say or to name their subject (saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called”).

So, have we solved Riddle 58 when we’ve identified an object that fits all the clues in its first fourteen lines, or when we’ve found an Old English word that answers the letter game in its final two? Is this riddle asking us to think about a thing in the world, or about the word used to signify that thing?

Bonus question: does it matter that the word radrod is a modern invention not attested anywhere in the Old English corpus?
Photograph (by Andrzej Otrębsk) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Blakeley, L. “Riddles 22 and 58 of the Exeter Book.” Review of English Studies, vol. 9 (1958), pages 241-252.

Grein, Christian W. M. “Kleine Mittheilungen.” Germania, vol. 10 (1865), pages 305-310.

Holthausen, Ferdinand. “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik altenglischer Dichtungen.” Indogermanische Forschungen, vol. 4 (1894), pages 379-88.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles”. Review of English Studies, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-519.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

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


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