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Anglo-Saxon Book Riddles

Notes and translations by Karl Young


Just under a hundred Anglo-Saxon riddles have come down to us. We can't say with any certainty who composed them, or when, or how, or for what purpose. They may have been oral compositions: short pieces the bards used while their audiences were getting settled, or as fill between sets during performances of epics such as Beowulf. Minstrels might also have sung them in less formal situations, where audience attention span was short or a higher degree of audience participation was desirable. However, we also have a large number of riddles written in Latin and some of the riddles are translations or adaptations of Latin poems. This has suggested to some scholars that riddling was a purely literate genre, without an oral base. This leads into confusions and assumptions from later periods. We tend to assume that knowledge of Latin must have included literacy. It did not. The clergy of the period included members who could speak Latin but could not read or write it. Some of the aristocracy included fluent Latin speakers. My own feeling is that there was an oral tradition of riddling in Anglo-Saxon England (the riddle is an almost universal form, found in most cultures) and that oral and literate riddling practices interacted with each other from the mid seventh century up to the Norman conquest. It seems likely enough that those riddles which survive were produced largely by clergymen with a knowledge of Latin, but that nattive traditions of riddling found their way into their riddles. Nearly all the riddles that have survived are preserved in the Exeter Book, a tenth century miscelaney including such Old English masterpieces as "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer." I imagine the compiler of this collection transcribed or copied both oral and written riddles, perhaps adding some of his own in the process. But this is only a hunch on my part: we have no solid evidence to come to any definite conclusions as to method of original composition for these riddles.

Some of the riddles, however, do include runes, and these imply readers, hearers, and writers who had some familiarity with or interest in the runic alphabet, or futhorc. The use of runes seems to have come to England from Germany and/or Scandinavia by the fifth century a.d.; runes were seldom used, except as a sort of shorthand, after the ninth century a.d. It is hard to say how extensively they were employed during that period, but we may assume that in the earlier part of it they were closely associated with magic, ritual, and mysticism. Probably some of the magic power associated with runes persisted in folk belief long after they passed out of use by clerics who used the Roman alphabet. The word "rune" itself implies a sense of mystery: in "The Wanderer" we find the half-line "geseat him sundor aet rune," which could be translated "he sat by himself, meditating" or "he sat by himself in mysterious thought." The use of runes in these riddles shows little of the potent magic that released Odin from the gallows and gave him powers in the Elder Edda, though it should be noted that they seem to be used more seriously in "The Husband's Message," also preserved in the Exeter Book. They seem to be used playfully in the riddles and it may be hard to see any magic left in them. Since runes were used as a sort of shorthand or code late into the Anglo-Saxon period, these riddles may have been used as a means of teaching the code or shorthand to novices. Then again, they may present a test of the reader's or hearer's knowledge, asking if he has the erudition to interpret them. If they were used as a test this would suggest that they still carried some authority. Compare this sort of testing with the interrogation sections of the Mayan Chilam Balam of Chumayel, in which aspirants to prestigious positions are asked to interpret coded phrases, which may have been based on ideographic forms of writing. Of course, some of the riddles that don't use runes may have involved some sort of testing -- in the case of those based on Latin models, for instance, the Latin source for the riddle may have been part of the riddle's solution. Some of the riddles would require a great deal of concentration on the part of the hearer or reader, some suggest ambiguous or deceptive answers, and some seem to be excuses for religious or descriptive lyrics.

Through many of them we catch glimpses of Anglo-Saxon life and beliefs that we do not find elsewhere in Old English literature or archaeology. They share with other Anglo-Saxon poems, however, the notion that virtually everything in the world is part of a living continuum, any segment of which can speak with its own particular voice. It is important to note that many things described in the riddles are not seen as fixed and static entities but as living creatures with biographies. A cross or a spear begins as a tree. A goose begins as a barnacle. The creatures of the riddles often have to go through a period of suffering to become what they are and often experience a good deal of pain in their present state. A striking feature of the riddles is that the speaker, whether it be the creature of the riddle or an observer, accepts this pain and struggle as part of the order of things -- sometimes with an almost cheerful stoicism, sometimes with what may be Christian patience. Often a creature's biography suggests that its pattern of growth gave it some of the powers it now has. Parchment had to suffer to become a holy (and magical) Bible. A sword had to endure trials in order to become strong and honored -- not unlike its user.

