The Exeter Book Riddles
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The ninety-six Anglo-Saxon riddles in the eleventh-century Exeter Book are poems of great charm, zest, and subtlety. Ranging from natural phenomena (such as icebergs and storms at sea) to animal and bird life, from the Christian concept of the creation to prosaic domestic objects (such as a rake and a pair of bellows), and from weaponry to the peaceful pursuits of music and writing, they are full of sharp observation, earthy humour and, above all, a sense of wonder. The main text of this volume contains Kevin Crossley-Holland’s newly-revised translations of seventy-five fascinating and discursive riddles – all those not very badly damaged or impenetrably obscure – while a further sixteen are translated in the notes. These translations are very widely anthologised in Britain and the USA. Sir Arthur Bliss and William Mathias set some of them to music, Ralph Steadman has illustrated them and Michael Fairfax has incorporated them in his Riddle Sculpture.
garment. It has a hole in its head. It is stiff and strong and its firm bearing reaps a reward. When the man hitches his clothing high above his knee, he wants the head of that hanging thing to poke the old hole (of fitting length) it has often filled before. 45 I’m told a certain something grows in its pouch, swells and stands up, lifts its covering. A proud bride grasped that boneless wonder, the daughter of a king covered that swollen thing with clothing. 46 A man sat sozzled
Riddle 3 These forceful lines describe an earthquake, a storm at sea, and a thunderstorm back on land. The most sensible blanket designation is storm. The word ‘shrithing’ in line 50 derives from the Old English scripan, meaning a sinewy and sinister gliding movement; it is also used by the Beowulf-poet in describing both the monster Grendel and the dragon. The Anglo-Saxons’ love and fear of the sea is conveyed as well in these lines as anywhere in Old English literature. The ‘flint-grey
Riddle 24 (which contains its own answer, higora – jay or magpie) have much in common. I find the picture of men at the day’s end who ‘sit, bowed down, quiet in their houses’ moving in its contrast to the songbird’s unabashed vigour. Riddle 9 Cuckoo. Here is the familiar, cruel story of the fledgling cuckoo, told in a charming way. Several references to the bird in Old English literature capitalize on the paradox that its two-toned song is the melancholy announcement of something gay. And the
what may have come before, or what may come after it, we do not know. Therefore, O King, if this new Christian teaching brings any great certainty, it seems fitting that we should follow it. King Edwin followed it! During the seventh and eighth centuries, the scriptoria of the great Northumbrian monasteries produced a steady stream of manuscripts (see Note to Riddle 26), for use at home and for missionary activity on the Continent. There are several riddles about the work of the scribe, the
correctly, say what I am called. 40 Enduring the Creator, He who now guides this earth on its foundations and governs this world. Powerful is the Ruler, and rightly King and Sovereign over all; He governs and guides earth and heaven, and they are encompassed by Him. He made me – a marvel – at the beginning, when He first fashioned this circle of earth; He ordained that I should stay awake and never sleep again, and sleep suddenly overtakes me, my eyes quickly close. With His power the