Exeter Riddle 16


Date: Thu 21 Nov 2013
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 16
Original text:

Oft ic sceal wiþ wæge winnan      ond wiþ winde feohtan
somod wið þam sæcce,      þonne ic secan gewite
eorþan yþum þeaht;      me biþ se eþel fremde.
Ic beom strong þæs gewinnes,      gif ic stille weorþe;
5     gif me þæs tosæleð,      hi beoð swiþran þonne ic
ond mec slitende      sona flymað,
willað oþfergan      þæt ic friþian sceal.
Ic him þæt forstonde,      gif min steort þolað
ond mec stiþne wiþ      stanas moton
10     fæste gehabban.      Frige hwæt ic hatte.


Often I must struggle against the waves, and fight against the wind,
war against them both together, then I endeavour to seek out
the ground covered by waves; the land is alien to me.
I am strong in that fight, if I become still;
5     if it should go wrong for me, they will be stronger than I,
and, ripping, will straightaway put me to flight,
they want to ferry away what I am meant to protect.
I prevent them from that, if my end endures
and stones are able to keep me fixed
10     resolutely fast. Figure out what I am called.

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This riddle appears on folios 104v-105r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pages 188-9.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 14: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 77.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 16 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 16


Date: Tue 24 Dec 2013
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 16

Happily (or boringly, you decide), this is one of the few riddles for which there is little to no argument about the solution. Ever since Franz Dietrich proposed "anchor" in the 19th century, people have looked at it, nodded appreciatively and moved on. So, what can we say about it? Well, first of all, it’s (presumably) based on a Latin riddle by a chap called Symphosius (whose name literally means "party-er" – which is not only cool in and of itself but may also give us a hint about when riddles might have been performed), though the Old English riddler expands on the original. So, for example, the anchor (an inanimate object) speaks of itself as if it were a living creature – it has a steort (which I have translated as"‘end" but can also mean "tail") and, as Dieter Bitterli puts it, strives against wind water like a restless exile or a wild beast (page 101). The paradox is that despite these struggles it remains stiff and still, a description that tells us that it’s probably not an actual living thing.


A reconstruction of an early medieval anchor from Poland from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).

But let’s look a bit more carefully at this riddle. Like a lot of Old English riddles, this one can be read on two levels – on the one hand we have the literal solution of "anchor," an everyday object, but on the other we can again draw comparisons with the character of the exile in Old English poetry (such as in The Wanderer, which we have already referred to in Riddle 4). The exile has been cast out of his homeland which has become alien to him (compare line 4 – eþel usually specifically means "homeland"). He yearns for stability in his life because the transience and constant movement of his restless earthly existence seem horrible to him. What he wants is a place of security, something fixed and unchanging – which he can ultimately only find with God in the afterlife. But like the anchor striving against the elements, he needs to resist the pulls of worldly possessions and enjoyments because they want to "ferry away what he is meant to protect," i.e. his soul and spirit. He needs to find a place where he can be still and fastened to something, otherwise the "bad things" will be stronger than him and overcome him. In this way, what looks like a fairly straightforward riddle about an object that would have been familiar to many early medieval folks becomes a metaphorical description of the trials of an individual soul, anchored in faith.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Jember, Gregory K. “Literal and Metaphorical: Clues to Reading the Old English Riddles.” Studies in English Literature (Tokyo), vol. 65 (1988), pages 47-56.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 16 

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