Many riddles open with a formula like "I saw a wonderful thing" or "I am a marvel." This sort of formula probably helped the riddler get started, and alerted the hearer or reader to the fact that this was the beginning of a riddle. But formulas of this sort are not hollow or meaningless. The riddlers seem to have seen the world around them full of wonders. It is hard to read these riddles without imagining their authors awestruck with the world -- delighting equally in the growth and nature of a simple implement such as a rake, in the marvels of writing and speech, and in the grand sweep of Creation at large. The world of the riddles lives, breathes, and speaks to man and to God.

The basic unit of Old English prosody is the half-line. In my translations I have maintained the integrity of the original half-line units, even though this has sometimes resulted in awkward syntax. I've worked this way on the assumption that the Anglo-Saxon poet wished to measure out his clues in a definite order at a definite rate, an order and rate that would be disturbed if I started moving words from one half-line to another or rearranging half-lines. Of course, to some extent, the order of phrases is a result of Old Germanic forms that are no longer current or the result of superimposition of Latin rhetorical forms. But the order of clues, beyond normal syntax and rhetoric, to my ears at least, creates the dominant rhythm of the poems, one more forceful than the four major stresses of each line that governs the meter of the original poems. In making my translations I have kept the four stress line in the back of my mind, following it or diverging from it as the individual line seemed to require. Alliteration is a major feature of Old English verse which I have not followed extensively in my workings.

The survival of the riddles, and of the Exeter Book itself, is something of a marvel. The manuscript was probably written or transcribed late in the tenth century -- though many of the riddles were probably composed or first written down in the late seventh or eighth century. The book seems to have been given to Exeter Cathedral in the eleventh century by Bishop Leofric. The manuscript has seen adversity in its time, and could tell us a curious autobiography, if we could hear its own personal voice. Round stains on its cover suggest that it was used as a coaster for beer mugs; gouges show that it was used as a cutting board. It has been through at least one fire, and several thorough soakings. Many passages are illegible, some pages are missing, and some pages have been rearranged. Given the conventions of medieval writing and the damage done to the book, it is sometimes hard to tell where one riddle ends and another begins. The scribe who wrote out the book did not include solutions to the riddles. Those given in my notes are based on the conjectures of scholars and on my own study of the riddles. I have tried to keep my notes at a minimum so readers will not be too much distracted from the texts, and so that they will feel free to work out answers of their own. Many of the proposed solutions rest on over a century's painstaking efforts and wild guesses by professors, poets, and cranks. Readers interested in more detailed commentary should see the generous annotations in Williamson's edition of the riddles. Of course, all answers are tentative -- the authors of the riddles had quick wits and open senses of humor: no doubt they would have gotten a few chuckles out of the proposed answers.

The letters and numbers at the head of each riddle refer to the two editions of the Old English texts that I used: K.-D. = George Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, The Exeter Book, Columbia U. Press, New York, 1936; W. = Craig Williamson, The Old English Riddles of "The Exeter Book," U. of North Carolina Press, Chapell Hill, 1977.

