Phyllis Portnoy

University of Manitoba

A culture-based semantic divergence is commonly attributed to Old English laf, a word which is variously glossed as "remnant", "leavings" or "what is left behind"; "survivor"; "widow"; "legacy"; "treasure"; "heirloom"; and "sword". The rationale assumed for the rather odd semantic shift to the final item, "sword", is that the weapon, like the warrior or widow, is often "what is left" after a battle, i.e. what has "survived" it. In verse, the two most frequent usages of laf are "survivor" (about 34% of recorded instances) and then "sword" (about 29%). The word thus appears to have been equally familiar as a human remnant and as an inanimate object. Five Old English Riddles appear to turn on the ambiguity latent in this double categorization. I argue here that the laf is a miniature riddle in itself, and that solving the lexical riddle will reveal a more cleverly crafted subject than has been formerly recognized for each of the five riddles.
I begin with a riddle fragment, # 71 in your handout. I have reproduced Kevin Crossley-Holland's translations for their suggestive illustrations; my own, however, are more literal:
I am the property of a powerful man, clothed in red,
Hard and steep-cheeked, my place was once
That of bright plants; now I am the remnant of hostilities,
Of fire and file, firmly confined,
Decorated with wires. Sometimes he weeps
Because of my grasp, he who bears gold,
When I, adorned with rings, shall ravage . . .

Here the MS fails (only --fe is readable) and editors have supplied lafe ("remnant"); earme lafe ("wretched remnant"); yrfe-lafe ("remnant of the heritage", or "treasure", or "heirloom"). The variety of emendations reflects the fact that laf can refer to "what is left" of a group of people after some devastation, or to "what is left" of their possessions.
Before I solve the riddle, I'd like to draw your attention to the kenning in lines 3-4: the "remnant of the hostilities, of the fire, and of the file". This is an ancient and common circumlocution for survival, appearing in Aeschylus and Virgil to describe those left alive after a battle. The same formula appears frequently in Old English to describe human "survivors" as "remnants of hostile forces", or "of weapons", "swords", or "spears", and also, as in this riddle, to refer to the forged sword. Note that the genitive here has an instrumental rather than a possessive sense; that is, the "remnant of the file" is what the file has left intact, not the iron filings; the "remnants of the swords" are those whom the swords have not slain, not bits of swords. It is perhaps in this rather striking figurative manner that laf 'remnant' comes to mean "survivor", then "widow" and "treasure" (all can be booty left behind after a battle), and then "sword" (the most prized of this plunder), after the Germanic custom of dispensing booty and of bequeathing ancestral swords.
Back to the riddle. The solution commonly given is "sword": it is a "red" or bloody weapon; it was iron ore mined from the flower-covered ground; it was forged by fire and file and decorated with ornamental wire and gold; finally, it engages in battle, either with a warrior (a "survivor"), or another weapon (an "heirloom" sword), depending upon which reconstruction of laf one chooses as an emendation. Thus Riddle 71 brings together the notions of "sword" and "survivor", giving the common riddle practice of personification added point through the double meaning of the one word. Tupper saw a problem in the half-line, "he who bears gold", a phrase which is often a periphrasis for a treasure-decorated sword, but which here seems to refer to the victim of the sword. The so-called "problem", I think, is part of an intended ambiguity, and contributes to a cleverly staged ironic reversal of the roles of victim and aggressor: within the "envelope" formed by the two laf's of lines 3 and 7, the sword beaten by the "weapons" of the forge becomes the weapon giving the beating.
