Commentary for Exeter Riddle 20


Date: Tue 04 Mar 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 20

This week’s riddle has layers. Not the sort of layers that an onion has (you’ll have to wait for those). But, still, layers. Also: controversy! Like so many of the riddles that offer multiple solutions and interpretations, this riddle has caused scholars to regress to childhood and offer an over-abundance of passive-aggressive digs at each other. I shall try to refrain from such behaviour myself…even though a chatty website is really the only format in which writing something like “stupid-face” is acceptable for an academic.

But actually, there is nothing stupid (or face-ish, for that matter) about the main solutions proposed for this particular riddle. In fact, they’re all so good that it can be quite difficult to pick a side. Let’s start with Falcon or Hawk. Here’s a particularly charming one:


Photo (by Jjron/John O’Neill) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Suggested by an early riddle-editor, this solution was fairly unpopular until Laurence K. Shook rehabilitated it in 1965. His article points out that taking into account a poetic compound word in another poem brings the Falcon solution into line with the more popular Sword solution. This compound is heoruswealwe, which means literally “sword-swallow” (as in the type of bird, rather than the throat action), and appears in the beautiful and at times depressing Fortunes of Men (full translation here). The relevant lines are usefully descriptive of the trained falcon’s relationship with its human captor and so worth quoting in full:

Sum sceal wildne fugel      wloncne atemian,
heafoc on honda,      oþþæt seo heoroswealwe
wynsum weorþeð;      deþ he wyrplas on,
fedeþ swa on feterum      fiþrum dealne,
lepeþ lyftswiftne      lytlum gieflum,
oþþæt se wælisca      wædum ond dædum
his ætgiefan      eaðmod weoþeð
ond to hagostealdes      honda gelæred. (85-92)

(One shall tame the proud, wild bird,
the hawk on the hand, so that the sword-swallow
becomes pleasant; he puts jesses on,
feeds thus in fetters the one proud in feathers,
gives the air-swift one little morsels,
until the alien creature becomes easy-minded
toward his food-giver in dress and deeds
and used to the young warrior’s hands.)

It’s also worth noticing that hagosteald, which refers to a celibate young man who lives in the household of his lord (so likely a warrior/retainer) or to the state of being such a man, appears in both this passage and in Riddle 20 (at line 31a).

In general, then, a close reading of the riddle-as-Falcon would go something like this: all the references to clothing, wires and treasure refer to the jesses and varvels (cords and rings) that are attached to the bird’s legs/feet. These are the poetic trappings of the warrior bird whose battle is the hunt, yet they also hold it in confinement and so provide an ironic context of forced servitude. Likewise, the colourful byrne (mail-coat) mentioned in line 3a is the bird’s plumage. If you’re unconvinced of this detail, take a look at lines 305-6 of The Phoenix, in which that creature’s feathers are described using jewel/armour diction (esp. rings: hring/beag and interlocking construction: brogden). The compwæpna (battle-weapons) of line 9a are of course the beak and talons, but far more elusive is the wælgim (slaughter-gem) of line 4a. Your guess is as good as mine on this one. It could be a general adornment-term and so connote weaponry. Or it could refer to the bird’s eyes, gimm being elsewhere connected to the orbs of the sun and the head (see the Dictionary of Old English, senses 2.-3. The “eyes” reference is from Guthlac B, line 1302a).

As for line 5a’s reference to the riddle-subject “wandering widely” (similarly line 14a’s travel-weariness), Shook argues that this better fits a living creature than a weapon. That being said, the broad strokes of a sword could be described in this way. Generally accepted as more in line with falcons than swords is the description of the riddle-subject’s inability to procreate in lines 17b-31a. Shook explains that this passage relates to the tendency not to allow the captive birds to mate. The only way these hawks can have widdle baby birds is to abandon their lord. This is what separates avian retainers from human ones (although also see Tanke’s article for more on the sexual restraints of young warriors).

Finally, the much-debated last four lines of the riddle (before it trails off due to the loss of at least one manuscript leaf) deserve attention. Why are they much-debated? Because they refer to a woman. As you may have inferred from previous riddles and from other texts, Old English poetry tends to shy away from lady-folks in a rather annoying way. So when a clear reference to a woman does come up, medievalists get excited. The fact that this particular woman seems to have been upset by the riddle-solution has led to a great array of speculations, which I’ll briefly deal with below in relation to the Sword reading. Shook’s interpretation, though, is lovely. He links this female figure to the falcon-subject itself, noting both that more than one bird would often be placed on the same perch and that captive birds are given to “bating” or the occasional beating of their wings as though about to take off. All this flapping about and squawking may well appear to the casual onlooker as a confrontation between the mixed company of male and female falcons.

