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 Poemmay 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.
Welcome to the third Exeter Book riddle featuring the hardworking ox or cow. Will it be the last we see of the bovines? No spoilers! This one is slightly more enigmatic than average, because the manuscript is damaged towards the end and there’s a huge hole where the start of the riddle should be. But we get a general idea of nostalgia for early childhood: the speaker remembers being little, having a sister, and feeding happily. But the youthful scene quickly becomes more riddle-y: this kid pulled four brothers who dispensed drinks through separate holes??? Luckily, constant readers of the Exeter Book will have a giant clue, because the creature narrating Riddle 38 also had four springs shooting forth brightly, which made them murmur with delight, and probably meant lunchtime. So yes, we’ve once again got a young bovine here, feeding off his mum’s four teats and enjoying it a lot.
But where the brief Riddle 38 jumps straight to the punchline poser (“That creature, if she survives, breaks the hills; if he dies, binds the living”), this critter’s life takes a dark and mournful turn. They must give up “that,” i.e. their mother’s milk, to a dark herder, a human who consumes the nourishment the calf once had. Meanwhile, the older ox or cow is forced to tread a lot of paths with a ring on their neck, bound under a beam. Life is hard, and you are constantly being poked by an iron goad.
That’s a pretty melancholy ending for any riddle, right? Of course, the formulaic ending about living and breaking, then dying and binding, shared by the other two cow/ox Exeter riddles and several Latin riddles, is also kind of depressing. Riddle 72 reshuffles the deck with the bovine riddle motifs: youthful delight from four teats, subsequent toil, ploughing when alive, leather when dead.
The themes of deprivation and consumption run broad and deep, across gender and generational boundaries. Eusebius’ Latin Enigma12, De bove (“Bullock”) catalogues the animal’s work for humans, and the sad lack of reward for it:
Nunc aro, nunc operor, consumor in omnibus annis; Multae sunt cereres, semper desunt mihi panes; Et segetes colui, nec potus ebrius hausi.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 220)
(Now I plough, now I toil, I am consumed through all the years;
Many are the harvests, but there is never bread for me;
I tilled the fields, but never drank strong drinks.)
In the following Eusebian riddle, Enigma 13, De vacca (“Cow”), a mother cow grieves that although she has fed many children, she herself consumes only cibis aliis (other food) and aquis alienis (someone else’s waters), because her own mother’s milk is long gone. The previous riddles, of course, have pointed out that the cow’s children are themselves consumed by a life of toil and deprived of their mother’s milk (just like in Riddle 72):
Sunt pecudes multae mihi, quas nutrire solebam; Meque premente fame non lacteque carneue uescor, Cumque cibis aliis et pascor aquis alienis; Ex me multi uiuunt, ex me et flumina currunt.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 223)
(My cattle are many, whom I used to feed;
And when hunger presses me I take no milk or meat,
Since I am fed with other food and someone else’s waters;
Many live off me, and rivers flow from me.)
The poetic tradition of lamenting the lives and fates of domesticated agricultural animals goes at least as far back as Virgil, whose Georgicsfamously catalogue the toil of cattle, the fact that they never get to enjoy themselves with booze like humans do, and the nasty diseases they can catch:
Ecce autem duro fumans sub vomere taurus concidit et mixtum spumis vomit ore cruorem extremosque ciet gemitus. it tristis arator, maerentem abiungens fraterna morte iuvencum, atque opere in medio defixa relinquit aratra.
(But lo, the bull, smoking under the ploughshare’s weight, falls; from his mouth he spurts blood, mingled with foam, and heaves his dying groans. Sadly goes the ploughman, unyokes the steer that sorrows for his brother’s death, and amid its half-done task leaves the share rooted fast.) (pages 212-13)
Bovines also featured heavily in the Old Testament, frequently signifying the wealth of an individual or a people, the transfer of wealth between people or groups, or the loss of property resulting from illness or death. A popular passage from Deuteronomy 25.4 about an ox threshing grain (“thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn”) was quoted twice by St Paul, to signify that everyone needs to be able to get on with his or her work or office, and in particular that priests and preachers should always be free to go about their business. In First Corinthians 9.9, however, Paul asks a provocative question: Numquid de bubus cura est Deo? Does God care about oxen? No; he insists on the allegorical force of the textual ox, explicitly rejecting any literal compassion for actual oxen (a number of other patristic writers also rejected the idea that humans should care about individual animals).