A similar and more complex irony attends the shield of Riddle 5, which in line 7 is "hammered" with the "remnants of the hammers" (that is, swords). The shield survives the beatings of the swords, which in turn have survived the beatings of the hammers. In both of these riddles, the laf clue characterizes the speaker as a "survivor" of battle-wounds. Another laf-survivor is the web of the loom-riddle, #56. The "remnant of the arrows" in lines 10-12 is the woven cloth; it has survived the wounds made by the "spears" and "arrows" of the shuttle-darts, and is presented to its lord as a "treasure". Like Riddle 71, Riddle 56 plays upon the interaction of the semantic categories "remainder", "survivor" and "treasure". Riddles 5 and 71 add the category "sword". All of these riddles function like expanded versions of the laf-kenning in capitalizing on the ambivalence of inanimate and human "remnants". The potential for confusion arising from such semantic divergence can be appreciated from the divergent translations and glosses that the word elicits from lexicographers and editors to explain, for example, that "remnants of weapons" are human "survivors", or that a "remnant of the hammers" is the Old English form of gladius. So a recent Beowulf edition glosses ealde lafe "old remnant" as "ancient ancestral swords". Talbot Donaldson's translation reads "heirloom", and adds "sword" as a variant. The same formula in Tolkien's Exodus reads "ancient sword of the fathers". "Of his fathers", "ancestral" and "sword" are all editorial additions which assume that this most figurative meaning of laf is a logical semantic progression from the one basic meaning "remnant". Thorpe went so far as to translate the laf in the "Loom" Riddle as "sword" rather than "woven cloth", and while his reading has had no following, similar editorializing throughout the corpus more often than not reads a human laf as a "survivor" and an inanimate laf as a "sword" or "heirloom".
I would like to consider for a moment how much more effective our "Sword" Riddle might seem to an Anglo-Saxon who, unlike a modern editor, might have solved the riddle as laf rather than "sweord". Read in this way, the ambiguous laf's embedded in the riddle serve as an enigmatic encoding of the solution, which then also involves a pun: a laf in contention with a laf. I also wish to consider the possibility that such word-play might be based on a homonym rather than on semantic divergence. That is, the poet may not have felt that a "remnant" was like a "sword" in any semantically logical way; if he had, he would not have considered the connection worthy of the challenge that a riddle purports to embody in its clues.
I am led to this latter conjecture, first, from the anomalous usage of the referent "sword" in the Old English corpus. Laf never denotes "sword" in prose, and it never appears in any Old English Glossary as a gloss for gladius. Also, although the meanings "survivor" and "sword" are very close in frequency, "survivor" forms compounds, while "sword" does not. This might suggest that "survivor" is the more familiar and primary meaning, since a compound, to be intelligible, requires that both its elements and their connection be understood a priori, while an attributive as a separate element exists to facilitate such intelligibility. Except for two instances, the referent "sword" is always accompanied by attributives, and also by variants and by descriptive detail such as lavish decoration, battle-sharp edges, mythic forging, and the like. While one might conclude that the purpose of this linguistic support is to avoid ambiguity, and while these associations might account for the frequent glossing of "old remnant" as "heirloom", still, the amount of variation and detail in these passages really requires only "sword". Moreover, the existence of even two of these "remnants" with no attributives, variants, or detail suggests that a poet expected "sword" to be understood on its own. But how? Were all "old remnants" considered "heirloom swords" by analogy from the "survivor" kenning? a "remnant of the file" is a sword; therefore an "old remnant" is a sort of short-hand for an "old remnant of the file"? By this logic, the "swan's road" would make all subsequent roads a sea.
Such a deadening of the metaphor is hardly in keeping with the popularity of the kenning. Like a riddle, a kenning yokes together two familiar semantic fields whose connection - unlike that of a simple compound - must be slightly obscure for best effect. The fun is in the challenge: "How is the sea like a road?" How is a sword like a survivor?" It is possible that every time a poet refers to an "old remnant" he means, "inanimate survivor of battle, plundered and bequeathed as an heirloom". But I would like to suggest that he might just mean "sword", or more specifically, "sword-blade". That is, perhaps there existed a synonym for a sword-blade which was at the same time homonymous with the word for "remnant", and perhaps the popularity of the kenning is due to the fact that it is also a homonymic pun.