Shook’s interpretation is supported by Marie Nelson, who reads a combination of bird, warrior and monk connotations in the riddle’s approach to sexuality and by Eric G. Stanley in his treatment of the riddles’ heroic content (at pp. 207-8). In general, the Falcon/Hawk solution has a lot going for it, not least the fact that the verb galan (to sing/call), which is invoked in relation to the woman at the end of the poem, carries specific connotations of birdsong in lines 20b-3 of The Husband’s Message and lines 52b-3a of Elene (see the Dictionary of Old English entry for galan, sense B.). If you want to learn more about falconry, there are plenty of resources in print (see Oggins, for example) and online. Here’s a video of a rescued peregrine falcon and its trainer to start you off:

Right, that’s an awful lot of material about falcons. Sorry about that…it’s just that they’re  really cool. Also cool is the other solution-contender for Riddle 20: the sword! The Sword-reading is the more popular solution amongst scholars, and there’s a slew of research that aims to work out the ins and outs of this interpretation. The gist of it is as follows. The various references to treasure, clothing and the hondweorc smiþa (handiwork of smiths) are obvious here: the sword is made of metal and is itself a treasure with adornments on the hilt and sheath. The courtly context (praise! mead! battle!) is also pretty run-of-the-mill if we’re talking about a sword, since it is the heroic accoutrement par excellence. The confinement references relate to the sheathing of the weapon or perhaps to the tying of it onto the belt, and it is of course here that the voice of the weapon-as-a-retainer becomes ironic: it’s not generally advisable to tie up your followers…unless they’re actually weapons.

rusted sword

The Sutton Hoo Sword © Trustees of the British Museum (licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

As for the procreation bit, well this is where things get a bit dicey. If we stick with Sword, then H. R. E. Davidson would have us believe this passage may refer to the re-forging of old swords (pp. 152-4). There’s certainly a pun on the use of streona, which can mean both literal treasures and those metaphorical little treasures some people call children. But if we’re really honest with ourselves, the procreation passage is where the Sword reading breaks down. And this is where the third suggestion comes in: Phallus. Obviously, I’m not going to include a picture, but I will just leave this little link to the Icelandic Phallological Museum right here (it’s a museum. So it’s legit). Anyway, the scholar who most ardently argued for the Phallus-reading was Donald Kay (too bad his name wasn’t Richard or William…I would have had a world of puns to work with). Kay was all like “don’t you think Sword is…well…a bit obvious?” (not a direct quote!), and certainly given the reference to offspring, the poem seems to offer a way into his reading.

The way in, though, seems to be through a metaphorical relationship between the sword and a man. In fact, John D. Niles indicates that this sword/man imagery-play actually derives from an Old English play on the word wæpen, literally “weapon,” but also occasionally used in compounds referring to men as wæpnedmen (weaponed-humans) (p. 141). But this sword is not a human or a body part and therefore will never procreate. It’s sad.

As for the woman at the end of the poem, scholars go a bit off the rails with speculation here, given the lack of textual evidence. Some suggest that the woman is angry because the celibate sword has denied her desire (obviously, this works better with a sword-phallus metaphor), or that the reference is to a sexual crime (because wom can mean “shame” or “defilement”). I don’t think either of these readings really stands up to scrutiny. Better is Melanie Heyworth’s suggestion that “the sword is self-condemnatory because he has diminished the wife’s joy – her marriage – presumably by killing her husband” (p. 176). And best is Patrick J. Murphy summary of the poem’s conclusion: “The rage of the woman in Riddle 20 could be explained by any number of unfortunate incidents: swords can slaughter enemies and friends, husbands and wives, children as well as kings. Perhaps the sword has slaughtered the hawk? The riddling point, however, is simply that one kind of wæpen causes pleasure, another causes pain. One can be conventionally desired, the other painfully reviled. Whatever its imagined literal cause, the displeasure the woman takes in the solution (a sword) is described in terms that echo the pleasures of the riddle’s phallic focus” (p. 214).

And so we come to the end of another post. I’ll leave you with one final tidbit. Andy Orchard in his as-of-yet-unpublished edition of the early English riddle tradition offers one last solution, or rather a synthesis of those discussed above. The Old English word secg can, usefully, be translated as both “sword” and “man.” This would seem to put the matter to rest when it comes to sorting out the complicated sword/phallus/procreation/infuriated-woman details. But I’m afraid you still have to choose between secg and heoruswealwe. I’ll leave that to you.


References and Suggested Reading:

Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: its Archaeology and Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Heyworth, Melanie. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 79 (2007), pages 171-84.

Kay, Donald. “Riddle 20: A Reevaluation.” Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol. 13 (1968), pages 133-9.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 206-15.

Nelson, Marie. “Old English Riddle 18 (20): a Description of Ambivalence.” Neophilologus, vol. 66 (1982), pages 291-300.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Oggins, Robin S. The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Shook, Laurence K. “Old English Riddle No. 20: Heoruswealwe.” In Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. Edited by Jess B. Bessinger and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York University Press, 1965, pages 194-204.

Stanley, Eric G. “Heroic Aspects of the Exeter Book Riddles.” In Prosody and Poetics in the Early Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of C. B. Hieatt. Edited by M. J. Toswell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995, pages 197-218.

Tanke, John W. “The Bachelor-Warrior of Exeter Book Riddle 20.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 79 (2000), pages 409-27.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 20 

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