Old English riddles pose a puzzle in more ways than one. Not only do they invite readers to search for a solution, they also provide a teasing insight into the interests of their creators. Megan Cavell, who posts translations of Anglo-Saxon riddles over at her blog The Riddle Ages, explains the value and interest of this long-lasting form of literature.
Everyone loves a good riddle. Why do you think this is? What’s so satisfying about posing and solving a riddle?
Do you know, I’m actually really bad at solving riddles? I tend to get frustrated if I know there’s an answer that I don’t see right away. That’s why I like the Old English riddles…because no solutions are recorded, I can keep guessing forever and no one can tell me I’m wrong!
But in all seriousness, I think riddling has proven such a long-lasting form because it involves low-stakes critical thinking. It calls into question all the things we take for granted by unsettling the commonplace and making it weird and wonderful. Riddles and other forms of puzzling also allow us to think about topics that might be taboo or express innocent topics in taboo terms – that’s why sexual imagery is so popular in Anglo-Saxon riddling (yes, even in riddles written down by monks!).
Your blog The Riddle Ages is especially focused on translating riddles from the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book. What is the Exeter Book? Why is this so important or interesting?
The Exeter Book is a tenth-century poetic codex written almost entirely in Old English, the form of English perhaps best known for the epic Beowulf. But the Exeter Book is more fun than Beowulf in some ways (not all ways…I love Beowulf too!) because it includes over a hundred poems from different genres: riddles, elegies, hagiographical texts, bestiary poems, and more. It’s housed in the Exeter Cathedral Library, and seems to have been there since the first bishop of Exeter gifted it to the cathedral in 1072.
There are currently no scholarly websites that include translations of all the Old English riddles, and The Riddle Ages hopes to change that. The blog also provides accessible commentary for each riddle that we translate, so students and members of the public can gain insights into these fascinating texts.
What’s unique about the Old English riddles you study? Are they different to riddles we might tell or hear today?
The Old English riddles are equal parts poetry and play. Unlike riddles now, which tend to be fairly short enigmatic questions, the Anglo-Saxon riddles vary in perspective and range from one or two lines to hundreds of lines long. They’re carefully crafted poems that tell us what some Anglo-Saxons thought about onions (rude!), weaving looms (violent!), and cattle (really quite sad…). I also work on Anglo-Latin riddles written by clerics living as early as the seventh-century, and these seem to have been composed as metrical exercises. Pretty good way for an Anglo-Saxon monk to polish up his Latin, I suppose!
What sort of insight do these older riddles give us into the society that wrote them?
This is a tough question. Of course, riddles are supposed to trick their audience, so it can be difficult to parse their tones and conflicting imagery is often employed. Still, some scholars have interpreted various riddles in the light of gender theory, class and ethnicity, and critical animal studies. Jennifer Neville has recently written a very good article on why we should be careful when using riddles as insights into material culture – which is tempting because many of the Old English riddles deal with the sorts of objects that turn up in archaeological sites (sometimes in bits and pieces). Ultimately, I think the riddles tell us a great deal about Anglo-Saxon poetic conventions, which they like to subvert. And although it’s dangerous to extrapolate from the world of poetry onto history, literature can tell us what was interesting to real Anglo-Saxons. So, I suppose we can gain some insight into one small facet of Anglo-Saxon life that way.
I was thinking of perhaps the most famous riddler of modern times, Edward Nygma (aka The Riddler), the nemesis of Batman. Is this a silly connection? Or do you think this taunting villain has something in common with Anglo-Saxon riddlers?
Well, I don’t think many Anglo-Saxon monks would fancy that comparison, nor do the Anglo-Saxon riddles involve a solve-or-else situation. That being said, there’s a wider tradition of wisdom literature throughout the biblical/classical world that filters down into enigmatic contests in other Old English texts. I’m thinking of the famous dialogues referred to as Solomon and Saturn (two poems and one prose text), which set up a riddle contest between a representative of Judeo-Christian tradition and a learned pagan.
Although the Solomon and Saturn texts aren’t as high stakes as The Riddler would like, they do form a sort of bridge between the Old English riddles and the Old Norse riddle contests. My favourite there is Alvíssmál, a poem that relates the contest between Thor and a dwarf named Alvíss (All-Wise) who wants to marry Thor’s daughter. Despite his name, it doesn’t turn out so well for Alvíss who is kept guessing until the dawn turns him to stone. Sound familiar? Tolkien, perhaps the most famous Anglo-Saxonist ever to have lived, takes the neck-riddle concept and runs rampant with it in The Hobbit.
Can you share with us your favourite riddle, old or new?
There are simply too many amazing riddles for me to pick. In fact, every time I translate the next poem for my blog it becomes my new favourite. So, maybe I’ll get you to humour me and take a look at the riddle I composed for a contest on the blog last summer. I’m not telling you the answer though; you’ll have to comb through the archives of The Riddle Ages if you want to know!
In Modern English:
I am a wondrous creature, fashioned in fire.
Sometimes I am hot and sometimes I am cold.
When cold, I stand still and silent,
high on a hill, towering over my realm.
When hot, I move about, shiver and shake,
I hiss and spit, swollen with rage.
At times I stop and stand still again.
If my contents combine with the leavings of trees,
I bring joy to the weary, peace to the wretched,
I unbind icy bonds. Find what I am called.
In Old English:
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, geworht in fyrwylme.
Hwilum ic eom hat ond hwilum cald.
Stille ond swige ic stande, hwonne cald,
heah on hylle, hlifiende ofer minum londe.
Hwonne hat, ic acwece, hrere ond sceace,
ic hwine ond geblawe, gebolgen mid yrre.
Stundum ic stande stille eft ond blinne.
Gif mid lafum beama geblanden bið min wombhord,
ic bringe wynne werigum, wreccum sib,
ic unbinde freorige bendas. Frige hwæt ic hatte.