If you read Riddle 73 and didn’t immediately think of The Dream of the Rood, well then you clearly haven’t read The Dream of the Rood as recently as is good for you, and should probably go and do that now. Are you back? Then on with the commentary!
Even with substantial damage to the riddle’s central lines, its parallels with The Dream of the Rood aren’t exactly hard to spot. Both feature monologues spoken by trees, for a start. In both, the trees begin by describing their place in the land. Both trees are old – in The Dream of the Rood, we’re told it was geara iu (“years ago”, line 28a) that the tree lived on the edge of a forest, while the speaker in Riddle 73 is gearum frodne (“wise in years”, line 3a). Eventually people arrive, fell these ancient trees, and transform them into… something else. In The Dream of the Rood, that something is a cross, soon to become the Cross. In Riddle 73, it’s some manner of weapon.
Exactly what weapon our speaker becomes is up for grabs, to a point. There’s been a modicum of support for Moritz Trautmann’s solution “battering ram”, mainly because of similarities with Riddle 53. There are a few obstacles to this reading, however. As Craig Williamson points out (page 354), our speaker is held in its wielder’s hand (line 8), is slender (line 18), and it moves about quietly (line 23). I don’t know about you, but when I picture something small, hand-held, and quiet, the first thing that springs to mind isn’t this:
The riddle’s more popular solutions are either spear (Old English gar) or bow (OE boga). According to Williamson, spears were perhaps the most common offensive weapon in the Anglo-Saxon arsenal, and they’re certainly abundant in Old English poetry. One verse of the Old English Rune Poem may be describing a tree-turned-spear, in a way that’s somewhat suggestive of Riddle 73:
Æsc biþ oferheah, eldum dyre,
stiþ on staþule, stede rihte hylt,
ðeah him feohtan on firas monige. (Rune Poem, lines 81-83)
(The ash is very high, dear to men,
strong in its stead; it holds its right place,
though many men fight against it.)
Yes, there’s always a way of shoehorning runes into a riddle commentary. And while we’re shoehorning, we can’t really talk about Anglo-Saxons and spears without some mention of The Battle of Maldon (a.k.a. “the poem with all the spears”). Maldon’s most famous line is almost certainly Byrhtnoth’s rejoinder to the Vikings’ offer of a truce in return for tribute:
Gehyrst þu, sælida, hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan,
ættrynne ord and ealde swurd. (The Battle of Maldon, lines 45-47)
(Do you hear, seafarer, what this people says?
They wish to give you spears for tribute,
the poisoned point, and old swords.)
More reminiscent of Riddle 73, though, are lines much later in the poem when, in the thick of the battle, we’re told that gar oft þurhwod / fæges feorhus (“the spear often pierced the life-house of the fated”, lines 296b-97a). When the speaker of Riddle 73 describes itself entering into strongholds, it might be speaking literally, of besieged towns. But it could just as easily be speaking figuratively of the human body (Williamson, page 348).
The Battle of Maldon is also a useful reminder that spears were projectiles as well as close-combat weapons. The speaker’s description of itself going alone with the craft of a thief (line 23) certainly puts me in mind of something being thrown across a distance. In fact, it mostly reminds me of this scene from the lid of the Franks Casket:
This brings us to the second popular solution: bow (and/or arrow). Those who know about Anglo-Saxon woodworking point out that while spears aren’t made from the wood of old trees, bows are (Doane, page 254). There’s also that reference to the speaker being compelled to bugan (“bend”, line 7b) in the hand of its wielder. I’m no expert, but that certainly sounds more like a bow than a spear.
So Riddle 73, like Riddle 53 and The Dream of the Rood, is one of several Old English poems in which “a tree is taken from a state of innocence and treated savagely to create an instrument of destruction” (Wilcox, page 398). Whether the specific instrument is a spear or a bow, the suffering that the speaker experiences through the course of its transformation is, as Wilcox points out, all the more ironic “when the manufactured object is one which brings suffering on men” (page 399).
That irony is certainly not lost on our poet. At the start of the riddle, the speaker is living in what Corinne Dale calls almost “Paradisal” peace (page 110), until hostile humans onwendan mine wisan (“changed my nature”, line 5a). This change is emphatically manufactured, in the sense that it’s brought about by human hands, and it forces the speaker to go wiþ onsceape (“against [my] creation”, line 6b). It’s through this human-wrought change that our speaker becomes, in turn, hostile to humans: sneaking into strongholds, and dispatching warriors through its newly bestowed wisan (“nature”, line 29a).
This is where the parallels with The Dream of the Rood become particularly poignant. In The Dream of the Rood, the speaker is likewise transformed into an instrument of death. But it also finds redemption in spite of – or rather, through – this transformation. As it towers above those who made it into a gallows, the tree-speaker contemplates how easily it could bugan to eorðan (“bend to earth”, line 42b) and wipe them out. But it ne dorste… bugan (“does not dare… bend”, lines 35a-36a), and instead obeys divine will by standing tall. The speaker of Riddle 73, on the other hand, has no such noble role to play. It simply on bonan willan bugan (“bends to a killer’s will”, line 7), and brings violence to places that ær frið hæfde (“previously had peace”, line 26b).
My favourite part in this riddle about transformation is actually the transformation that takes place in the very final half line. Here, the speaker takes what is probably the most conventional phrase in the Exeter Book riddles, saga hwæt ic hatte (line 29b) and turns it into something altogether more sinister. Call me paranoid, but it seems to me there’s a sort of implied threat in these closing lines: “Humans gave me this nature, and now my nature kills any human who knows it,” the speaker seems to say, before turning to its human audience and adding “So… do you know what I am?”
References and Suggested Reading
Dale, Corinne. The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017.
Doane, A. N. “Three Old English Implement Riddles: Reconsiderations of Numbers 4, 49, and 73.” Modern Philology, vol. 84, issue 3 (1987), pages 243-57.
Halsall, Maureen, ed. The Old English Rune Poem: A Critical Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.
Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 52.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69, issue 4 (1990), pages 393-408.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.