The riddlers’ sympathy for the animals’ toil and loss extends further, across boundaries between species, and even animate and inanimate objects. Jennifer Neville has written about riddles that use tools (sword, bellows, battering ram, bow, key, reed pen, etc.) to explore issues of servitude, binding, and exploitation. The narrator of Riddle 21 (“Plough”) laments its own hard labour, objectification, and even abuse at the hands of its lord, while transferring some sympathy to the ploughman, perhaps a slave, who steers it, and maybe even the ox who pulls it. In their deeply emotional identification with suffering, both the Exeter ox/cow riddles and the implement riddles have a lot in common with elegiac poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, which also feature emotional scenes of deprivation and loss. Most of the implement riddles share some of the ox/cow riddles’ traumatic deprivation of comfort in youth followed by violent handling and/or consumption in a human system of servitude; Jonathan Wilcox has eloquently summarized this as “the lament for a movement from natural innocence to manufactured suffering” (Wilcox, page 398).
In our current riddle, bovines who plough (and then get used for leather) are further associated with the Welsh, who often stand in for general foreigners or slaves in worrying ways (as in Riddle 12, with the drunken Welsh slave girl manipulating a leather object by the fire). Line 12, mearcpaþas Walas træd, moras pæðde (trod the paths of the Welsh marches [borderlands]) causes a problem because it has too many syllables, but the presence of Walas points implicitly to the theme of slavery, or at least captivity, perhaps along the English/Welsh border; Lindy Brady has recently raised the possibility that the ox in this riddle is part of a cattle drive in this part of the island (pages 94-96).
So what do we do with the emotion and sympathy evoked by this poem and its nearest relatives: the other cow/ox riddles, other animal riddles, and the implement riddles? The ambiguous nature of riddles, especially the first-person “say what I am” variety, both hinders and helps us here. The confusion caused by an apparently animate narrator who turns out to be an inanimate object is part of the humor, like when the plough says “my nose in downward,” but it’s really part of a broader project, the blurring between subject and object, that uses confusion to elicit pleasure. If a tool made of wood and iron can talk, that’s slightly unsettling and funny; if a working animal can talk, that’s even more confusing, still a bit funny, but maybe even a bit more emotional. A fictional ox narrator can carry all sorts of baggage from all the other works that influenced it (Bible verses, Virgil’s Georgics, other riddles), but can still jump off the page and demand your care and attention in ways that no poetic genres can fully contain.
Furthermore, both the writers and readers of the Exeter Book riddles would have been fully aware of just how much they depended on both the labour of bovines (ploughing and hauling goods) and the materials taken from their bodies. People have been talking a lot lately about the fundamental connection between animal slaughter and medieval manuscript production. In eighth- and ninth-century England (roughly the time period of the riddles), all major monasteries kept livestock, larger ones sold meat and dairy products for income, and establishments producing large calf-skin manuscripts produced higher dairy yields, since more calves producing manuscripts meant more lactating cows, and hence, more milk. Monastic economies, like those of manors, depended on the ploughing capability of oxen, the yield of meat from slaughtered animals, the production of milk, cream, cheese, and other dairy commodities, and the manufacture of useful objects from other parts of the animal’s body – especially hide, whether tanned into leather or not, but also including horn and bone.
While the people who wrote and read riddles about cows and oxen living lives of toil and despair had to be aware of the animals’ central place in their own human lives, the literary representations of those beasts could reach across species boundaries to forge emotional and sympathetic bonds. The battered plough, the shivering ploughman, and the exhausted ox share a life of servitude on the losing side of consumption, but in a few brief, painful lines of poetry, they can gain a voice.
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.
Brady, Lindy. Writing the Welsh Borderlands in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.
Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.
Holsinger, Bruce. “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal.” PMLA, vol. 124 (2009), pages 616-23.
Kay, Sarah. Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: 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 new series, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-19.
Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid Books I-VI. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 63. Trans. by H. Rushton Fairclough. Revised by G.P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.
Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pages 393-408.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Well hello there, folks! I am in a pretty gosh darn grumpy mood as I type this blog post…for the second time…since I somehow managed to DELETE IT ALL last week. Srsly can’t wait for the hols.
As for Riddle 70, perhaps it makes sense to have to write up the commentary twice, since what we have here isn’t one riddle, but two (this is me desperately trying to rationalise my mistake…is it working?). Once again, we have a problem with the numbering attributed to the Exeter Book riddles in Krapp and Dobbie’s edition for the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. This time, though, the problem has nothing to do with the big holes in the manuscript caused by some fool with a hot poker. On the contrary, what we have here is a problem with pages. You see, lines 1-4 of Riddle 70 appear at the bottom of folio 125v, while lines 5-6 appear at the top of the next page – folio 126r. And they don’t seem to flow. At. All. Not only does line 4 trail off unfinished (forcing some editors to add in words after gesceapo), but the first part of the riddle also has lots of third-person verbs like singeð (it sings), which jar with line 5’s first-person verb stonde (I stand).
Back in 1974, John C. Pope explained the lack of flow (in his rather marvellously-titled article, “An Unexpected Lacuna in the Exeter Book: Divorce Proceedings for an Ill-matched Couple in the Old English Riddles”) by arguing that we’re missing a page here in the Exeter Book. The quire – a sort of booklet that would be stitched together with others to form the manuscript – which folio 125 belongs to is short, you see, with only 7 pieces of parchment instead of 8. Something has definitely gone awry.
So, Pope reckons we have a Riddle 70a and a Riddle 70b, which the ASPR edition hasn’t recognised as separate texts. Other editors re-number them accordingly. The main thing to keep in mind, is that we seem to have parts of two different riddles here, which means we need to come up with two different solutions. Thanks for doubling my workload, Exeter Book compiler!
Let’s start with lines 1-4. Most of the solutions proposed for this part of the riddle are musical instruments of some sort. So, we have Shepherd’s Pipe, Bell, Harp, etc. There’s also Shuttle and Nose, which take the concept of something “singing through its sides” rather metaphorically, but I’m not convinced, since the explanations of what the “shoulders” (mentioned in the riddle) are seems a bit forced. The best solutions, in my own humble opinion, are a bell in some sort of bell-tower or a development of one of the first solutions proposed of this riddle: Shepherd’s Pipe or Shawm (a double-reed woodwind instrument). If you haven’t seen one of these, they’re all over the place in manuscripts and stone carvings/sculptures of the medieval period. Here’s one in action:
Now a shawm or shepherd’s pipe would certainly account for the references to the object’s interesting form of singing and its skilful creation, but what do we do about those two shoulders? Well, Luisa Maria Moser (I know you read this blog, Luisa; everyone wave, please!) has recently given this question quite a lot of thought. She argues that the instrument depicted here isn’t your bog-standard pipe, but a double shawm. The double shawm consists of two pipes with curved mouthpieces which themselves would have double reeds protruding from them (page 3). The curved neck of the riddle creature could refer to the joining of these mouthpieces (page 3). Although examples of such a shawm don’t survive from tenth-century England (i.e. the time of the Exeter Book’s compilation), we do have an early medieval stone carving depicting a triple flute in Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, Ireland. There are also later double-flute images in manuscripts and carvings from England, including in the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter (fol. 58r – side-ways in the middle!), and at Beverley Minster in Yorkshire (15th-century)
So, perhaps we have an instrument like this one wondrously singing through the opening lines of Riddle 70.
What about lines 5-6, then? Do these have anything to do with musical instruments? Well, the short answer to that question is: no. The second riddle is much more interested in depicting an object that’s tall and rather charmingly hleortorht (cheek-bright). Most people solve this one as Lighthouse because of the reference to the object towering be wege, which could mean either “by the water” or “by the way/path.” There’s an Anglo-Latin riddle about a lighthouse in the collection by Aldhelm, who lived in the seventh/eighth centuries: Enigma 92, Faros Editissima. And Isidore of Seville, whose Etymologies were famed throughout the Middle Ages, also described the lighthouses of the ancient world, including the Lighthouse or Pharos of Alexandria:
Apparently, the Romans built lighthouses on either side of the English Channel, so the Anglo-Saxon riddlers may have been familiar with these too (Pope, page 619). Lighthouse is a possibility then.
