Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book/19

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19 (k-d 57)


Over the hillsides     this air upholds
bright little creatures,     swarthy and dark-clad;
bold of song,     they fare in flocks
and loudly chirp.     They tread the headlands,
sometimes men’s houses.     They name themselves.

Ðeos lyft byreð     lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa     þa sind blace swiþe
swearte salopade     sanges rope
heapum ferað     hlude cirmað ·
tredað bearonæssas     hwilum burgsalo
niþþa bearna     Nemnað hy sylfe

Tupper calls this a “little swallow-flight of song,” and gives Swallows as the answer; Trautmann (finally) and Mackie agree. Another guess is Gnats or Midges. The last words are ambiguous: either, as above, they have an onomatopoeic name, or “name them yourselves.” The former supports Mrs. von Erhardt-Siebold’s argument for Jackdaw, in PMLA lxii (1947), 1–8. The jackdaw belongs to the large family of corvidae and is relatively small (13–14 inches); its “song” caw is certainly descriptive, but the bird itself is hardly as small as the riddle implies. Wyatt meets various guesses with a proper sense of humor. To Trautmann’s objection that swallows do not tread and gnats do not chirp loudly, he holds that “tread” is not to be taken too literally. “And, as applied to Gnats or Midges, I find it a perfectly delightful word for their up and down motion in the summer air.” Whether they are loud “depends entirely on the distance from your ear. At his own selected distance….” Still, swallow fits the text better.