Commentary for Riddle 71

This week’s commentary post is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Off we go!:


Yet again another riddle with a hole in it, or several holes. Immediately, you’d expect the riddle to become more of a riddle for us twenty-first century would-be riddle-solvers: distance of time, language, cultural context compounded by lack of text. However, the situation is complicated further by the riddleless nature of this particular riddle. For many, the solution seems quite obvious, easy, “un”-riddle-like – the majority plump for Sword or Sword-hilt. There is not much evidence of the “decoding process” of false leads or indirect clues that Mercedes Salvador-Bello has noted occurring in so many riddles (page 39). Not that there hasn’t been disagreement. Other suggested solutions, as listed by Craig Williamson, include Cupping-glass, Iron Helmet, Iron Shield, Bronze Shield, Dagger, or “iron, first in the ore, then made into a weapon” (page 340). We can also add Phyllis Portnoy’s reading of Retainer, or a warrior in service to a lord, although, as we shall see, this is by no means her only solution.

But are we missing something? Of course we are – several letters and words in the last few lines. And the temptation is to add them in, like icing.

Riddle 71 Piping_buttercream_onto_cake
Photo (by Michael Prudhomme) from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In this context, it is well worth heeding Williamson’s stern warning: “The doctoring of legitimate Old English passages to bolster one’s solution is not a sound editorial practice” (page 342). He was referring to Moritz Trautmann’s amendment of yþan to ywan in line 7, so as to fit his solution of Shield. It has to be said, however, that Williamson himself goes as near as can be not to follow his own advice, making keen use of his typographical eye to inform us in his footnotes to Riddle 71 of what might be, or is, just visible in the illegible areas of the manuscript (page 107):

  • 69.7: Two spaces before fe the tip of an ascender is visible.
  • 69.8: After bi either þ or l.
  • 69.10: The last letter of word preceding wlite has a long descender.

If that is not an invitation to fill in the gaps, then what is?

Plenty of other scholars have joined in the fun, as Portnoy, in her excellent piece on this riddle, notes when she lists the various ways different editors have glossed lacunae in the riddle. She also registers the difficulties created by apparent simplicity in riddle solutions which then seem too easily solved and not therefore sufficiently “clever” for the riddle genre.

This tendency to try and add in the missing words, rather than dealing with what is left does not bode well for the riddle. If the lines are so predictable that we are able to supply what is missing ourselves, this suggests not only a riddleless riddle but a rather poor poem. Portnoy acknowledges this, and sees her task as that of rescuing this and similar riddles (5, 20, 56 and 91) from such a fate. She accomplishes it admirably.

Her argument in the case of Riddle 71 – and you would do well to look her piece up yourself rather than rely on this rather skimpy gloss – is that the role of the Old English laf and the animate-inanimate associations it can call up (“what is left,” “remnant,” “survivor,” “widow,” “treasure,” “heirloom”, “sword,” “relic”) lead in fact to impressively complex readings. It is in this complexity that the artistry of Riddle 71 lies, mirroring the metalwork of the object it describes, whether this be a sword, sword-hilt, or indeed something else. Portnoy draws an analogy with the effects of a kenning (a poetic device that involves a compressed, often compounded, metaphor): “while the referent may be obvious, the point may be not so much to mystify the reader, but to present the familiar in an unusual way” (page 557).

She also emphasises an inclusiveness in reading. Thus, the reade of line one can refer not only to a victim’s blood, but also to red-gold decoration and to garnets, all of which might cover a sword or a retainer. In addition, reade, with its association with fire, prepares for a possible reference in the next lines to forges and the act of forging, another favoured interpretation.

Indeed, just to indulge in a short aside, for Kevin Crossley-Holland, iron forged into a weapon is the interpretation. He does not include this riddle in the main body of his collection, in which he decided to avoid “very badly damaged or impossibly obscure” riddles, but does still give space in his notes both for a translation of the riddle and a short commentary upon it (page xv). In his translation, he begins line 2 as “Once I was a tough, steep place,” and informs us that A. J. Wyatt’s description of this riddle as “iron, first in the ore then made into a weapon” is unlikely to be bettered, with line 2 referring either to the blade or the precipitous site from which it was quarried (page 107).

