rest in a thousand-year-old vellum manuscript known as the Exeter Book which resides
in Exeter Cathedral Library
(skin songs in a holy house). The scribal hand of the book dates from the late tenth
century. Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter,
donated the "great English book with variously wrought songs"3 to the cathedral
library in the eleventh century. The riddles were probably first written down in the
late seventh or eighth centuries--or even in the ninth.
How far back into oral tradition some of them go remains an open
Who first chanted or wrote the riddles we may never know
whose runic signature appears in two of the Exeter Book poems, was once thought
to be author of the riddles; on stylistic grounds this now seems unlikely.
Aldhelm of Malmesbury,
the seventh-century English churchman who wrote one hundred Latin
riddles, may have written some of the Old English riddle-songs. His
love of vernacular poetry was legendary. He is said by William
of Malmesbury to have charmed Anglo-Saxons
into church by chanting Old English songs from a wayside
bridge.4 Aldhelm sent his Latin riddles and a treatise on verse to
King Aldfrith of Northumbria, and the good king
(who during his Irish exile turned out verse as the bard Flann
Fina) may have responded in kind. The ninth-century soldier-scholar
King Alfred, who admired Aldhelm's verse, may have honored
his literary forebear with a riddle or two.
But these are only guesses-the parentage of riddles is lost in time.
Like most of their siblings in the Exeter Book, they remain anonymous
voices of an age.
As the book or singer of Riddle 91 says:
"Though the children of earth eagerly seek / To
trace my trail, sometimes my tracks are dim."5
itself is of little help in tracing the origin of riddles. The Exeter
Book looks like an eclectic anthologist's choice of Old
English verse. The ninety-odd riddles (the exact number
depends on editorial grouping of related segments) occur in two main sections. The book also contains religious
poetry ranging from the long tripartite treatment of Christ to the Old English "Phoenix" and "Physiologus" (including panther,
whale, and partridge); saints' lives such as "Guthlac" and "Juliana";
poems in the elegiac mode (laments with or without Christian consolation) such as
"The Wanderer," "The Seafarer," and
"The Wife's Lament"; the heroic "Widsith"
and "Deor"; gnomic and homiletic verse such as "Precepts"
and the "Exeter Maxims"; and the lyrically enigmatic "Wulf
and Eadwacer," once thought to be a clue to the Cynewulfian authorship
of riddles, now held to be a dramatic soliloquy like "The Wife's Lament."
The Exeter Book
is a rare creature-one of four surviving major manuscripts of Old English
poetry.6 In a medieval world where Latin manuscripts
were primarily cherished by the religious scribes who copied them and monastic libraries which held them, and where
all manuscripts were considered food for the fire by marauding Norsemen-the survival
of the Exeter Book is something of a miracle. The
book is scorched and stained and suffers from hard use; some of its pages are missing. Like
some bizarrely shape-shifting riddle-creature, it seems to have been used variously as a cutting-board, a hot-plate,
a beer-mat, and a filing cabinet for gold leaf. After this inglorious service, it
lay song-dormant in library sleep until the nineteenth century when its contents were transcribed, edited, translated,
The poems of the Exeter Book
were first edited by Benjamin Thorpe in 1842.7 The first systematic attempt to solve all of the riddles came with
Franz Dietrich's articles in 1859 and 1865.8 The riddles were first edited
as a separate text with full critical apparatus by Frederick Tupper
in 1910.9 Later editions of the Exeter Book
by Christian W. M. Grein, Bruno
Assmann, W. S.M ackie, and George Philip Krapp and Elliot
Van Kirk Dobbie, and R iddle
editions by A. J. Wyatt and Moritz
Trautmann helped to establish a text and to provide a proper critical context in which
to read the Riddles.10 Riddle translators have included
poets and scholars (many of whom are quoted m the final section of this introduction); translators of the full
corpus include Mackie, Paull F.
Baum, and Kevin CrossleyHolland.ll
My own edition of the riddles appeared in 1977;12 my translations here are the first
to be based on this most recent text. Occasionally, poets like Richard
Wilbur have not only translated riddles but written their own (the importance of riddling
to a modern poetic tradition is discussed briefly below in the section, "Poetry and
Thus does the Exeter Book
offer not only an eye onto the medieval world
but an ancient means of perceiving our own.