1. The Latin Riddles

The father of medieval Latin riddle poetry is Symphosius, an author of the fourth or fifth century whose identity remains obscure. He composed a century of riddles (set of one hundred), each three lines long, each bearing an entitled solution. His riddles influenced the Anglo-Latin riddle writers -- mainly:

Aldhelm (640-709), Abbot of Malmesbury and later Bishop of Sherborne,
who wrote his own century of Latin riddles (and may have written some of the Old English);

Tatwine (d. 734), Archbishop of Canterbury.
who wrote forty Latin riddles; and

Eusebius (d. 47), now thought to be Hwaetberht, Abbot of Wearmouth
and a friend of Bede, who wrote sixty.

Other Anglo-Latin riddle writers include Alcuin, Boniface,
and a handful of anonymous poets (possibly including Bede himself).

The influence of Latin riddles on the Old English
has been somewhat overstated in the past.

Three Old English Riddles show the direct influence of Symphosius (45, 81, 82); two are translations from the Latin of Aldhelm (33, 38).

Elsewhere (for example, in 14, 24, 36, 49, 58, 61, 68, 79, 80, 84) Riddle subjects and motifs may be the same, but this could be caused by similar perceptions or a common nonriddlic source such as the natural lore of Pliny or Isidore. And in the case of Anglo-Latin writers, it is often impossible to say of comparative Latin and English passages, which was the likely source and which the derivative.

The Latin Riddles are exercises in ingenuity.

Each offers its solution in a title, then turns on a simple metaphor or paradox like a small jewel set with wit. The Latin riddles parade without play. They lack the imaginative power which allows the poet to sense, sing, and celebrate the nonhuman world about him. The Old English Riddles are projective play. They expand the self and inspire the world (whether bird, shield, bookworm, or storm) with lyrical power. They play with mystery. Consider, for example, the comparative anchors of Symphosius and the Old English Riddler


My twin points are bound by an iron bar.
I wrestle with wind, struggle with the sea.
I probe deep waters-I bite the earth.

In battle I rage against wave and wind,
Strive against storm, dive down seeking
A strange homeland, shrouded by the sea.
In the grip of war, I am strong when still;
In battle-rush, rolled and ripped
In flight. Conspiring wind and wave
Would steal my treasure, strip my hold,
But I seize glory with a guardian tail
As the clutch of stones stands hard
Against my strength. Can you guess my name?
-Old English Riddle 14

The Latin riddle is a quick succession of controlled steps.

The title gives us the solution; the riddle is a rhetorical show. First we have the creatures shape and composition, next the metaphor of anchor as wave-warrior, finally the paradox of sea-diver and earth-biter. The "I" of the riddle is never in doubt--it is the poet's plain pretense.

The "I" of the Old English Riddle is unknown,

but as the metaphor of the storm-warrior unfolds in lyrical beauty, the eye of the solver is opened to the clutch and roll of the anchor's war-world. Here the eye/I of the creature draws us in to sustained belief. We rage and struggle, seek a shrouded home, battle the wind-- and wave-thieves for a clutch of glory and the ship's hold. The treasure of this riddle is its liberative power: it draws us from the bone-house into an iron body and a battle-storm. We have never been in this imaginative world before-it is a dreamlike mirror of our own war-world. The mind rolls, the anchor glories-it is a strange and heartening synchronicity. What we guess finally is what we have become. There is nothing like this in the Latin of Symphosius.


The Latin inkhorn riddle of Eusebius

turns on the contrast between present bitterness and past glory, but the contrast is carried to a new elegiac power in the haunting lament of the Old English "Horn":


Once a fateful weapon,
I rode with the arms
Of the bull, a bold-riding battle-crest.
Now my carved belly holds a bitter drink
Though my belch seems bright, sweet, clean.

We stood, tall hard twins, my brother
And I--pointed and perched on a homeland
Higher and nobler for our fierce adorning.
Often the forest, dear sheltering wood,
Was our night-cover, rain-shield for creatures

Shaped by God. Now grim usurpers
Must steal our homeland glory, hard young
Brothers who press in our place. Parted,
We suffer separate sorrows. In my belly
Is a black wonder--I stand on wood.
Untwinned I guard the table's end.
What hoard holds my lost brother in the wide
World I will never know. Once we rode
The high side of battle, hard warriors
Keeping courage together-neither rushed
To the fray alone. Now unwhole creatures
Tear at my belly. I cannot flee.
The man who follows my tracks of glory
For wealth and power, in a different light
May find what is wholly for his soul's delight.

Old English Riddle 84
The Latin creature moves wittily

from the bull's battle-crest to a clean belch of wisdom. The clever manipulation calls attention to the poet as manipulator. The voice of the horn is not embodied. Nothing in the language compels us to ride from head to table or to taste the bitter drink. Nothing in the riddle breathes I am.

The Old English horn creates

in its (his) elegiac cry the fierce consciousness of human suffering. The hornwarrior laments a lost, glorious homeland and suffers separation from his twin brother. In his unstable mind history reweaves itself as nightmarerecollection only increases his anxiety and pain. His fate is hard-he guards in his belly a bitter, black treasure which the unwhole quill-birds attack. Even harder is not knowing his brother's fate. Isolated on the board, surrounded by enemies, he is tormented by uncertain memory and by doubts about the nature of fate in an unstable world. Ironically he finds consolation "in a different light" by the end of the poem--the tracks from his belly (in this light his tracks) may lead men through letters to wisdom and deep delight.

Isolation, suffering, lament for youthful glories and lost kin, recollection turning to nightmare, the progress from melancholy to wisdom-these are some of the characteristics of Old English elegiac poems like "The Wanderer" and "The Wife's Lament."15 Certainly the seeds (or perhaps the hybrid blooms) of this tradition are present in the Horn Riddle. Unlike the Latin effort, this riddle hauls us into the landscape of suffering and forces us to feel with the creature doubt and pain. The poem calls forth our powers of recognition and realization as the Latin riddle does not. This is a more subtle shaping typical of the Old English Riddles.

The Latin Horn is always a creature outside, an other manipulated by the poet.

The Anglo-Saxon Horn in its warlike suffering and sorrow is simply one of us.

When we discover his plight, we discover ourselves.