Portnoy, however, keeps her options open. She draws on Williamson and Frederick Tupper, Jr. in her reading of line 2’s stið ond steapwong, which she sees as comprising a number of readings: the ground from which iron ore is mined, the homeland of the warrior, the metal sides or “cheeks” of the warrior’s helmet or sword “face,” and/or indeed the channel running down the centre of a sword blade.

Riddle 71 Gilling Sword
Photo of the 9th-century Gilling Sword (by York Museums Trust Staff) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

References to what is inanimate and animate continue through the riddle as the sword/retainer meets its match – another sword or a warrior bearing gold. Thus, says Portnoy, “the subject’s identity, while perhaps simple to discover, is indeed complex to contemplate: “a laf “heirloom” which is a laf “remnant” of a laf “sword” which is a laf “survivor” (of the forge) confronts his match—either a human laf “survivor” (of a battle), or another equally compounded inanimate laf” (page 560).

Read in-depth, Portnoy’s argument is coherent, detailed and convincing. It is certainly helpful when grappling with the riddle’s apparent simplicity, but I am not convinced her approach allows us to see the whole picture. How could it? Surely the riddle’s credentials as a riddle cannot depend upon Portnoy’s or anyone else’s intricate analysis, as long as we are not working from the full text. The question for me therefore, particularly as a translator, is how to approach such a text in a way that acknowledges and respects its lacunae – how to avoid that temptation to “add in”.

Patrick Murphy’s Unriddling the Exeter Riddles points the way, though he does not refer to Riddle 71 explicitly. His argument, which builds on work by A. J. Wyatt and Archer Taylor, rests on the claim that the Exeter riddles are descriptions of objects that are intended to be both accurate and misleading, suggesting as solutions something entirely different to the apparently obvious descriptions.

In other words, what we see as an obvious solution may be a metaphor or a pointer to something else. Constrained perhaps by the gaps in the text, perhaps by our lack of cultural and contextual knowledge, we might be completely missing the boat. We read the riddle in a literal way because a more allusive interpretation eludes us, an interpretation that might perhaps be closer to hand if we had those missing words. Suspecting this to be the case, I welcomed Williamson’s stern warning as a guide to my own process of translation of the poem. I had initially chosen this riddle to translate because I thought it would be fun to attempt to write the missing ending lines, but, in the event, I decided, for the reasons given above, not to hazard any guesses at reconstructing those lost words. In this I follow not only Williamson’s warning and Murphy’s argument but the creative practice of John Porter. Porter’s principle when translating fragments, as he took the trouble to note in the introduction to his Anglo-Saxon Riddles, was “to translate only words which are entire, and to omit unintelligible letters and groups” (page 8). He worked with the words he could see, not the ones he couldn’t.

So, without making a commitment to any of the potential solutions other scholars have proffered, I also focused on the words we have been left. As much as possible I tried to leave open whether the riddle refers to a sword, sword-hilt, iron, retainer, warrior, spear…or even perhaps a caterpillar (well probably not caterpillar).

Riddle 71 Caterpillar
Photo (by Vengolis) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rather than closing down the options, I looked for translation choices that would keep them open. I wanted to hold on to those ambiguities because I suspect that none of the solutions that have been suggested are exact. Portnoy would agree with this perhaps, but also I wanted to leave open the possibility that there is a solution out there, but one that no one has come across.

Such thoughts affected many of my word choices. So, “clothed” was arrived at because it can refer to both object and person; “a hard and high promontory” fits the description of a piece or land or quarry but can also act as a metaphor for a retainer or even a sword blade; “the leavings of fury” allows us to keep the ambiguities in laf that Portnoy has highlighted – a suggestion of both victim and victor. As my choice of “hard” might already indicate, I also suspected the riddle included some sexual innuendo. This led me to replace the more obvious “weeps” with “groans” in line 5. Murphy helped me to this line of thinking with his analysis of the double meaning of wæpen in Riddle 20 (sword/penis), and his reference to the sexually-charged image of “rings” in traditional riddling (page 61 and 74). This awareness informed a number of my other word choices as well. I’ll leave you to spot which ones.

When it came to the fragmented ending I allowed myself some indulgence:

  • (a) not to be bound by a desire to make complete sense – if the fragments make perfect sense there would be no need for the missing words;
  • (b) to work with alliteration across the fragments we have, instead of within the lines we do not have. Why? Just because I can, but also because it binds the riddle, gives it a sense of coherence, while still retaining, through the gaps in sense/content, our awareness of those missing parts.