Another option is Candle, which John D. Niles has recently made a case for. According to Niles, we ought to be reading be wege metaphorically: the path is actually the inky trail of writing on a page (page 93). There are, after all, other riddles that refer to tracks when they really mean ink, like Riddle 51. Niles goes on to say that “From his (or its) own perspective, the personified candle does indeed stand ‘tall’ and ‘bright-cheeked’ beside the ‘path’ that it illumines. The wit of this riddle resides largely in its subversion of the anthropocentric expectation that something that is ‘tall’ should be taller than a human being, when in fact that size of the item to be guessed must be reckoned in relation to its own surroundings” (page 94). Since candles were more commonplace than lighthouses, this – he says – is the better solution.
Personally, I can’t justify going to such lengths to definitively solve a riddle that is clearly missing an unidentifiable amount of text and information! For all we know, this riddle may well be playing with both objects/structures. Be wege is obviously a contentious phrase, and it could be intentional wordplay on the part of the poet. But we simply can’t know because we don’t have the rest of the riddle. No need to get all in a tizzy, then. Let’s have our cake and eat it too.
References and Suggested Reading
Moser, Luisa Maria. “A New Solution for the Exeter Book Riddle Number 70 – A Double Flute.” Notes and Queries, vol. 63 (2016), pages 2-4.
Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006., esp. pages 92-6.
Pope, John C. “An Unexpected Lacuna in the Exeter Book: Divorce Proceedings for an Ill-matched Couple in the Old English Riddles.” Speculum, vol. 49 (1974), pages 615-22.
Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 393-7.
Stévanovitch, Colette. “Exeter Book Riddle 70A: Nose?,” Notes and Queries, vol. 42, (1995), pages 8-10.
von Erhardt-Siebold, Erika. “The Old English Loom Riddles.” In Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies. Edited by Thomas A. Kirby and Henry Bosley Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1949), pages 9-17.
From previous blog posts, you may now be getting the sense that the final run of riddles in the Exeter Book is where everything has gone to pot. You’re not wrong. As I explained in my commentary for Riddle 63, there’s a rather large and irritating hole that has damaged multiple works toward the end of the manuscript.
That’s not, however, the problem we have here. The problem with Riddles 68 and 69 and deciding whether they’re one poem or two is totally the scribe’s fault! Because, you see, there’s punctuation in the manuscript that suggests Riddle 68 ends at gegierwed, and an enlarged initial W on Wundor that implies Riddle 69 is the start of a new poem. I don’t have a copyright-free photo to share with you, so here’s my finest attempt at an artistic rendering:
What, what, WHAT do we do with this information? Well, let’s remember that this isn’t the first time we’ve been in this sort of situation. Riddles 47 and 48 present us with the complete opposite problem. In that part of the manuscript, we have no punctuation to separate out what – from their content – seem to be two different poems. But they’re run together on the manuscript page, and, where we’d expect a punctuation mark like the one at the end of Riddle 68 (and most riddles), we have nothing.
There’s also the matter of Riddles 1-3, which are set out on the page like separate poems, but all deal with similar subjects. Some editors think they’re one big riddle in three movements. Some think they’re three separate poems that have been placed near each other on purpose.
And the list of problem riddles goes on.
The long and the short of it is…the layout of the riddles (and other poems in the Exeter Book) can be a bit messy! In fact, Mercedes Salvador-Bello argues that the assembling of these particular riddles and the ones around them “was done in a rather careless way” and “the compilers increasingly resorted to opportunistic improvisation in place of planned arrangement” (page 398). Whether there’s any sort of method to this mess is a matter for the manuscript specialists, and not little ol’ me.
But I’ll allow myself to have opinions about the poetic content…because the only thing I love more than poetry is having opinions.