W. 89; K.-D. 93.

. . . wise in years     [he crossed] dee[p stream]s,
the steep crags     he could ascend
to his home above;     he could return
into sheer valleys     seeking the herd,
boldly prancing,     pawing the stones
lodged in ice,     shaking silver frost
off of his fur.     I came eagerly
until the throne     my younger brother
claimed for his own     and drove me to exile.
Then forged iron     cut deeply
a gleeming wound;     I shed no blood,
no gore from my heart,     though the iron bit hard,
the cunning steel.     I didn't lament
nor cry for the wound     couldn't take vengance
on the warrior's life.     My misery,
my wretchedness     I constantly endure,
nailed to a board.     Now I must swallow
black, wet gall --     I must contain
what falls from above     here where I stand --
the dark water.     I have one foot.
Now my treasure     the enemy plunders
who once ran     as the wolf's companion.
What was in my guts     escapes and travels
makes tracks on the board . . .

Probable answer: ink horn. the opening and closing lines of this riddle are defective. I have not transcribed or translated the surviving letters, except in the case of the second half of the first line presented here -- brackets indicate the reconstruction. The "younger brother" may be another stag or new horn pushing out the old. The "enemy" is a quill pen: the feathered raven, source of the quill, was the wolf's companion in battle.

W. 49; K.-D. 51.

I saw four creatures,     wondrous beings,
travelling together.     Their tracks were dark,
their path deep and black.     They coursed swiftly:
faster than birds     they flew through the air,
dove under a wave.     He strove without rest,
the battling Prince,     pointing the way
across plated gold     to the four creatures.

Probable answer: the four creatures are the thumb and first two fingers of a hand, and a pen (probably a quill pen, given the allusion to birds) in the act of writing. The "battling Prince" is the right arm of the writer. W. 24; K.-D. 26

An enemy came     and took my life
and all my strength.     He soaked me,
submerged me in water,     then took me out
and placed me in the sun --     there I lost
all of my hair.     The sharp steel
of a knife's edge     scraped me clean.
Fingers folded me.     A bird's pride
bore the juice,     covered me with tracks;
all over my brown skin     I took in the dye of wisdom.
Some more of the liquor     crossed me again
with dark prints.     Then I was covered
with protecting boards,     bound in hyde,
brightened by gold;     then I shone
gracefully crafted,     banded in metal.
Now may my ornaments,     my red dye,
my splendid illumination     spread the praise
of the lord of peoples.     Not a thing of sorrow:
if the sons of men     seek my wisdom
they will be safer,     more sure of success,
stronger in heart,     sounder of mind,
wiser in spirit;     their friends will grow
dearer and closer,     truer and stronger,
more useful and faithful--     their glory will spread,
their gladness increase,     their prosperity multiply:
kindness will flourish,     love will deepen,
friends will embrace.     Do you know my name,
so useful to men?     My name is glorious,
an aid to heros,     a holy thing.

Probable answer: Bible. In the Anglo-Saxon context, the Bible is a magical object, not simply a neutral record. Some of its strength comes from the materials and processes that created the specific copy in hand. This poem tells us a great deal about the magic powers of the Bible as a ritual instrument, but, significantly, tells us nothing of its contents.

W. 58; K.-D. 60

I lived by the shore,     near the sea-wall,
at the water's edge--     there I stood,
fixed to my birthplace.     Few came
of human kind     to where I stood
in that solitary place     to see my home.
Every morning     dark waves embraced me
in fluid play.     I didn't expect
far in the future     that I should ever
over benches of lords     speak without mouth,
convey many words.     It is a mystery,
strange to the mind     of those not schooled,
how a knife's point     and a right hand
and a lord's thoughts     join together,
unite in purpose,     so that I to another,
someone far distant,     should carry a message,
proclaim it boldly,     so no one else
could know the speech     of those separated people.

Probable answer: reed pen.

W. 45; K.-D. 47.

The creature ate its words--     it seemed to me
strangely weird     when I heard this wonder:
that it had devoured     human speech.
A thief in the darkness     gloriously mouthed
the source of knowledge--     but thee thief was not
the least bit wiser     for the words in his mouth.

Probable answer: bookworm or moth.

First published in North American Ideophonics, 1995.
Copyright © 1995 and 2001 by Karl Young.

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