Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book/Annotated

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Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (1963)
translated by Paull Franklin Baum
1186123Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book1963Paull Franklin Baum



translated by



Durham, North Carolina


© 1963, Duke University Press

Library of Congress Catalogue Card number 63-21168

Cambridge University Press, London, N. W. 1, England

Printed in the United States of America

by the Seeman Printery, Inc., Durham, N. C.


THE ninety-odd riddles in Anglo-Saxon which have come down to us in a single manuscript are naturally a miscellaneous collection of varying merit. A few of them are poetical in the best sense of Anglo-Saxon poetic style, as good as anything outside the heroic style of the Beowulf. Many of them are interesting as riddles: intentional ambiguities to be solved by the reader or hearer. Some of them are learned, turning on the interpretation of runic letters or dealing with subjects only the monkish mind would care about. Some of them are neat and clever and well versified; others are not so good.

In the manuscript the riddles appear in no particular order. The following translations have been grouped according to subject. It was not feasible to arrange them by types, because the typical forms of the riddle are not clearly fixed and the Anglo-Saxon riddles are too few to illustrate many types.

The language of the Anglo-Saxon riddles is often difficult, and even those who are fairly familiar with Old English cannot read them readily. Though some of the best have been translated in scattered places, and there is a prose line-for-line translation in the E.E.T.S. edition of the Exeter Book, not readily accessible to the common reader, it has seemed worthwhile to render them all in similar verse form, with brief explanations, for any who may be interested in the riddles as such and for the glimpses they afford of monkish diversion and of daily life in England of the eighth and ninth centuries—in modern terms, for their psychological and sociological values.

I am deeply indebted to Professor Elliott V. K. Dobbie for reading my manuscript with great care and suggesting many improvements.



I came across this collection of riddles in the stacks of Love Library at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln along with other books on the same subject. I had never known of the existence of the Exeter Book or the riddles it contains, and I was particularly intrigued by the inclusion of the “obscene” riddles. These, I thought, are worth sharing, so, I went hunting for a copyright-free translation of the riddles. It took me some time to discover that one was right under my nose. Baum’s translation was published in 1963, the last year for which a copyrighted work had to be renewed under United States law in order to remain under copyright, and it happens that the copyright on this particular work was never renewed.

Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book benefits from its accessibility; it is not couched in endless academic analysis as other versions are, and Baum’s commentary is simultaneously concise and engaging. His grouping of the riddles according to theme, as opposed to their appearance in the Exeter manuscript, likewise lends itself well to the casual reader for whom the riddles were doubtlessly originally intended, and his Index of Solutions is a nice feature. Nevertheless, I felt that this edition has its shortcomings. Foremost among these is the glaring absence of the text in its original Old English form. To rectify this, I consulted Craig Williamson’s The Old English Riddles of the ‘Exeter Book’ (1977) and A. J. Wyatt’s Old English Riddles (1912). Without having full access to a set of facsimiles of the original manuscript, I attempted to reconstruct the text with as few emendations as possible, using the original orthography, capitalization, and punctuation. This may be imperfectly and incompletely done, as Williamson and Wyatt in rare circumstances differ in what they observed in the manuscript.

Another change I have made is the inclusion of links to Wikipedia and Wikisource pages for explanatory purposes, including the subjects of the riddles, which often need less in the way of explanation. I also made extensive use of popup notes for various purposes, including definition of obscure terms, identification of authors referred to by only their surnames, discreet emendation of the Old English text, and identification of Unicode characters that may not render on many computer screens. This latter point is important as the manuscript includes several runes in addition to the relatively common Old English abbreviations (þ with a cross, representing ‘the’) and (a symbol similar to a 7, representing ‘and’). To avoid the gross overuse of the popup note feature, I avoided using most archaic letter forms, such as ƿ, and left various contractions that use a macron (¯) to represent missing letters (usually a final m; þōn represents þonne) to speak for themselves.

You will observe that Baum has included, alongside his own numbering of the riddles, a numbering scheme used in George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie’s The Exeter Book that reflects the ordering of the riddles in the Exeter manuscript. Navigation links are provided at the top and bottom of every riddle’s page according to both the Baum numbering (Riddle X→) and the Krapp–Dobbie numbering (k-d Y→), so that those who wish to enjoy them in either order may do so easily.

Finally, I have also gone to the trouble of including two entries commonly included in collections of the Exeter riddles but omitted in Anglo-Saxon Riddles—one because it is not Anglo-Saxon, and the other because it is not a riddle. These are featured as “Easter eggs” of a sort. The Latin riddle, appears in its respective place as k-d 90 when one uses the Krapp–Dobbie navigation. I have included therewith my own “translation” of the riddle, which is actually a machine translation that I modified with the aid of paraphrased accounts of its meaning. (Anyone who feels that this feeble “translation” by a non-student of Latin can be improved upon may by all means contribute a better one.) The consensus seems to be that the solution to this riddle is the Christian God, first represented by the lamb slaying the wolf, then by the three wolves as the three persons of God. The Exeter Book poem more commonly known as “Wulf and Eadwacer” was once widely thought to be one of the riddles, appearing directly before the first riddle in the manuscript. Baum briefly mentions it in his bibliographical note, referring to it by Wyatt’s designation as the Quondam First Riddle. A navigational link to this appears on the page for Riddle 1 (k-d 1). The page itself is excerpted from Wyatt’s Old English Riddles, including his own admittedly flawed translation and a fascinating history of its interpretation.

Marking up this work was a painstaking task, which I had at one time abandoned for a while but came back to recently. I hope it adds sufficient value to the text to have made it worth while. More importantly, I hope that you enjoy this odd and enigmatic collection of mediaeval English poetry as much as I have.

Ivanhoe, 23 August 2012





iii. BIRDS




vii. MUSIC


ix. HORN





bibliographical note

numbering of the translations and the krapp–dobbie edition

index of solutions