مرکزی صفحہ Notes and Queries A New Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 4

A New Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 4

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زبان:
english
رسالہ:
Notes and Queries
DOI:
10.1093/notesj/gjw236
Date:
January, 2017
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Notes and Queries Advance Access published January 9, 2017
2017
NOTES AND QUERIES
Notes and Queries ß Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved

Notes
A NEW SOLUTION TO EXETER BOOK
RIDDLE 4
RIDDLE 4 is one of the most enigmatic texts

1
I follow the numbering of the riddles used by George
Philip Krapp and Elliot van Kirk Dobbie in The Exeter
Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (London, 1934). The
Old English text is also from this edition. Quotations from
other Old English texts are also from Krapp and Dobbie’s
ASPR series. For a comprehensive list of Riddle 4’s solutions, up to 1981, see Donald K. Fry, ‘Exeter Book Riddle
Solutions’, OEN, xv (1981), 22. For ‘flail’ (‘der dreschflegel’), see also Hans Pinsker and Waltraud Ziegler (ed. and
trans), Die altenglischen Rätsel des Exeterbuchs: Text mit
deutscher Ubersetzung und Kommentar (Heidelberg, 1985),
68.
2
Craig Williamson, The Old English Riddles of the
Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, 1977), 142–3.
3
See respectively Shannon Ferri Cochran, ‘The Plough’s
the Thing: A New Solution to Old English Riddle 4 of the
Exeter Book’, JEGP, 108 (2009), 301–9; and Melanie
Heyworth, ‘The Devil’s in the Detail: A New Solution to
Exeter Book Riddle 4’, Neophilologus, 91 (2007), 175–96.
Perhaps the most tenuous part of Heyworth’s reading is
the description of the Devil as winterceald, whilst the main
problem with Cochran’s solution is the description of the lim
‘mud’ as wearm ‘warm’, since ploughing is carried out in
winter (I am grateful to Jennifer Neville for drawing this
issue to my attention).
4
Hilda Ellis Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon
England: Its Archaeology and Literature (Woodbridge,
1962), 155. Riddle 80 here referred to as Riddle 79 by
Davidson.

motifs. Here is Riddle 4 in full, followed by
my own translation:
Ic sceal þragbysig
þegne minum,
hringum hæfted,
hyran georne,
min bed brecan,
breahtme cyþan
þæt me halswriþan
hlaford sealde.
Oft mec slæpwerigne
secg oðþe meowle
gretan eode;
ic him gromheortum
winterceald oncweþe.
Wearm lim
gebundenne bæg
hwil; um bersteð;
se þeah biþ on þonce
þegne minum,
medwisum men,
me þæt sylfe,
þær wiht wite,
ond wordum min
on sped mæge
spel gesecgan.
Periodically employed, bound by rings, I must zealously
obey my master, spring out of my resting-place, in a flash
show that a lord gifted me with a neck ring. A warrior or
maiden would often handle my sleep-weary self; I respond to
the fierce-hearted one, winter-cold. The bound treasured
thing sometimes damages a warm limb. This, though, is
pleasing to my master, foolish man, and to me too, if I
feel anything, and can effectively tell my tale in words.

The first thing to note is the fact that the subject is said to be þragbysig ‘periodically employed’. It is fair to say that swords are not
used all the time, only in battle and for ceremonial purposes. The sword in Riddle 20,
whose identity is more certain, also describes
itself as being periodically employed by using
the word hwilum ‘at times’ to describe when its
user wisað ‘directs’ it (R. 20, 5b). The second
thing to note is that the subject is said to be
hringum hæfted ‘bound by rings’. Ring ornamentation was popular in Anglo-Saxon
England, as Davidson has noted in her archaeological study of swords.5 Davidson says
that ‘[one] method of covering a narrow grip
was to use silver wire, finished at either end
with a plaited wire ring’;6 the Beowulf-poet
could have been referring to such adornment
when he calls Hrunting a hringmæl ‘ring-sword’
(Beowulf, 1521b). Davidson also describes one
surviving Anglo-Saxon sword as having ‘a
raised ring which must have come about halfway down the grip’ and another as having a
‘silver decorated ring which must also have
been fastened over the middle of the grip, as
there are already rings at either end’.7 She also
says that some swords from Anglo-Saxon
graves in Kent have a ring ‘found attached to
5
6
7

Ibid.
Ibid., 60.
Ibid., 60.

