The Riddles

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 question.

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

The manuscript

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 itself

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, and anthologized.

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 the Primitive").

Thus does the Exeter Book offer not only an eye onto the medieval world

but an ancient means of perceiving our own.