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A solution to riddle 72 in the Exeter Book.

Ic waes faemne geong, feaxhar cwene, ond aenlic rinc on ane tid; fleah mid fuglum ond on flode swom, deaf under ype dead mid fiscum, ond on foldan stop--haefde fero cwicu.(1)

(I was a young woman, a grey-haired woman, And a solitary warrior at the same time; I flew with the birds, swam upon the water, Dived beneath the waves, dead amongst the fish, And stepped upon the land--I had a living soul.)(2)

This riddle has been described as 'the editors' delight and the mea culpa of modern scholarship', and although a range of answers have been suggested for it, no solution has attained wide acceptance.(3) Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson therefore print the riddle as an unsolved puzzle and comment authoritatively: 'The solution is unknown. Scholars have suggested answers--"cuttlefish", "swan", "water", "siren", "writing", "ship's figurehead", etc--but none satisfies all the conditions set forth in the poem.'(4) The reason that most of these solutions were proposed is because they do appear, initially, to explain the details of the poem, although eventually they fail to 'satisfy' them. In Tupper's edition of the riddles, he suggests 'siren' on just such grounds:

The monster must be at once a woman, both old and young, and a handsome man. It must fly with the birds and swim in the flood. It must dive into the water, dead with the fishes, and yet when it steps on the land it must have a living soul.(5)

If the solution 'siren' fulfils these conditions (which Tupper seeks to prove through a range of parallels), then the main objection to it must be that it is not sufficiently resonant. In the traditional Anglo-Saxon riddle the solution is usually fairly simple, and fits the riddle without special pleading, arising naturally out of a consideration of the terms of the riddle. In some of the riddles, indeed, such as the 'bookworm' riddle, it is uncertain if a 'solution' in the modern sense is intended; the riddle is designed as a consideration of an apparent paradox rather than a challenge to provide some definite answer. The evidence that Tupper submits for the existence of male and female sirens does not suggest the unified concept of on ane tid, and although he argues that the Homeric sirens provide a gloss for dead mid fiscum because they were turned into rocks, there is no evidence in this which makes the sense of renewal in the last line of the riddle appropriate. Craig Williamson, in his edition of the riddles, rejects 'siren', though his own solution 'ship's figurehead' seems inappropriate in similar ways:

I take the creature of Rid. 72 to be a figurehead in the shape of a woman, faemne geong, which is feaxhar, literally gray-haired because of the weathering of the wood. The figurehead would appear, perhaps in siren-like form, as a gray-colored girl, charging the waves like a beautiful warrior, flying through the air above the waves with seabirds and diving at times through the waves or salt spray with the fishes. The figurehead would be literally dead mid fiscum, being carved of wood; but, moving over the wave in the shape of a feminine creature, it would certainly have a living spirit (fero cwicu). It would stand on the land (on foldan stop) either as part of a light boat drawn up on the shore ... or more probably as the figurehead of a heavy vessel, detached from the prow when the vessel came to port. De Laet points out that 'it is known that the animal prow figures could and in certain circumstances had to be removed'.

In his description of the figurehead, Williamson seems to evoke the image of a 'Cutty Sark'-like figure, very different from the stylized beast carvings which have been found on surviving Anglo-Saxon figureheads. He is unable to cite any example of a female figurehead. The idea that the figure may be taken from the boat to 'step' on land seems awkward, since to be removed from the prow before landing is not the same as being placed on land. A figurehead might be described as doing such a thing, but the action is hardly an intrinsic quality of the object which would help the reader towards the solution. If the figurehead dives under the waves in its movement through the water--the movement which endows it with a living spirit--it is hard to see why it should then be more dead 'among the fishes' than at any other time.

The Anglo-Saxon riddle typically presents a set of apparent paradoxes which are resolved and united in its solution. The initial paradoxes here--of maleness and femaleness, youth and age--though possibly united in a figurehead in female shape are not intrinsically satisfied by this answer. It does not seem sufficiently evident that the Anglo-Saxons thought of figureheads as essentially female in form and, this being so, it is as though a riddle were to be answered not by 'book', but by 'green book'. A qualification is essential for the solution to fit, which is unfair by the usual 'rules' of the riddle game. Like Bilbo's 'what have I got in my pocket?' it would resemble a 'neck' riddle, designed to defy solution.(6)

Riddle 72 presents the reader with a variety of paradoxes on which the conundrum rests: youth is juxtaposed with age, male with female, sky with sea, and death with life. Like so many of the other riddles in the Exeter book, these bald statements seem to suggest an extended series of similes, so that the object may be imagined to describe itself thus:

In the same day you might think of me as resembling a young woman, an old woman, or a unique, beautiful warrior. It is my nature to move across the sky, as the birds do (but I am not a bird). I can rest on the water. I dive beneath the water like a fish (but I am not a fish). I seem to be dead when I am beneath the water but when I return to the land again you can see that I have been alive all the time.

