Before we start, there’s something we need to clear up about Riddle 62. This is one of those riddles with two solutions. First, it’s a description of an implement of some sort – probably a poker or a wood-working tool. But, and bear with me here, there’s actually another solution at play. If you think about it really carefully you can maybe see how this riddle might also be describing a penis. I just wanted to get that out the way, in case anyone failed to pick up on the incredibly subtle imagery.
Now, you might not have seen this straight away. You might have read this riddle through and thought: “Ah yes. A poker. That is certainly what is being described here. That and nothing else.”
In which case, well done. It might be that. It might also be a borer or some other woodworking tool. Picture something like this:
There’s really not much in it: both are hard, and pointed, and get pushed into things. The former gets hot from the fire. The latter gets hot from friction. It’s a little tricky to account for the womb that our speaker goes beneath if we’re picturing a borer. This is why I think poker makes the better fit. The womb would be an oven, or furnace, or fireplace. Winfried Rudolf has discussed the sexual imagery of ovens in relation to Riddle 45 (pages 511-13; see also Salvador-Bello page 360), and here are some fun images of medieval ovens being suggestively… poked. And with that, let us segue smoothly into our riddle’s less salubrious meanings. Because, believe it or not, a hard and pointy instrument that gets poked repeatedly into someplace warm and inviting lends itself to a different sort of solution entirely.
Yes, we’re continuing the double-entendres from Riddle 61 (and there’s more to come in Riddle 63). The combination of everyday object with sexy subtext is one we’ve seen more than a few times in the Exeter Book, and this riddle pulls no punches with the suggestive imagery. In fact, almost every line includes vocabulary repeated in those other euphemistic riddles. Our speaker is heard ond scearp and strong; the speaker of Riddle 44 is stiþ ond heard (line 3a), and strong appears in Riddle 54 (line 9b) and 87 (line 3a). The hrægl worn by our speaker’s wielder finds a number of parallels (44.4, 45.4, 54.4), as does the womb (37.1, 87.1) that our mystery subject goes beneath, and the nearo (25.10, 61.6) hol (44.5) it occupies. But just in case we missed all that, the poet drops the word nathwær into the closing lines. This – and the related term nathwæt – is a solid staple of the double-entendre genre, making an appearance in Riddles 25, 45, 54 and 61.
So not only is this riddle suggestive, it’s laden with language used suggestively in other riddles as well. “Keep some mystery in the bedroom” is an idea our poet apparently failed to internalise when composing this little vignette.
In fact, the poet comes perilously close to giving the game away in lines 6b-8a. The subject of the two hwilum clauses must be understood as the hæleð mid hrægle from line 6a. That’s fine for the first clause, as the man pulls his “poker” out from the “fire.” But then in the second clause it isn’t the poker that eft fareð but the man himself. Hang on, why would the man be putting himself back into the fire? As noted by Murphy (page 203), and Williamson before him (page 323), this makes no sense. Unless the tool this man is wielding isn’t really a poker at all, but a part of his own body, and he isn’t really venturing into a fire but into a… nathwær. Just as we think we’ve caught the poet – and the man – in the act, the curtain comes and we’re back in the realm of the implied. “I couldn’t possibly say where,” demurs the speaker, “and no I don’t know what you’re smirking about.”
So even in a riddle as on-the-nose as this, there’s room for ambiguity. My favourite is forðsiþ in line 2a. It means “departure,” but forðsiþ can also refer to “death.” In renaissance literature, “death” is a familiar euphemism for orgasm (the “little death,” or “petite mort”), and it’s likely the metaphor was established at least by Chaucer’s day (Quinn, page 220). Think of Troilus “fainting” in Criseyde’s bed. Is this reference to the speaker’s forðsiþ an earlier iteration of the same euphemism? It might be. That’s the problem with suggestive language – it needs both the riddler and the riddlee to be on the same page, culturally speaking.
Speaking of which, what should we make of the speaker describing itself as scearp? It’s not the most obvious adjective to associate with a penis, right? It’s also not one we might expect based on other riddles of this nature (Riddle 44, for example, pairs heard with stiþ). As well as the modern sense “sharp”, scearp can also mean “keen” (think of something being “sharp sighted”). That sense does fit well enough with the rest of the riddle, which emphasises haste (line 4b) and urgency (line 8b). But scearp is also used to describe weapons – particularly swords – often enough that the suggestion of violence inevitably rears its head here (see Riddle 20). What’s really striking about scearp is that it introduces a perspective that’s otherwise very notably absent from this poem. It’s the person receiving the penis – rather than the penis itself or the man it’s attached to – who would experience its “sharpness”. Throughout the whole poem, scearp is the only insight we get into that other perspective, and (for modern readers at least) it gives a discomforting glimpse into a very different experience of an encounter otherwise dominated by the man’s pride in his own sexual performance.
Which leads us to the biggest scholarly sticking point of Riddle 62: the suþerne secg (line 9a). All the way through the poem, the speaker refers to its wielder in lofty and heroic terms, as frea, rinc, and hæleð. What, then, are we supposed to make of the man’s southern origins? Tupper takes it to mean that our “hero” is actually a slave, akin to the “dark Welsh” who populate various other euphemistic riddles (page 203). On the other hand, Baum thinks the reference implies a skilled craftsman, as opposed to a “cruder man from northern districts” (page 59). Williamson argues that the line is euphemistic (probably a safe bet, all things considered), providing an oblique reference to “the direction of the thrust” (page 323).
Murphy proposes something a bit different (page 203). Rather than taking the suþerne secg as the subject – parallel to the hæleð mid hrægle – he instead argues that it’s the object: “He [the man] earnestly urges on his southern fellow [by which is understood the penis]”. It’s a fun interpretation, and it makes the riddle’s closing half-line especially bold. Having just referred to itself with a euphemistic epithet, the speaker then demands that we be the one to “say what I’m called.” A “tool,” an “implement,” a “southern fellow”? Don’t know what you’re talking about. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some “fires” to “poke.”
References and further reading
Condren, Edward I. Chaucer from Prentice to Poet: The Metaphor of Love in Dream Visions and Troilus and Criseyde. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.
Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.
Rudolf, Winfried. “Riddling and Reading: Iconicity and Logogriphs in Exeter Book Riddles 23 and 45.” Anglia-Zeitschrift für englische Philologie, vol. 130, issue 4 (2012), pages 499-525.
Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin”. Philological Quarterly, vol. 90, issue 4 (2011), pages 357-85.
Tanke, John W. “Wonfeax wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” In Class and Gender in Early English Literature. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.