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Old English Riddles

OLD ENGLISH RIDDLES. A number of interesting poetical riddles in old English are contained in the Exeter Book, written about A.D. 1000. According to the numbering in the only complete edition (in Grein-Wulker, Bibliothek der Angelsachsisches Poesie, vol. iii. pp. 184-238), there would appear to be 95 of them; but No. I is the monodramatic lyric Wuff and Eadwacer, which was included among the riddles by a mistake of the first editor of the Exeter Book, B. Thorpe; No. 90 is not in Old English, but in Latin; and several others are mere unintelligible fragments. There remain about 85 that have been preserved either entire or with sufficient approach to completeness for their general drift to be perceived.

The riddles Nos. 2-60 occupy 15 folios in the middle of the MS. ; Nos. 62-95 occupy the last 7 folios, and No. 61 and a mutilated and divergent copy of No. 31 are placed by themselves among poems of a different kind. Attempts have been made to show that the two main groups are distinguished from each other by special characteristics that may indicate difference of authorship or date; but there seems to be no good reason for attaching any significance to the arrangement of the MS. Some of the riddles almost certainly were written in Northumbria in the early part of the 8th century; a copy of one of them (No. 36) , in Anglian dialect, has been preserved in a MS. at Leiden. Whether all the riddles are the work of one author, or whether they belong to different periods and districts, remains at present uncertain. For the reasons stated in the article CYNEWULF the attribution of the whole collection to that poet, once almost universally accepted, is now no longer tenable; and there is no overwhelming probability that he is the author of any portion of it. 1 The investigations of F. Dietrich and A. Ebert have established the fact that a few of the riddles are imitated from the Latin enigmas of Symphosius and Aldhelm. No. 36 is a translation of Aldhelm's riddle De Lorica, and No. 41 is founded on the same writer's riddle De Creatura. The dependence of the Old English riddles on Latin originals has, however, been greatly exaggerated, especially by A. Prehn (Komposition und Quellen der Ratsel des Exeterbuches, 1883), who goes so far as to maintain that every one of them contains reminiscences of one or more of the compositions of Symphosius, Aldhelm, Tatwine and Eusebius. The correspondences alleged are in most cases slight, if not purely fanciful, and it is even doubtful whether the two writers last named were known at all to the authors of the vernacular riddles. All the Englishmen who wrote riddles in the 8th and following centuries, whether they wrote in their native tongue or in Latin, may be said to belong to one school, and their work has many features in common. But except in a few instances the riddles written in Old English are probably not less but more original than those written in Latin. In poetical merit they are generally superior. A good notion of their character and style may be gained from Mr Stopford Brooke's spirited (though not minutely accurate) translations of many of them in his History 1 For the linguistic arguments against Cynewulf's authorship of the Riddles see especially A. Madert, Die Sprache der altenglischen Ratsel des Exeterbuches und die Cynewulffrage (1900).

of Early English Literature, vol. i. (1892). Mr Brooke's interpretation of No. 1 1 (the Barnacle Goose) is original, and no doubt correct ; in some other instances the solutions he has adopted are somewhat more questionable than they would appear to be from his translations.

Unlike the Latin riddles of Aldhelm, the riddles of the Exeter Book are unaccompanied with solutions. In some of them, however, the answer is indicated by an anagram, usually expressed in runic characters. Thus No. 24 begins with the words " AGOF is my name reversed," where the West Saxon scribe, in accordance with the phonetic laws of his own dialect, has substituted F for the final B of his Anglian original; the word is an anagram of boga, " bow." In No. 25 the mimic skill of the magpie is described, and at the conclusion the name of the bird (higora) is indicated by the six letters G, A, R, O, H, I.

The solution of nearly all the riddles was attempted by F. Dietrich, in the nth and 12th volumes of Haupt's Zeitschrift fur deutsches Alterthum. In many cases Dietrich was certainly right, but in many others his conjectures are strangely perverse, owing to misleading comparisons with supposed Latin originals. Subsequent scholars have been much more successful in refuting Dietrich's explanations than in replacing them by others more satisfactory. The most copious contributor of new interpretations has been Prof. M. Trautmann, in several articles in Anglia, and also in Bonner, Beitriige zur Anglistik, No. 19 (1905); but very few of his interpretations can be considered even plausible, and he sometimes rejects the solutions of his predecessors when they are probably right. One riddle (No. 51, Fire) was independently solved by Prof. Trautmann and G. Herzfeld (Die Ratsel des Exeterbuches undihr Verfasser, 1890). The articles on the subject by F. Tupper, Jr., in Modern Philology, vol. ii. (1903), and in Modern Language Notes for 1903 and 1906, are extremely valuable, though the author's original explanations do not appear convincing. After all that has been done, the meaning of a considerable number of the riddles is still uncertain. In some instances this may be due to tlje corrupt state of the text; in others the terms in which the object is described are so vague that several solutions are equally plausible. (H. BR.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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