(Old English riddles)
(eighth–10th centuries)
   Among the poems of the OLD ENGLISH collection known as the EXETER BOOK are some 95 short poems, all written in traditional Old English ALLITERATIVE VERSE, that take the form of riddles. They appear in three groups in the Exeter Book: Numbers 1–59 are preserved together; number 60, along with a second version of number 30, occurs later; and numbers 61–95 occur at the end of the manuscript. Related to the kind of “wisdom literature” common in Anglo-Saxon times, such as the GNOMIC VERSES also included in the Exeter Book, these riddles deal with a wide variety of subjects, from the natural world to the battlefield to the scriptorium to the kitchen and farmyard, and seem intended for a learned audience, though they do convey a kind of folk wisdom as well.As with most riddles worldwide, the solution to the riddle is an intellectual challenge, since in the riddle a subject is described in such a way that the different elements of the description might be referring to any number of subjects, but when completely put together make sense only when applied to one. Though they were at one time attributed to CYNEWULF, the differences in tone, style, and subject matter have led modern scholars to conclude that the riddles were written by a variety of poets, probably over a long period of time.While it is difficult to date them with any precision, it is known that riddles were popular in English monasteries of the eighth century. Building on the 100 riddles or enigmas produced by the late classical poet Symphosius (ca. fourth century), the famous English scholar Aldhelm, bishop of Serborne, wrote in the late seventh century his own collection of 100 riddles in Latin, utilizing them chiefly for didactic purposes in a treatise on prosody. This was followed by a collection of 40 Latin riddles by Tatwine, archbishop of Canterbury in the early eighth century—a collection brought to the traditional 100 by 60 more riddles of “Eusebius,” thought to be Hwætberht, abbot of Wearmouth and friend of the Venerable BEDE. Eusebius’s riddles, like Aldhelm’s, seem to have been intended for the classroom, as exercises for teaching grammar. It seems likely that the Old English riddles were begun about this time. The 95 poems in the manuscript suggest that perhaps there was some attempt on the editor’s part to assemble 100 riddles, as in the Latin collections, though the Old English poems differ from the Latin riddle collections significantly in their intent. There seems to be no didactic intent in the Old English riddles; rather the point seems to be entertainment and pure intellectual stimulation. Unlike the Latin enigma, the Old English riddles do not include titles containing the solution to the riddle. As a result, modern readers must puzzle over the riddle unaided. Indeed, in some cases, no solution has been found to these 1,100-year-old brainteasers. In the case of some of the later riddles there are problems because the manuscript has been damaged in its last pages. In any case, the precise relationship between the Latin and Old English riddles is unclear. Certainly the Latin texts influenced the English ones to some degree: Three riddles (on the “Bookworm,” the “Reed-Pen,” and the “Fish in the River”) derive from Symphosius, and two others (on a “Coat of Mail” and on “Creation”) are based on Aldhelm. But the majority of riddles seem to be independent productions.
   Some of the Exeter Book riddles are in the first person—that is, the subject itself speaks; others are in the third person—the poem’s speaker describes the subject from outside. Both types have formulaic beginnings and endings: A first-person riddle will begin with “I am . . .” and end with a challenge like “Say what I am called.”The third-person riddle will begin with a phrase like “I saw . . .” and end with another kind of challenge, such as “Explain, if you can.” Some of the riddles, such as number 42, on “The Cock and Hen,” contain runes as clues to the poem’s solution. Some, like number 12, on the Ox, include descriptions of the subject in various states of existence—in this case, the living ox and the uses of the dead ox’s skin. Still other riddles are famous because of their double entendres, like number 25 on the Onion, number 61 on the Ornamented Shirt, and number 44 on the Key: Here, an apparently obscene description turns out, in the end, to be completely innocent. Some of the riddles, finally, are indecipherable; others are so obscure or quirky that they are virtually impossible for most readers to decipher. Consider, for example, riddle number 85, wherein is described:
   Two ears it had, and one eye solo,
   two feet and twelve hundred heads,
   back, belly, a brace of hands
   a pair of sides and shoulders and arms
   and one neck.
   (Alexander 1966, 102)
   It is unlikely that, without assistance, a typical reader would be able to identify the subject as a One-Eyed Garlic Seller.
   Though amusement seems to be a major purpose of the riddles, they are also in general serious poetry. One like riddle number 1, on the Storm, is easily solved, but develops the theme at length in a stirring description. Even the briefest of riddles are related closely to the Old English poetic device of the KENNING, since the riddles are essentially extended metaphors with one term missing. They play with language in a variety of ways, and they force the reader to see the familiar through new eyes. As Andrew Welsh says, “the fundamental techniques of riddle making are also fundamental techniques of poetry making” (Welsh 1994, 104).
   ■ Adams, John F. “The Anglo-Saxon Riddle as Lyric Mode,” Criticism 7 (1965): 335–348.
   ■ Alexander,Michael, trans. The Earliest English Poems. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966.
   ■ Greenfield, Stanley B., and Daniel G. Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1986.
   ■ Hacikyan, Agop. A Linguistic and Literary Analysis of Old English Riddles. Montreal: Casalini, 1966.
   ■ Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 3.New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.
   ■ Lendinara, Patrizia. “The World of Anglo-Saxon Learning.” In The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge, 264–281. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
   ■ Nelson,Marie.“The Rhetoric of the Exeter Book Riddles,” Speculum 49 (1974): 421–440.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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