I raise the possibility of a homonym not only because of the anomalous nature of the "old remnant", but also because, of the seven determined meanings of laf, "sword" is the only one never attested in the semantic development of "remnant" in any other Indo-European language, this in spite of the prominence given to the ancestral sword in many of these linguistic cultures. The laf-kenning applied to a forged sword is similarly anomalous. Laf derives from the Indo-European root (*leip) which means "be sticky". Its Germanic reflexes include "persevering", "remaining", "remaining alive", surviving", and also "leave as an inheritance". The Indo-European synonym (*leik) from which we derive the Latin relinquo "leave" has reflexes meaning "relict", "relics", "posterity", "bequest", "loan". Other Indo-European synonyms have a similar spread of meanings associating the idea of "leaving" and "remaining" with the ideas of "surviving", "inheritance", and "widow". None has a reflex naming any particular item of an inheritance, such as a sword, or even the more general item, "heirloom". There is an Indo-European root, however, (*lep, lop "flat of the hand, shovel"), whose reflexes include broad flat things like paddles, rudder-blades and swords, and an analogue (*leu "cut off") whose reflexes include long sharp things like grasses, blades, and swords. The Old English reflexes of this root are very obscure, but there is a reflex of this root in Middle English, lof "rudder-blade". As Old English long "a" regularly changed to ME long "o", there likely existed an unattested Old English laf "blade" which perhaps because of its homonymy with laf "remnant", was confused and then lost from Old English, remaining only in archaic or poetic form. An "old remnant" in Old English verse is then merely an "old blade", likely a broad one, and one more synecdochic variant for "sword", like ecg, bil or iren.
The possible existence of a homonym has interesting implications, both linguistic and literary, for the Old English Riddles. In what remains of this paper, I would like to consider two other riddles, numbers 20 and 91, which together with Riddles 56, 71 and 5 extend the semantic range of laf "remnant" to include "survivor", "treasure", and finally, "widow", and which also appear to play upon the visual and aural similarity of these referents with laf "sword".
Like Riddle 71, Riddle 20 begins by describing the subject in terms equally applicable to warrior and sword: it is lavishly decorated, it serves a lord, it brings death to other warriors. The problem arises in the later clues that it must remain celibate unless it leaves its lord, and that it is often the object of a woman's wrath. "Phallus" has been proposed, but this hardly works for the decoration clues, and is likely a deliberate feint. Most now agree with the solution "sword" offered by Ellis Davidson: a sword could be seen to 'reproduce' when it is returned to the smithy to be re-forged. Thus a sword in active service deprives the woman of her warrior husband (phallus included); hence her verbal abuse. Again, if we solve the riddle as laf rather than "sword", we have another punning confrontation between two laf's, this time between a laf "sword" and a laf "widow". The understood referent, "widow", is part of the fun of the solution, underlining as it does the first depiction in English literature of a shrew or scold. The irony of the ending is in its atypical meeting between "phallus" and "woman": both laf's remain celibate.
The opposite circumstance is the scenario of Riddle 91, commonly solved as "Key":
My head is beaten by hammers,
wounded by pointed tools, rubbed by a file.
Often I take in my mouth what sticks against me.
Then, wearing rings, I must thrust hard
against a hard thing, pierced from behind,
shove forward that which tends
my lord's mind-desire at midnight.
At times I draw backward with my face
the guardian of the hoard when my lord wishes
to take the treasure of those he has commanded from life,
to drive out with deadly power, for his own pleasure.

Here is Tupper's typically male comment: "Riddle 91 has little in common with the obscene query of the Key Riddle 44". This latter begins by describing a hard stiff object which hangs beneath a man's kilt, and then becomes obvious. Riddle 91, on the other hand, has almost unanimously been considered a perfectly "straight" depiction of a "key". Apparently to be truly obscene, a riddle must be #1 obvious, and #2 phallic, and many of the suggestive words in Riddle 91 are "straightened" accordingly, as you will have noted from my very literal translation. Thus on your hand-out begine "take in the mouth" becomes "swallows"; sticað "stick, thrust against" becomes "faces"; ðyrel "pierced" becomes "hollowed"; ðicgan, "take" becomes "plans", awrecan "drive out", perhaps "expel", becomes "wreak vengeance", and so on, alternatives which all fit Krapp's perhaps defensively decent explanation: "The reference of course is to the stem of the lock, about which the key turns" (379). Of course.