When it comes to Riddles 68 and 69, I’m going to side with the editors who read the poems as one. The sense of wonder and the travelling on ways/waves go quite nicely together – so nicely, that Craig Williamson suggests this variation of on weg (line 1b: on the way) and on wege (line 3a: on the wave) is the “trick” of the riddle (page 335). And that beautiful final half-line, wæter wearð to bane (water turned to bone), explains the whole wondrous situation very tidily. Ice! (Old English Is!)
The specific form of ice is up for grabs. The riddle is often solved as Iceberg, hence the dramatic shot above. There is, after all, another iceberg riddle in the Exeter Book: do you remember the monstrous creature of Riddle 33? They’re quite different poems on the whole, but there is some verbal overlap, as we can see in Riddle 33’s first line:
Wiht cwom æfter wege wrætlicu liþan
(Something wondrous came moving over wave)
Leaving Iceberg to one side, John D. Niles has also suggested Frozen Pond (Old English Is-mere) (page 143), and Patrick J. Murphy recently made quite a good case for Icicle (Old English Gicel) (page 8). Murphy pointed out the riddle tradition’s “penchant for defamiliarizing common objects,” and noted that icicles and bones are associated in folk riddles (page 8). This makes sense, of course, since they have a similar shape! Or as Murphy puts it (rather nicely, I think): “the elongated, rodlike forms of ice […] would most readily activate the image of ossification” (page 8). If we’re worried about the travelling of those elongated ossificatory icicles (say that three times fast!), we needn’t be. Icicles are still made of water, after all, and the travelling could refer to the way they extend and grow longer over time.
Anywho, back to the issue of one vs two riddles: it’s also worth pointing out that – if we don’t solve Riddles 68 and 69 together – the solution to Riddle 68 is a lot harder to come by. A creature travelling on a path who’s miraculously adorned could be…a lot of things. We definitely need more to go on than that! Not to mention the fact that nearly the exact same lines that make up the whole of Riddle 68 are found earlier in the Exeter Book as the start of Riddle 36:
Ic wiht geseah on wege feran,
seo was wrætlice wundrum gegierwed.
(I saw a creature travel on the way/wave,
she/it was miraculously adorned with wonders.)
This particular riddle is pretty messy too, and may represent the smooshing together (that’s the technical term, I believe) of two separate riddles. The best solution seems to be Ship – so there’s definitely a thematic connection between water, ice and sea travel.
Riddle 68 seems to be drawing on formulaic language about this sort of thing. It’s possible, of course, that the scribe copying out the riddle simply didn’t finish it, and went straight on to the next one. When I’m tired, my eyes skip across the page all the time. These things happen.
Either way, though, Riddle 69 can certainly function on its own:
Wundor wearð on wege; wæter wearð to bane.
(There was a wonder on the wave; water turned to bone.)
In fact, it’s a very nice example of the riddle form in brief. This riddle describes something that should be recognizable, but from a strange perspective. Like metaphors, which represent one thing in terms of another, riddles ask us to think outside the box. Here, the riddle asks how water can become bone. It doesn’t say ‘ice is bony’ (not the most eloquent of metaphors!), but instead demands that we make the logical leap from water-turned-bone to ice. What a nice little example of riddling.
And look at all that alliteration! We have no fewer than FIVE ‘w’ words in one line! In fact, apart from the prepositions, bane (bone) is the only word in the line to start with a different letter. The sounds of these letters almost resemble the wobbly flowy-ness of water solidifying into a sharp bursting ‘b’. That’s not the most articulate sentence I’ve ever written, but hopefully you get a sense of what I mean. If not, try reading the line out loud to yourself!
Please do this in public. Or in your workplace. Or maybe in a silent reading room in a library. Are people looking at you funny yet? Then my work here is done.
References and Suggested Reading
Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 8-9.
Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.
Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. IsidoreanPerceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 398-9.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.
Let me start by assuring you that this is not a connect-the-dot puzzle, though it looks like one. The rows of periods show where we cannot read the riddle because the manuscript has been damaged. In the Middle Ages, manuscripts weren’t used just used for writing. The manuscript in which most of the Old English riddles are found, the Exeter Book, was used as a coaster, a chopping-board, and later even as kindling for fire! (though to be fair, I should say that this last use was accidental). When you add to that dirt, dust and mould, and natural wear and tear over time, it actually isn’t surprising that the manuscript is damaged. It’s more surprising that it survived, and that we’re fortunate enough to read it today.