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in the Exeter Book Riddle collection and continues to be a subject of speculation for scholars of Old English. Solutions have ranged
from ‘bell’, ‘millstone’, ‘flail’, and ‘lock’, to
‘hand-mill’, ‘pen’, and ‘necromancer’.1 None
of the solutions are fully satisfying and their
drawbacks have been well-noted by Craig
Williamson in his 1977 edition of the riddles.2
Two more recent solutions, ‘plough team’ and
‘Devil’ also have their shortcomings.3 I propose the new solution ‘sword’ and believe
that this solution adequately accounts for all
of the diverse enigmatic clues, from the multitude of rings to the warm limb and foolish
master. Two other Exeter Book riddles, 20
and 71, have also been solved as ‘sword’
(Hilda Ellis Davidson’s suggestion that
Riddle 80 is also ‘sword’ is relatively sound),4
and Riddle 4 clearly draws on some of their

1

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NOTES AND QUERIES
8

8
9
10

Ibid., 72.
Ibid., 72.
Williamson, Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book,

144.
11
Noise is occasionally used to describe weapons in
Anglo-Saxon poetry. In Beowulf, the poet describes how
Hrunting agol ‘sang’ when it struck the head of Grendel’s
Mother (Beowulf, 1521b). Noise also plays a key role in the
depiction of the clashing of weapons in The Finnsburh
Fragment.
12
Like noise, light is often used in descriptions of swords
or armour in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Beowulf’s sword is
described as a beado-leoma ‘battle-light’, for example
(Beowulf, 1523a).

aforementioned scabbard in which the sword
rests and its withdrawal from that scabbard; a
literal translation would be ‘break my bed’, but
brecan can also be translated as ‘spring out’,
whilst bed can refer to any sort of resting-place.
The riddle-writer may also have envisaged the
scabbard as a bed because of its soft fleece
lining.13
Lines 5a–7a are not as problematic for this
new solution as some critics might anticipate.
The compound slæpwerigne ‘sleep-weary’ (or
‘weary for sleep’) might appear to be an unusual way to describe a sword; yet Riddle 20
also includes a similar compound, with the
sword describing itself as radwerigne ‘roadweary’ (or ‘weary from travel’). Whether or
not we read slæpwerigne as ‘yearning for
sleep’ or ‘tired of sleep’ matters little: a busy
sword might desire sleep, but an idle sword
might yearn for activity. Winterceald ‘wintercold’ needs little explanation as it could easily
refer to the coldness of the blade. In Beowulf,
Wiglaf refers to spears as being morgen-ceald
‘morning-cold’ when predicting the events that
will follow his lord’s death (Beowulf, 3022).
The gromheortum ‘fierce-hearted’ one that the
riddle’s sword greets is clearly the warrior who
uses it.14
The mention of the meowle in line 5b might
seem troublesome, too; but Riddle 4 would not
be the only sword riddle to refer to a woman.
The subject of Riddle 20 says that it wife abelge
‘angers a woman’ and that the woman ungod
gæled ‘screams evil’ at it (R. 20, 32b & 35a).
Riddle 80, solved as ‘sword’ by Davidson, says
that a cwen ‘lady’ hond on legeð ‘lays her hand’
on the object (R. 80, 3b–4b). It is possible that
women would have handled swords and
armour as much as men, though not in
battle; the subject of Riddle 61, a helmet,
says how a freolicu meowle ‘beautiful maid’
hwilum up ateah / folmum sinum ond frean
sealde ‘sometimes took [me] up in her hands
and gave [me] to her lord’ (R. 61, 1b–3b). It
seems likely that, in this context, Riddle 4’s
gretan is meant to be translated as ‘handled’
13

Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, 88.
The eponymous hero of Beowulf is described as heorogrim ‘deadly fierce’ (Beowulf, 1564a), even though grim can
have negative connotations.
14

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certain hilts’. She says that these loose rings
‘vary in size, and are all elaborately made, with
bands of ornament which usually matches decoration elsewhere on the hilt’.9 Two suggestions, according to Davidson, are that these
rings were for certain attachments, that is, a
thong or amulet, whilst another is that they
had some symbolic significance, given as a
gift by a Lord to a thane perhaps. Is it easy
to see why the riddle’s author describes its subject as wearing rings; the rings in the first line
could refer to the wire bound around the hilt,
whilst the ring mentioned in line 4 could be one
of these decorated rings.
What makes this interpretation more compelling is that rings also feature on the swords
of Riddles 20 and 71. Riddle 71’s sword is
hringum gehyrsted ‘adorned with rings’ whilst
Riddle 20’s sword says hweorfan mote / from
þam healdende þe me hringas geaf ‘[I] must turn
from the lord who gave me rings’, perhaps
referring to its maker, the smith. The same
scenario occurs in Riddle 4 where the subject
says me halswriþan hlaford sealde ‘a lord gifted
me with a neck ring’. The hlaford in Riddle 4,
then, is not necessarily the sword’s owner (that
is the þegn), but the man who made it.
The word breahtme also makes sense in this
new context. Williamson notes that this word
could mean ‘with a clamour’ or ‘in a flash’.10 I
have used the latter in my translation, but it is
clear that either would fit the solution ‘sword’.
Breahtme could refer to the ringing sound the
sword makes as it leaves the scabbard,11 or it
could refer to the speed with which it is drawn.
It is also possible to translate the word as ‘with
a flash’, which would describe the light gleaming on the metal as it is drawn.12 The words
min bed brecan in these lines would refer to the

