Kalamazoo May 1999
"A New Solution to Riddle 74"
Good afternoon. Today I'm going to look at a very curious Old English riddle. Over the past 150 years, the five lines of thus riddle have generated many times their nurmber in commentary. But the riddle itself is a gem in its simple, clean movement.
Before all, the riddle is a finely crafted poem. Even among that body of succinct riddles of four to eight lines
long, it is especially rich and compact. Every half line brings a new revelation, and while other riddles also
speak of flying and swimming, few can match the dramatic, swooping movement from sky to sea to land that we find
here described. In its paradoxes, it is especially fine: the riddle object is both young and old, male and female,
dead and alive and it is in the air, under the water, and on earth.
But first let's look at some of the other solutions that have been proposed. The multiple paradoxes of the riddle turn out to be very suggestive, but also notoriously difficult to satisfy.
Dietrich, in 1859, was the first scholar to propose a solution; he suggested "flying fish." He based this solution on the riddle's partial similarity to Aldhelm's Latin riddle on the same topic.
1915, Holthausen suggested "Swan," an idea which he got from the opposition
This solution however does not take into account the mixed sex of the riddle object, nor does it explain the
phrase '`dead with fish." And again we can object that the solution probably isn't a bird because birds are
mentioned in the riddle.
Several solutions center around phenomena in the human world. Whitman suggested that Riddle 74 might be a riddle about "writing." It has several parallels with Riddle 51, which describes fingers dipping a pen in ilk and leaving marks on a page.
In flying with birds and diving under waves, this riddle presents a strong parallel to ours. Leaving footprints may be matched with walking on land. However, the phrase "dead with fish" is hard to explain in reference to a pen dipping into an inkpot. Furthermore, Whitman's explanation of the first two lines is not convincing. He suggests that "feaxhar cwene" refers to the white feathery part of the quill, while "xnhc rinc" refers "to the point of the quill, with its intimations of its power as a pen." Surely here his solution falls short.
We finally come to the solution that I most prefer. This solution was first proposed by Trautrnann in 1905. His suggestion is that the riddle describes "Water" in its various forms. There are several ways in which we can explain the details of the riddle; I will suggest one, but others may occur to you. In the form of a cloud, it flies with the birds. As snow, rain, or hail, it descends from the cloud onto the surface of the sea, where it floats briefly, perhaps in the form of ice. As the ice melts it sinks below the waves, where it is as good as dead. At the same time, however, the water flows upon the earth and thus maybe said to walk. As a stream, its babbling and liveliness give it a sort of life, a "ferp cwicu." The dramatic movement described in the riddle thus mirrors the movement of water through its natural cycle. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have been well aware of this cycle, as a passage from Bald's Leechbook illustrates:
But there is a better way to explain these lines: we may get a clue from two other riddles that have to do with frozen water, one Latin and the other Old English. In both of these riddles, water in one form is said to give birth to water in another form. We find this in the Latin riddle "Of Snow, Hail, and Ice" by the 8th century Anglo-Saxon bishop Tatwine:
We find here both the idea of the clouds giving birth to snow and hail and an awareness of the whole cycle: once melted and evaporated, the three sisters return to their mother. In the Old English riddle for the Iceberg, Riddle 33, water gives birth to itself in a different form:
As Craig Williamson explains, "Water is the mother of ice and also its daughter (pregnant again with potential ice)." The final line of this riddle presents an interesting parallel with our riddle: water is found standing in every land, just as in our riddle it claims to walk on land. The iceberg riddle is additionally illuminating because earlier it presents the iceberg as a heartless warrior. We might therefore say that in Riddle 74, water can be both mother and daughter, and in some forms, such as ice, also a warrior.
The qualities of the riddle object most celebrated in Riddle 74 are its pervasiveness andmutability. Water, which is miraculous in the way that it changes shape and goes everywhere, is aworthy entity to be so celebrated. The other proposed solutions either are too recherche or simply don't fulfill all the terms of the riddle. I believe, however, that the riddles wanted us to think of something else as we worked towards sla solution. The subjects of the riddles are usually dressed up to look like another sort of creature. What creature or entity does "water" as the solution to this riddle most resemble?
My sense is that the first-person presence in this riddle most resembles the Holy Spirit, which recalls its own participation in the creation of the world and at the birth of the Redeemer. In Proverbs, for instance, the Spirit describes its own ubiquity in terms that resemble those in the second part of the riddle:
Thus at the world's beginning, the Holy Spirit was active in sky, sea, and on land, the three areas described
in the riddle. The riddle also recalls other moments in the Spirit's history. "I flew with the birds,"
for instance, reminds us of how it appeared as a dove, while "I swam on the sea" suggests Genesis 1,
2: "The spirit (or breath) of God was borne upon the waters."
Both women conceive through the Holy Spirit which comes upon or over them; in some ways, the Spirit is maiden and old woman. The idea that "fæmne geong" suggests Mary is supported by Joseph's use of the same words in the Advent lyrics:
Now the absolute "fit" of this second solution is less
perfect than the first. But the riddle does have the power to make us think of these various moments related to
Spirit's history. In these terms, the "ænlic rinc" reminds us of Christ. Conceived in Mary's womb
by the Spirit's power, he too at that instant could be said to be the Spirit. "Ænlic" supports
this--it really means "one-ly,"that is "singular, unique, one of a kind."