That said, though, we’re still faced with the problem of reading this riddle. It may not be a connect-the-dot, but what if it were a fill-in-the-blank exercise? Here is the poem after filling in some of the blanks with suggestions made by various scholars (these are summarized in Krapp and Dobbie, pages 368-9):
Ic on þinge gefrægn þeodcyninges
wrætlice wiht, wordgaldra [sum
secgan mid] snytt[ro, swa] hio symle deð
fira gehw[am. . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
. . . .] wisdome. Wundor me þæt [þuhte
þæt hio mihte swa] nænne muð hafað.
fet ne [folme. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .] welan oft sacað,
cwiþeð cy[mlice . . . . . . . . .] wearð
leoda lareow. Forþon nu longe m[æ]g
[awa to] ealdre ece lifgan
missenlice, þenden men bugað
eorþan sceatas. Ic þæt oft geseah
golde gegierwed, þær guman druncon,
since ond seolfre. Secge se þe cunne,
wisfæstra hwylc, hwæt seo wiht sy.
O.k., so it’s still not perfect, but we could at least say it’s a bit better. And it can help us flesh out our translation:
I have heard of a wondrous creature
in the king’s council, speaking magical words
with wisdom, as it always does
men[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .] wisdom. It seemed a wonder to me that
it could speak as it has no mouth.
No feet or hands[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .] often contend for wealth,
says fittingly [. . .] “(I) have become
a teacher of peoples. Therefore now for a long time,
always unto life, I can eternally live,
in various places, while people inhabit
the expanses of the earth.” I have often seen it,
adorned with gold, treasure and silver,
where men drank. Let him who knows,
each one who is wise, say what that creature is.
Now the riddle is – though still unclear – legible enough to point to a solution. Most agree that its solution is “Bible,” or some sort of gilded religious book. Lines 5-6 express amazement that this speaker, whoever or whatever it is, is mouth-less. And a mouth-less speaker in Latin and Old English riddles often suggests a kind of writing or writing utensil, since a written text conveys its message to the eyes of the reader without making a sound (see Riddle 60, Riddle 95, and Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 7, De Littera and 33, De Membrano). Besides having no mouth, this strange speaker also has fet ne (no feet), and possibly no hands (if we accept the reconstruction of folme), and it speaks wordgaldra (magical words). Magical words suggest that the book has power outside of its covers; it has authority in the “real” world. It is, after all, a leoda lareow (teacher of peoples). What kind of book would have this kind of authority and power? The Bible, with its message of salvation and world transformation, would seem to fit the bill.
The strongest hint at the religious nature of this book is the fact that it is gilded with gold and silver (lines 13b-15a). Gold and silver were often used to decorate Bible manuscripts. We’ve already seen this kind of decoration in Riddle 26, but just to refresh our memories, here is an example from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew:
This kind of attention was usually reserved for religious texts such as Bibles, psalters, lectionaries, and books of hours. The elaborate decorations reflected the value placed on the content of the manuscript.
So if the answer is a Bible, why are we told that it is often seen þær guman druncon (“where men drank,” line 14b)? If you’re like me, you probably think of reading as a quiet, solitary activity. When I read I make myself a cup of tea, go to a quiet room, and maybe turn on some mellow music. I don’t invite friends over for a party and then pull out a book. Though we may not often think of reading as a public event, it is an activity that provides an opportunity for social bonding. Have you ever been to a public poetry or book reading? Or have you ever read a children’s book to your son or daughter at bedtime? Have you heard the Bible read out loud during a Sunday church service? If so, you’ll have a sense of what this riddle is talking about. In fact, in medieval monasteries it was a common practice to listen to the Bible read out loud during meals. We might say, then, that Riddle 67 uses the kingly hall to represent the monastery. I’m not sure who this comparison would flatter more, the monks or the warriors, but it is not an uncommon comparison in the Exeter Book riddles.
If you’re interested in reading more about Anglo-Saxon Bibles, you might want to compare this riddle to Riddles 26, 59, and perhaps 95 (coming soon to theatres near you).