2017

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NOTES AND QUERIES

not immediately clear and seems an unlikely
epithet for a warrior; however, Riddle 20’s apparently heroic subject also refers to itself as
dol ‘foolish’, similarly undermining its perceived heroic status. Like Riddle 20, with its
accosting woman, Riddle 4 could also present
a negative attitude to war. The warrior is foolish for being pleased with his actions which
scod ‘harm’ those it is used against (R. 20,
15b).19 If, indeed, this riddle does contain a
sexual innuendo, its description of the user as
foolish would echo the use of dol ‘foolish’ in
another riddle about an apparently sexual act:
Riddle 12. In this riddle the dol druncmennen
‘foolish drunken maid-servant’ swifeð ‘sweeps’
the object geond sweartne ‘through [her] darkness’ with her hygegalan hond ‘wanton hand’
(R. 12, 9a & 12a–13a).
The riddle ends with the object saying that it
will not only feel pleasure from the aforementioned act (if, as a non-sentient object, it is actually able to)20 but that it will also feel
pleasure from being able to communicate its
spel ‘story’ to the reader; if it does so on sped
‘successfully’, the riddle will be solvable, and
the subject will be pleased. Because of the difficulties this riddle has posed, though, the subject has, rather ironically, not been particularly
successful. Thus its pleasure, which I hope this
new solution contributes to, has been a long
time coming.
CORINNE DALE
Royal Holloway, University of London
doi:10.1093/notesj/gjw236
ß The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press.
All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email:
journals.permissions@oup.com

15

Heyworth, ‘The Devil’s in the Detail’, 188.
See, for example, Riddle 44 (‘key’) and Riddle 62
(‘poker’).
17
In Beowulf, burston is used to describe the way
Grendel’s bones break in Beowulf’s grip (Beowulf, 818a).
18
It is worth noting that Riddle 91 also makes use of the
ring description for the woman’s vagina. The subject, penetrated by something hearde, is described as hringum gyrded
‘girded with rings’ (R. 91, 4b–5a). Whilst the object is commonly solved as ‘key’ (and thus ‘penis’), Edith Whitehurst
Williams makes a sound case for ‘keyhole’ (and thus
‘vagina’). See ‘What’s So New about the Sexual
Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes towards Sexuality in Women Based on Four Exeter Book
Riddles’, Texas Quarterly, xviii (1975), 46–55.
16

19
It is also possible that the depiction has an underlying
Christian meaning, perhaps reflecting the notion that
‘wisdom is better than weapons of war’ (Ecclesiastes 9:18).
20
The fact that a sword cannot enjoy sexual activity is
explored in Riddle 20 where the sword says Ic wiþ bryde ne
mot / hæmed habban ‘I cannot have sexual intercourse with a
bride’ (R. 20, 27b–28a).

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as opposed to its other meaning ‘greeted’, but
the ambiguity is probably intentional.
I think it is also possible to see a sexual innuendo in this riddle, one which perhaps accounts for the ambiguous nature of gretan.
Melanie Heyworth interprets the wearm lim
of line 7b as ‘hot penis’15 and I think there is
room in this present reading for a similar interpretation, especially because of the associations of various riddle subjects with the
male appendage.16 Read one way, lines 7b–8b
could be interpreted as the sword (a ‘bound
treasured thing’) causing injury to the
enemy’s ‘warm limb’ (e.g. an arm or a leg);17
but, read another way, the wearm lim, as ‘hot
penis’, could byrstan ‘break into’ a woman’s
‘round treasured thing’. The grammar and
syntax of these lines allow for either reading.
The sexual innuendo would make the presence
of the woman and her ‘handling’ of the object
more significant and also account for the particularly pleasing nature of the task. A warrior
would be pleased to byrstan ‘break’ the limb of
his enemy with his sword—the sword’s actions
in Riddle 20 are said to be on þonc ‘pleasing’ to
its frean ‘lord’ (R. 20, 24b–26a)—but even
more so the ‘round treasured thing’ of a
woman.18 The pleasure of the sword/male/
penis offers a wonderful contrast to the way
in which the sword can wonie ‘diminish’ the
woman’s willan ‘desire’ in Riddle 20 (R. 20,
33a).
Lines 7b–10a are perhaps the most obscure
lines in the riddle and often present problems
to solvers. When the answer is understood to
be sword, however, these lines begin to make
sense. Why the warrior is medwisan ‘foolish’ is

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