An interesting recent reading by Edith Williams solves the riddle as "keyhole", thus recognizing rather than repressing the suggestive language, and particularly, the explicit opening allusion to the female receptacle rather than to the male instrument - and here I invite you to look at the illustration on your hand-out, obviously made under the direction of the male illustrator's anima. Williams argues that the opening lines contain standard symbols of male conquest. I support her feminine reading, "keyhole", but stop short of her feminist reading of the woman's "Amazonian delight" in what appears to me to be perhaps the first depiction in English literature of an assault ("hammered" seems rather excessive, even for an Amazon). The riddle seems to divide into opposing forward and backward movements, referring respectively, I think, to the closing and opening of a door and to the front and rear metal plates or "faces" of the keyhole. The subject must take the "key" first in the mouth, then "from behind", perhaps as the lord locks the behind him. Sometimes she must draw back the "guardian" (that is, she opens the door wide) to allow entry to the "treasure", when the lord wishes to take his ultimate pleasure from the laf. Alternatively, if we take under baec more literally, she must draw the "treasure-guardian" (that is, herself) "under her back with her face" (that is, she must turn over). Any way you read it, this is a rather thorough sexual encounter.
Thus the keyhole is pierced first by the tools of the forge, then by the "tool" of the lord (the "key" of course). Appropriately, the "remnant" of the hammers, pointed tools and file is missing in the crafting of the female-shaped receptacle, so that the opening clues describe a female version of the forged laf, even as the familiar imagery perhaps intentionally hints at the more typical male instrument, "sword", and its conventional double entendre, phallus, the real antagonist in the riddle's violent ending. Again, the multiple meanings of the word allow for ironic word-play: the laf guards the laf, albeit ineffectively. Taking lafe in line 10 as accusative singular as I have done to give "treasure" rather than "heirlooms", the guarded laf can be a captive "survivor" as well as a "treasure", or more specifically, a "widow", especially given the feminine nature of the imagery and the feminine gender of laf. In this way, the riddle covers the entire semantic range of laf. In fact, rather than suggesting either "keyhole" or "key", the riddle might really be saying: "I am like a sword, a treasure, a survivor, a widow. What am I?" As with the "Sword" Riddles 71 and 20, if we think in Old rather than modern English, the answer is: a laf.
Riddle 71 with which I began is another example of what I would call a lexical enigma. Its protagonist is a "sword", its antagonist a "survivor". The clash between the two sides of this mini-drama is an exact representation of the linguistic situation which I have been exploring. The riddle's shifting of reference from "iron ore" to "weapon" to "warrior" is a rather neat representation of semantic divergence (that is, several meanings deriving from a single root), and the riddle's ending is a similarly neat representation of homonymy (that is, an opponent signified, having the same appearance, but deriving from a different root). This perhaps fanciful picture aside, my feeling is that each of the riddles discussed here is exploiting the semantic richness of the word laf, and my question has been: does the laf "survivor", "widow","treasure" belong to a different dryht (etymologically, that is) from the laf "sword"? In other words, are we dealing with one word with different but related meanings, or two different words?
While the latter possibility may not be another Rosetta Stone, still, it should have some bearing on the number of headwords entered for laf in the DOE. Also important is the evidence that perhaps we have not fully appreciated the degree of word-play available to a riddle-poet if laf is conceived as a signifier of two distinct, rather than related semantic fields. Nor perhaps have we recognized the value of the riddles for determining semantic range and usage. If solution depends upon multiple meanings of a word, then the riddle is itself evidence of those meanings. Conversely, defining the meaning of a word more precisely in the corpus should assist in the explication of those riddles in which the word plays a major role. Because of its double categorization, the word laf provides the challenge and fun necessary for a good clue, and while Anglo-Saxon riddlers would not have concerned themselves with the etymological distinctions which I have been proposing, in their punning usage of "swords" and "survivors", they appear to have been alive to the potential for word-play in a homonym that is also an auto-antonym: the survivor as destroyer.