The relationship between the speaker/object and master seems to run through the riddle. It is referred to in line 1, possibly implied again in the “held fast” of line 4, and comes up again with the dryhtne min of the penultimate line. Additionally, as Williamson points out, the reference to rings also alludes to this: “Anglo-Saxon swords were sometimes adorned with rings or ring-knobs to symbolise liege-lord relationship – ring-sword” (page 198). Such a relationship is reflected in my translation of dryhtne min as “master of mine,” rather than, say, to “my master.” Because “master of mine” separates the two words beginning with “m,” it gives that alliterated “m” a little bit more space on the line, on the page and in the ear. Additionally, this phrase allows us to see the two (the “master” and “me”) as separate entities, which indeed they are in the poem, as well as being closely bound, whether in opposition or in thrall. I like the way the preposition “of” that separates these two words also binds them, suggesting a complex interdependency.

Such a suggestion also fits with the other curious interaction referred to in lines 5 and 6 between “he who groans/bears gold” and the one who grips or embodies the grip. In line 6, I deliberated over the possible selection of “at my grip,” which is a more colloquial way of phrasing, but decided to stick with the dictionary-accurate “before my grip.” It may sound a little unfamiliar to us but this unfamiliarity reminds us, albeit subliminally, that we don’t have full access to the riddle. Limited access is of course the case with any Old English riddle given that they were set and formulated so long ago, but the limitations are all the more pronounced with fragmented works. The words “before my grip” also, pleasingly, allow for an alliterative connection with “bears,” thus emphasising the double meaning of “bears” – as in carrying, but also enduring or suffering. The twinning of “bears” with “before” hints at the sense in “bears” of “bearing down,” as would happen when succumbing “before” a grip or when attempting to vanquish a grip that appears “before” one. Once again, in either case, a complex interaction of relationships is indicated here.

I was very happy to come up with “make good the face” – a great example of lack of perfect sense. What does it mean? We have no real idea. This allows us to hear in the translation the gaps left by those missing words. It also binds with the alliterated “m”s in the vicinity of “make” and allows an evocation of the wlite (or fair-faced flowers) of line 3, as also happens in the original. In addition, “make good the face” suggests a reversal of values or of appearance, a theme that also seems to run through the riddle, and, possibly, a righting of wrongs, or appearance of righting at any rate.

Thus, the gaps and lacunae provide us with the riddle we have left, and in our attempts to be faithful to this, we too could consider being left content with a riddle solution that is both attacker and victim, inanimate and animate. We could recognise what we have – the fragment we work with now, but also what we do not have – the riddle as it stood with Old English riddlers. I am haunted by Murphy’s allusion to Savely Senderovich’s survey of folk riddle research, in which he “concludes that solutions are “to be known” rather than to be guessed or induced by adding up the clues” (Murphy, page 33; quoting Senderovich, pages 19-20). This echoes the ethnographer John Blacking’s observation in his notes on riddle-telling in the Northern Transvaal: “Whenever someone knew a riddle well he answered it pat, as if the answer was an integral part of the question” (Blacking, page 5; quoted in Heller-Roazen, page 66). In the case of Riddle 71, that “known” or “pat” element seems to be something in which we 21st-century riddle-solvers do not share. Perhaps we simply stand too far away – the riddle perpetrating and perpetuating riddling down the ages…..


References and Suggested Reading

Blacking, John. “The Social Value of Venda Riddles.” African Studies, vol. 20, issue 1 (1961), pages 1-32.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers. New York: Zone Books, 2013.

Muir, Bernard J.  The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. 2 vols. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

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

Porter, John, trans. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 and 2013.

Portnoy, Phyllis. “Laf-Craft in Five Old English Riddles (K-D 5, 20, 56, 71, 91).” Neophilologus, vol. 97 (2013), pages 555–79.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle No.74 Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 99 (1998), pages 17-29.

Senderovich, Savely. Riddle of the Riddle: A Study of the Folk Riddle’s Figurative Nature. London: Kegan Paul, 2005.

Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

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

Wyatt, A. J. Old English Riddles. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1912.


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