When paraphrased like this, the riddle seems to move between two points--the paradox of its different sexes and the sense of movement which follows this. That this movement is one of time is suggested by the youth-age progression in the first line, and the use of ane tid in the second. This phrase plays upon an ambiguity we might now express by saying 'at the one time', suggesting both a moment of time and a particular space of time. The overt meaning of 'simultaneously', which intensifies the paradox, leaves room for the underlying interpretation of 'a certain span of time'. (Although tid does not usually have the meaning 'day' except in certain compounds, if my solution is correct, the tid here would be the length of a day.) In the second part of the riddle the single image is explicated by a sense of rotation--the object moves through the sky, rests on the water, moves under the water (deaf is a strong verb of motion to use at this point) and then returns up to the earth. The whole is set in the past tense, as if the object is reflecting upon one space of time in which all these changes took place. It is the totality of this completed cycle which is to provide the answer; the riddler itself stands outside it as it speaks.

Given the outline above, the solution which best fits the terms of the riddle is one of the first ever proposed, suggested in 1861 by Eduard Muller and thereafter neglected--'the sun'.(7) Tupper, the only editor to mention this solution, briefly notes that Muller supports his theory by pointing to the different genders of the word in Latin and the Germanic languages, but finds an argument based only on such grounds unconvincing. There would seem to be better evidence for Muller's solution than he himself was aware of, and his answer now deserves serious reconsideration.

'Sun' in Anglo-Saxon is a word found in both the masculine and feminine genders, as sunna and sunne. The word is usually feminine in the Teutonic dialects, but masculine forms are found in Gothic, Old Saxon, and Old High German. Feminine forms are often used to describe the sun's motion, as in Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft:

Seo sunne gaep be Godes dihte betweox heofenan and eoroan, on daeg bufon eoroan and on niht under oysse eoran, eall swa feorr adune on nihtlicre tide under aere eorpan swa heo on daeg bufon up astihp.(8)

(By God's command the sun travels between heaven and earth, by day above the earth and by night beneath the earth, going just as far down under the earth at night-time as she rises up above it during the day.)

In the riddle the sun is first seen in just this way. In the morning she is young, at dawn, like Aurora; in the evening she is grey-haired, both as the twilight is grey and as the figuratively old sun about to 'die' as it sets. The midday sun, however, is an aenlic rinc. It is seen not as a middle-aged woman, which would be evidently inappropriate, but as a solitary warrior, unique and beautiful, blazing down on the earth. This masculine aspect of the sun is described in an almost exactly similar way in Riddle 4, which is universally agreed to depict the sun (there is a sigel-rune at the side of the riddle in the manuscript to confirm the answer):

Mec gesette soo sigora waldend, Crist to compe. Oft ic cwice baerne unrimu cyn eorpan getenge, naete mid nipe, swa ic him no hrine, ponne mec min frea feohtan hatep.(9)

(Christ, the real ruler of victories, set me to the fight. Close to the earth I often burn the living, countless peoples; when my lord summons me to the fight I afflict them with distress--though I do not touch them.)

Here also, the hot noonday sun, closest to the earth, is a warrior; the gentler sun is seen as a comforter in opposition to this: 'hwilum ic frefre pa ic aer winne on / feorran swipe' (from time to time I comfort those whom I made war on before from a great distance). (ll.7-8).

The riddle may also be usefully glossed from The Phoenix, since the sun-lore found in this poem helps to explain some of its details. The Phoenix is a bird which follows the sun in its daily course, which might be said almost to worship the sun. Like the sun itself it is unique and beautiful (of the six recorded uses of aenlic in Anglo-Saxon poetry, three come in The Phoenix and one in Riddle 72).(10) The bird also resembles the sun in its cycle of renewal, the cycle described in the last three lines of the riddle. In l. 153 the bird is described as haswigfeora--grey-feathered--in its old age, as the sun at sunset is spoken of as feaxhar. Later in the poem the exact sex of this unique, self-renewing creature is seen to be impossible for man to determine:

God ana wat, Cyning aelmihtig hu his gecynde bio, wifehades pe weres; paet ne wat aenig monna cynnes butan Meotod ana hu pa wisan sind wundorlice, faeger fyrngesceap ymb paes fugles gebyrd.

(God alone, almighty King, knows what is its nature, male or female. No human, but only the Creator knows how wonderful are the laws, the beautiful decree of old concerning that bird's descent.)

The Phoenix is seen in some senses to be the earthly reflection of the sun, aeghwaes aenlic (l. 312), and like the sun it marks the twelve hours of each day: 'Symle he twelf sipum tida gemearcao / daeges ond nihtes' (Always it notes the hours twelve times day and night). (ll. 146-7).

The riddle seems to have been influenced by some of these ideas. It is possible, for instance, to see in fleah mid fuglum an echo of ll. 161-6 where the aged phoenix, pressed down by years, flies--like the aged sun--westwards, accompanied by a great troop of birds, all wishing to serve and follow this great lord of the air. When speaking of the renewal of the phoenix, the poet describes how the 'servant' of the sun is renewed after it has buried its own bones and ashes on pam ealonde (l. 287), in the same way that the sun is renewed after its descent into the sea:

Bio him edniwe paere sunnan pegn ponne swegles leoht, gimma gladost, ofer garsecg up aepeltungla wyn eastan lixeo.

