The Riddles of the Exeter Book


The College Classroom:

Suggestions and Materials

At the 36th International Congress on Medieval Studies William Klein made a presentation a paper describing the use of Riddles from the Exeter Book in four different kinds of courses in the offerings of the English department of Kenyon College. The text of the general introduction to the presentation appears directly below. Links to materials for classroom distribution appear below the introduction.

36th International Congress: Session 314
"The Exeter Book Riddles in the College Classroom"

William F. Klein Kenyon College

In this presentation I outlined the use of the Riddles in four different kinds of college courses.


At Kenyon College the Exeter Book riddles, in the translations provided by Craig Williamson in A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs, serve as an introduction to lyric poetry. First year students find Williamson's translations accessible, witty and playful in a way that comes as a complete surprise. It is only a short step from them to the wide variety of "riddling" poems in the main stream English lyric tradition. Emily Dickinson's "A Route of Evanescence" is a good example. In any major anthology the index of first lines that begin with the first person pronoun leads to a variety of lyric poems that adopt a "riddling" rhetorical posture.
The attached materials are those I use in my first year English course. It is primarily a "literature course" with heavy writing. Its title is "Introduction to Language and Literature." I expected a quick review of these materials will take up my allotted time. Appropriate materials for the other courses will be available at the Web site.Click on page1, page6


One of my creative writing colleagues use Williamson's translations in her poetry workshops. One of the initial problems of beginning students writing poetry is finding both a source of images and an appropriate voice. She finds the Riddles useful in suggesting ways of practicing ventriloquism and inventing dramatic voices. William Carlos Williams announced the theme of the "Imagist" poets with the slogan, "No ideas but in things." The riddles are like the poems of Theodore Roethke, of which John Crowe Ransom wrote: "A poem made mostly out of pure images often taxes the mind of a reader that would make out the scheme of its argument.


The natural place of the Riddles is in my courses: "Medieval Literature" and "The History of the English Language." In the literature course, there are a variety of themes that can be explored through the Riddles. The Riddles may be one of the primary legacies of the transformation of the native tradition of personalizing flora and fauna into a form of celebration of the creation as a blessing of a benign Providence. The Riddles have long been a source of information regarding the arts and sciences, as well as social attitudes and manners. Along with other texts in the Exeter Book they provide a wide variety of projects introducing students to medieval literary study.


In "History of the English Language" the Riddles serve as appropriate occasions for comparative studies in grammar, style and semantics. After a few experiences of translating Anglo-Saxon passages that easily make good sense in Modern English, because they are based on familiar Biblical passages or are quite simple, like passages from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Riddles provide a transition to the great monuments of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The primary focus of my course is lexical and semantic. The nature of the Riddles and the problems of translating them lead directly to the comparative study of semantic fields in Anglo-Saxon and Modern English.

To ease access to the Riddles for College use, the texts and translations of Craig Williamson's two volumes, The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book, and A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs are now available on-line at the web site of The Kalamazoo Riddle Group.
The address is A search of the Kenyon College web site will lead to this page.

At the session he distributed copies of the course materials he distributes as part of an introduction to poetry in the first year college course at Kenyon College entitled "Introduction to Language and Literature." The paper covered