References and Suggested Reading:
Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.
Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.
This commentary post is once again by Erin Sebo at Flinders University in Australia. Take it away, Erin!
Riddle 66 is the second of the three “Creation Riddles” in the Exeter Book (Riddles 40, 66 and 94). Although it’s common to find several riddles with the same answer – or which seem to have the same answer – the creation riddles are unusual because they are all versions of the same riddle, just “edited” a bit. (Or in the case of Riddle 94, a lot.)
All riddles have a trick at their heart: a paradox, an ambiguity, a misdirection; the thing that makes the riddle hard to solve. It’s the thing that makes a riddle a riddle.
Riddles 40, 66, and 94 and their parent, Aldhelm’s epic Latin De Creatura (the last riddle in his riddle sequence), all have the same trick and the same solution. They’re same riddle, even though the words are different.
If the number of surviving versions is anything to go on (and maybe it’s not), it was the most popular riddle in early England. Or, if not the most popular, perhaps the most important? The best known? Whatever it was, the complier(s) of the Exeter Book thought it was worth the vellum to write out different versions of it.
But it’s not how Riddles 40, 66, and 94 are the same that’s the most interesting bit; what’s really interesting is how they’re different. Each version of this riddle gives us a slightly different insight into how the world was imagined. In the case of Riddle 66, it gives us an insight into how ordinary people, or at least some ordinary people, imagined the world. That’s rare in early medieval texts.
De Creatura was written by a theologian (Aldhelm), and Riddle 40 was translated by someone who was at least educated enough to read Latin, but from the way Riddle 66 has been adapted, made shorter, more focused, more memorable, it may well have spent time in the oral tradition, being told and retold. For example, the litany of oppositions, often illustrated by obscure or exotic animals or materials and underpinned by allusions to scripture, of Riddle 40, is replaced by simple, broad elemental images. On the other hand, the memorable and unusual word hondwyrm is preserved. (Often something that’s characteristic will stick in people’s minds so these elements tend to survive.) Otherwise, very few of the same details survive, just the overall idea, which is typical of the way oral texts change. So while most of the Exeter Riddles are composed and meant to be read this one was probably told – and given the lack of details which reveal specialist knowledge, not to mention the highly unorthodox (potentially heretical) view of the world, it may well have been told by ordinary people.
So, how did the ordinary medieval person of this riddle imagine the world? The most striking thing is that the riddle doesn’t mention God. Riddle 40 imagines Creation more or less like this:
God on the outside, who healdeð ond wealdeð (holds and controls) (Riddle 40, line 5a), is keeping an eye on things. But in Riddle 66, Creation is imagined not as a collection of all the things that make up the physical and/or metaphysical worlds, but rather as a force, racing around the world, diving under the seas. Unlike Riddle 40 which has a series of dichotomies, with a positive and a negative side, Creation in Riddle 66 is made up of excellent qualities only: it’s fast and bright and can reach the angels. It’s expansive. Although creation says it’s laesse, most of the riddle is about how it fills the oceans and extends through the fields. By the same token, it dives under hell but there’s no mention of devils, only of soaring as high as angels. It’s an optimistic force. And it’s not clear what its relationship to God is because this is never quite articulated. It is described more like an irresistible force, racing freely around the space it inhabits, than an expression of God. It does not describe itself as enacting God’s plan or acting on his orders. And the fact it only reaches angels, not God himself seems to suggest that they are not connected.
It’s an unusual idea of the world.
And it’s as surprising in its details as it is in its overall conception and I want to end with one of its strangest, tiniest details; tiny hondwyrm. It seems to be a parasitic insect but we’re not sure what kind exactly. And it’s also the only animal mentioned. There are no birds or fish or mammals – including humans. So, I’ll finish the commentary on this riddle with a question – why is this tiny insect more important than all other creatures?
References and Suggested Reading:
Michelet, Fabienne. Creation, Migration and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Sebo, Erin. In Enigmate: The History of a Riddle from 400-1500. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017. (coming out in October!)
Wehlau, Ruth. The Riddle of Creation: Metaphor Structures in Old English Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.