Old English Riddles and the Dream of the Rood


Anglo Saxon (or Old English) riddles can be both bewildering and revealing. Because these 900 year old poems are often untitled, it’s sometimes impossible to be sure just what the answer to a riddle might be. They invoke our imaginations by depicting various symbols, characters and possible solutions. In the process, we as modern readers get a sense of how Anglo Saxon writers and interpreters thought about these texts. In this talk, Michael Baker helps us decode some of these intriguing poems, especially the Old English masterpiece, The Dream of the Rood. [MP3 version]

One of the most intriguing intersections of literary cultures is signalled by the meeting of Anglo-Saxon ludic discourse, in the form of riddling, with classical homiletic discourse. Found in various Old English texts from 700 to 1000 AD, this fusion of genres derives from the interaction, on a more basic level, of the concepts structuring Anglo-Saxon culture with those organising patristic Christian thought.

Although monastic chroniclers of the era portrayed ‘heathen’ culture as being swept away by a tide of Christian conversion, what occurred was in fact a complex cultural hybridisation. Recent research in the relationship between cognition and narrative structure may help us to reconstitute some of the dissonance and ambivalence that texts contained—particularly in recognising Anglo-Saxon and Christian mental spaces (interpretative conceptual assemblies) that texts triggered in order to create a new, blended space.

This paper explores one of these blended mental spaces in a poem regarded as one of the most striking and successful in the Old English corpus, the Vercelli Book’s ‘The Dream of the Rood’—in which the biblical Christ and Anglo-Saxon warrior ethos merge, along with the Cross and Anglo-Saxon social structure. Riddling interacts with the poem’s more frequently discussed homiletic discourse as part of a discovery process, activating links between these potent but disparate cultural concepts.

The poem’s narrative structure is evidence, Michael argues, of a pragmaticmodus vivendi with non-Christian aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture, one that sought to enlist entrenched mental spaces (or frames) in the communicative tasks of conversion and religious instruction.

This lecture formed part of our Late Summer Lecture series, featuring the best postgraduate research into narrative and literature. Check out other podcasts from the series here, including talks on a literary history of chocolate, and the depiction of knights on film.

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