2. The "Learned" Riddles

Like the Latin riddles, learned dialogues may have influenced and been influenced by the Exeter Book Riddles. In The Dark Ages, W. P. Ker calls riddles and dialogues "common forms of instruction and literary entertainment which have a large influence on the culture of the Middle Ages."16 Of the dialogue he says:

[It] supplied two common rhetorical wants. It was a sort of rhetorical catechism, or a dictionary of poetical synonyms and periphrases, -varieties of kenning, to use the convenient and intelligible Norse name. It might also be the frame of a collection of riddles, which were a favourite exercise for fancy and rhetorical skill combined. 17

The use of riddles (or riddlic metaphors) as an important rhetorical device in medieval dialogue may be seen in Alcuin's eighth-century Latin "Dialogue with Pippin" and in the ninth- or tenth-century Old English dialogue poem, "Solomon and Saturn."

Alcuin was an English churchman,

a writer of riddles, master of the York school, and in the late eighth century,Charlemagne's principal educator and head of his palace school at Archen. Alcuin's "Dialogue with Pippin" (Pippin was a son of Charlemagne) shows how the occasional metaphoric play of medieval dialogue could become riddlic. The scholar questions and the boy answers:

What is sleep?-The image of death.
What is the head?-The crown of the body.
What is the body?-The home of the mind.
What is the mouth?-The nourisher of the body.
What are the teeth?-The millstones of our food.
What are the lips?-The doors of the mouth.
What is the throat?-The devourer of the food.
What are the hands?-The workmen of the body.
What is the moon?-The eye of night; the giver of dew; the prophetess
of the weather.
What are the stars?-The paintings of the summit of nature;
the seaman's pilots; the ornaments of night.
What is rain?-The earth's conception; the mother of corn.
What is a cloud?-The night of day; the labour of the eyes.
What is wind?-The perturbation of air; the moving principle of water;
the dryer of earth.
What is earth?-The mother of the growing; the nurse of the living;
the storehouse of life; the devourer of all things.
What is a wonder?-
I saw a man standing; a dead man walking who never existed.
How could this be?-An image in water.


An unknown person without tongue or voice spoke to me,
who never existed before,
nor has existed since,
nor ever will be again:
and whom I neither heard nor knew
---It was your dream.

I saw the dead produce the living,
and by the breath of the living the dead were consumed.

---From the friction of [sticks] fire was produced,
which consumed them


Who is he that will rise higher if you take away his head?
---Look at your bed and you will find him there.


I saw a flying woman with an iron beak, a wooden body, and a
feathered tail, carrying death.

---She is a companion of soldiers.
[What is a soldier?
---A wall of power, the dread of an enemy, a glorious service.]

What is that which is, and is not?
How can a thing be, yet not exist?
---In name and not in fact.
What is a silent messenger?
---That which I hold in my hand.
What is that?
---My letter.l8

The dialogue begins with plain questions and simple metaphoric answers.
When the talk turns to cosmology, the metaphors spin out--answers imitating riddles.
What is the eye of night, the giver of dew, the prophetess of weather? The moon.
When Alcuin asks, "What is a wonder?"
(in theOld English Riddles the creature is often a "wonder" or "marvel"),
Pippin responds with a true riddle. From that point on the exchange is entirely in riddles--
ranging from the slightly bawdy bedroom wonder (probably a pillow)
to the philosophical paradox of the apparently real nothing.
The dialogue thus becomes a seed-frame for riddles.

The Old English "Solomon and Saturn"

is a ninth- or tenth-century poetic dialogue in two parts. In the first part the pre-Christian Saturn, "prince of the Chaldeans," asks a series of questions about the Pater Noster to which Solomon replies in the light of Christian doctrine. The second and longer section of the poem is a riddle like dialogue on the nature of the world and the shape of creation. Here the questions are sometimes deeply riddlic and may have been influenced by the form and style of the earlier Exeter Book Riddles. Two examples may suffice:

Saturn said:
What dumb creature rests in its den
Wise and silent with seven tongues,
Each tongue pointed with twenty blades,
Each blade an angel's wisdom that can raise
The gold walls of Jerusalem and cause
The red rood of Christ, the glory-cross,
The truth-sign to shine? Say what I mean!.

Solomon said:
Books are bound with glory--they bode
Good counsel and conscious will.
They are man's strength and firm foundation,
His anchored thought. They lift the mind
From melancholy and help hard need.


Saturn said:
What creature walks the world shaking
Its firm foundations, waking sorrow
Like a grim wanderer. No star or stone,
Water or wild beast escapes its grip;
Things great and small, hard and soft,
Submit-it feasts on ground-walkers,
Sky-floaters, sea-swimmers in thousands.

Solomon said:
Age is an earth-warrior with power over all;
In its chains all struggle, in its prison keep.
Working its will, it crushes tree,
Rips twig, whips the standing ship
In the water, beats it to the ground.
It jaws birds, death-wrestles wolves,
Outlasts stones. It slays steel,
Bites iron with rust, and takes us too.19

In his introduction to "Solomon and Saturn," Dobbie notes that the riddling questions and answers of the poem are much in the style of the Old Norse Vafthruthnismal in which Odin and the giant Vafthruthnir engage in a riddlelike contest of wits.20 [Go to the Norse sources and analogues.]