(The servant of the sun is renewed when the light of the sky, that brightest of jewels, best of noble stars, shines up from the east over the ocean.)

The renewed phoenix, rejoicing in the rising sun, again sets off across the sky to praise the sun, and is accompanied by crowds of birds.

Riddle 72 uses similar images in order to describe the sun's course. As the sun moves westwards, it seems to flee through the sky in the company of birds. In the evening, just at sunset, it rests upon the horizon of sea and sky on flode swom. (The appropriateness of this image may be substantiated by anyone who has seen the sun set over the water, its light swimming on the waves as it seems to rest upon the sea itself.) The sun finally sets completely, and appears to dive beneath the waves--its light vanishes, it is as if it were dead once it has entered the realm of the fishes. The mystery of the sun is encompassed in its return to earth. At sunrise it once more steps upon the earth, advances upon it, showing that it has preserved its fero cwicu. Like the phoenix, the sun remains the same despite its apparent death and resurrection each day.

Another gloss to the riddle may be found in The Order of the World where an almost exactly similar movement is described. The poem shows the keen sense of mystery evoked by the sun's apparent death and renewal, and the Anglo-Saxon awareness that the sun does indeed preserve its fero cwicu, that it is the same sun throughout its movement. The poet describes how impossible it is for man truly to understand the path of the sun:

Forpon naenig fira paes frod leofao paet his maege aespringe purh his aegne sped witan, hu geond grund faereo goldtorht sunne in paet wonne genip under waetra gepring, oppe hwa paes leohtes londbuende brucan mote, sippan heo ofer brim hweorfed.(11)

(Therefore no man alive is so wise that he can know through the strength of his own faculties how the bright gold sun travels through the abyss, in that dark obscurity beneath the weight of the waters, or what the land-dwellers may possess of that light after it departs over the edge of the sea.)

The solution of 'sun' thus fits all the conditions of the riddle. The sun is thought of as both male and female, it is described elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon poetry as a warrior, and it dies and is renewed each day through a cycle which is exactly described in ll. 3-5, moving through the sky, apparently dying as it dives beneath the waves, yet revealing its immortality as it rises the next morning and advances upon the land again. The riddle, in concentrating on the mystery of renewal, is dealing with an obvious and popular theme, and what it says is in harmony with other descriptions of the sun in Anglo-Saxon poems. The strongest evidence in favour of this solution, however, is that it arises directly from the identification of the central movement of thought within the poem. This seems in keeping with the qualities characteristic of other Anglo-Saxon riddles. A familiar object is presented under unusual guises, and the riddler explores the paradoxes that arise from such a consideration. The solver is not required to be aware of anything other than the ordinary movement of the sun in order to read the riddle aright; there is no need for special knowledge or special pleading.

1 Riddle 72 in Craig Williamson (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, 1977), 109; 74 in G. P. Krapp and E. van K. Dobbie (edd.), The Exeter Book, ASPR III (New York, 1936).

2 The usual emendation of MS foro to fero is one solution to the difficulty presented by l. 5b. The phrase haefde fero cwicu could be read as 'living, I had a soul' but Riddle 10/6 (K-D) reads haefde feorh cwico where cwico is more likely to be acc. sing. neut., which would justify the translation 'I had a living soul' here; see Eduard Sievers and Karl Brunner, Altenglische Grammatik (Tubingen, 1965), 303. This contrasts with the dead mid fiscum in the preceding line, and so continues more exactly the paradoxes presented in the riddle.

3 Williamson, Old English Riddles, 349. Some of the possible solutions are canvassed in Helga Gobel, Studien zu den altenglischen Schriftwesenratseln (Wurzburg, 1980), 390-420, and in Hans Pinsker and Waltraud Ziegler, Die altenglischen Ratsel des Exeterbuchs (Heidelberg, 1985).

4 B. Mitchell and F. C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English (4th edn., Oxford, 1986), 224.

5 F. Tupper (ed.), Riddles of the Exeter Book (London, 1910), 214.

6 Archer Taylor, 'The Varieties of Riddles', in Thomas A. Kirby and Henry Bosley Woolf (edd.), Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies (Baltimore, 1949), 1-8.

7 Muller, Die Ratsel des Exeterbuches, Programm der herzoglichen Hauptschule zu Cothen (Cothen, 1861), 19.

8 T. O. Cockayne (ed.), Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England (London, 1864), iii. 234, 18-22.

9 Williamson, Old English Riddles, 71; Riddle 4, ll. 1-5.

10 N. F. Blake (ed.), The Phoenix (Manchester, 1964), ll. 9, 312, 536.

11 Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, pp. 165-6, ll. 76-81.
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Title Annotation:Notes
Author:McCarthy, Marcella
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Date:May 1, 1993
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