In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle ponders some of the best of the Anglo-Saxon riddles from the Exeter Book
As I’ve remarked before, it’s a sobering thought that all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry that has survived is found in just four manuscripts which escaped the ravages of time, the pillaging of the Vikings, and the censorship of the Church: the Cotton manuscript (which is our sole source for the long heroic narrative poem Beowulf), the Vercelli book, a collection of manuscripts of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the Exeter Book. Of these, the Anglo-Saxon poetry found in half of these, the Vercelli and Bodleian manuscripts, is exclusively religious: indeed, it’s little more than dramatic paraphrases of Old Testament stories or of Saints’ lives, as Michael Alexander notes in his informative introduction to his translation of Anglo-Saxon verse, The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics). That leaves the Cotton manuscript (whose Anglo-Saxon poetry comprises Beowulf and nothing more) and the Exeter Book. And it’s the Exeter Book that yields a whole host of smaller masterpieces of Old English verse, from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ to ‘The Ruin’ to ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’ and the celebrated riddles.
The Anglo-Saxon riddles are especially interesting. Far from being idle brain-teasers to divert people for half an hour during their lunch break or provide a topic of conversation at Christmas dinner, the riddle, to the Anglo-Saxons, was a serious and enigmatic poetic form, designed to defamiliarise and alienate by depriving a thing of its name or giving an animal a ‘voice’ with which to speak to us. Many of the riddles in the Exeter Book bear this out (and I am indebted to Michael Alexander, and his excellent pocket translation of Anglo-Saxon verse, The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics), for this observation). But this is not to say that some of the riddles aren’t, quite frankly, bawdy and rude. And they are meant to be diverting, even if some of them clearly have a religious aspect (generally the less successful one) and are a tool for learning. It’s part of the fun of the Anglo-Saxon riddle that we’re not entirely sure what we’re going to get.
The fun also comes from the fact that the riddles in the Exeter Book didn’t come with their solutions printed (or rather handwritten) alongside the riddles themselves; like a dodgy puzzle book bought off a market stall for 20p, we have the puzzles but can only guess at what the answers were meant to be. In some cases, no satisfactory solution has been found.
The Anglo-Saxon riddles contained in the Exeter Book were probably written in the early eighth century. Below, I’ve included some of the best Anglo-Saxon riddles from the Exeter Book, followed by the most commonly proposed solutions. I’ve numbered them first, second, third, and so on, for the sake of matching riddle to solution, but in the Exeter Book they have different numbers.
First Anglo-Saxon riddle: what hangs down by the thigh of a man, under his cloak, yet is stiff and hard? When the man pulls up his robe, he puts the head of this hanging thing into that familiar hole of matching length which he has filled many times before.
Second Anglo-Saxon riddle: I am a wondrous thing, and to woman I am a thing of joyful expectation, to close-lying companions serviceable. I harm no city-dweller with the exception of my slayer. My stem is erect and tall – I stand up in bed – and I am whiskery somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman’s attractive daughter will venture, bumptious girl, to get a grip on me. She assaults my red self and seizes my head and clenches me in a cramped place. She will soon feel the effect of her encounter with me, this curl-locked woman who squeezes me. Her eye will be wet.
Third Anglo-Saxon riddle: I saw a woman sit alone.
Fourth Anglo-Saxon riddle: The wave, over the wave, a strange thing I saw, thoroughly wrought, and wonderfully ornate: a wonder on the wave: water became bone.
Fifth Anglo-Saxon riddle: I saw two wonderful and weird creatures out in the open unashamedly fall a-coupling. If the fit worked, the proud blonde in her furbelows got what fills women.
Proposed solutions: first riddle (key), second riddle (onion), third riddle (a mirror – although this one-line riddle remains one of the most contentious and other solutions are possible), fourth riddle (ice), fifth riddle (a cock and hen).
I am indebted to Michael Alexander’s wonderful The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics) for these riddles and many of the proposed solutions.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.