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New Answers to the
Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book
by Roy Neil Graves
Copyright 2005

A facsimile segment of the Exeter Book Riddles (fol. 128b), ending with Riddle LXXXV, l. 5 (Tupper's numbering).


     The text below —which partly recycles materials from inside the section of this Shakespeare site titled “Backgrounds, Precedents, & Contemporaneous Parallels”—offers several examples of how the Old English riddles, or at least some of them, embed their own elaborately ambiguous answers by means of acrostic codelines contrived by the Riddler(s) to challenge the player. These findings, I believe, are without precedent before my discoveries in 1979. The examples suggest that much more elaborate patterns of playfulness may have been encoded in early English texts than we have previously surmised.
 Too much emerges here for me to take credit for having just “made all this up.”   
      In May 1979, I published some tentative results of my first explorations into how the OE Riddles embed their own answers. This informal 17-page monograph was titled “The Runic Beowulf and Other Lost Anglo-Saxon Poems, Reconstructed and Annotated” and was printed at UT Martin. The four exploratory examples here—Riddles VII, VIII, XV, and XVII (Thorpe’s numbering)—adapt materials from pp. 13-17 of that booklet, which, not incidentally, offered some other theories about Beowulf that I am now uncertain about and have had to lay aside as conjecture.
      The numbering systems imposed on the Riddles by various editors over the years is variable.
      My limited facility with the Anglo-Saxon language leads me to offer the argument here modestly, hopeful that more capable scholars can eventually verify, refine, and amplify what I’ve deduced as paradigmatic.
      Since the scribal text divides word elements, I tend to do that, too, in my decipherings, though leaving out spaces between words would often produce other results that the Riddler(s) may have anticipated and toyed with.
                                                                                                                                  RNG, September 2005

               My own findings before 1979 expand what has previously been known or postulated about the covert complexity of Anglo-Saxon literary artifacts by showing that, in the case of the Riddles of The Exeter Book, some of them (at least) embed their own ambiguously concurrent “answers,” scenarios rather than single-term solutions, and thus show elaborate suppressed design and other cryptic features that elevate them from naive snippets to the status of works exhibiting tediously detailed craftiness (see “The Runic Beowulf,” from which I have adapted some of the materials below).

          Briefly, I have found that in certain cases one can decipher a riddle’s hidden “answers” by taking the authorized lines of the text and stretching them onto a letterbox grid, flush left. Reading “down,” one extrapolates an acrostic linestring code to be deciphered. And then one goes at it—a tedious, frustrating, and finally open-ended process with ambiguous outcomes that are authorially framed and guided.

          Deciphering the runic codelines in the Riddles, one treats the letterstrings exactly as one does in the process of detecting the punning “hidden meanings”—as I have illustrated above [i.e., in the fuller text of “Backgrounds, Precedents, & Contemporaneous Parallels”]—in the letterstrings generated by Will’s wordings in the Q lines. As parts of subtextual or runic codes, alphabetic symbols take on broader potentialities than conventionally spelled wordstrings allow. Runic codes, in other words, comprise letterstrings rather than wordstrings. Punctuation (which of course operates to signal syntax) thus takes a back seat; in medieval use, in fact, punctuation is hardly operative—is random at best. (Even the separation of letter-groups into word units was a progressive scribal refinement in universal practice: Scribes penning very early mss. did not space between words.) In Shakespeare’s day, punctuation was of course still far less rule-bound and prescriptive than it has since become, and spellings were flexible; thus a trickster writer could still maintain a concurrent mental focus on overlaid wordstrings and letterstrings more easily then than he or she might today.

          The precedent in the Riddles, as I have said, and the pattern they provided was one key that helped me unriddle the Quarto. A segment of an academic paper I presented in Tempe at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Society conference in February 1996 offers one example of the cornucopic materials encoded in a very small segment of the Exeter Book Riddles:

Riddle 68 (Krapp and Dobbie, p. 231; Thorpe, VII, 483; see K&D No. 36, p. 198; Thorpe XXXVII, p. 418)

I C     p A   W I H T     G E S E A H            O N     W E G      F E R A N
H E O     WÆS     WRÆT L I C E               W U N D RU M       G E G I E R W E D

The riddle translates, “I saw the creature / going on the way.
                               It was curiously, / wondrously equipped.”

The five scenarios below emerge from the acrostic code and provide “answers”:

     1) An ice-bound ship, decorated with ice like a Christmas tree—with irony in the fact that it is stuck, not moving on its way. 2) A rat, eying cheese greedily. 3) An obese glutton. 4) A knife-wielding wife trying to castrate her husband. 5) One or more squinty-eyed riddle solvers, people like us:

I. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Is-ea    pa   wæs.    Ic   wat rewet æl-isig [seoc]. Æghwanon weder ym.      Fierr   ea    ge-nierwede.

     The Ice-Bound ship: Then was the sea ice. I observed a vessel covered with ice.
                                        From all sides, weather surrounded. Ahead, the sea closed in.

II. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Ic seah pa  wawa  si hiwed [siht(re)], ræt æl ciesæ hogian [ghogienne?] wider ym feorh, eage nierwede.

     The Rat: I saw then misery be fashioned, a rat
                    eternally intent on all cheese, slit-eyed.

     Ic seah pah æwis-æter(e),    æt      til    cies,  æg-hwa nun wider ym.  Fær [Fearh] eage nierwede.

     The Glutton: I saw the notorious eater thriving. He ate until he was choosy.
                     None was wider around. The fare narrowed the eye.

IV. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Ic seah pe æw(e) si hiwed riht, æl ciew æg-hwanon wod ear ym. Fyran [Fyrian,…Fær eagan…] ierre-wedd.

     The Irate Wife: I saw the lawful wife be married right. Every kind of strife raged
                              from all sides, the earth over. (Her) angry pledge, to castrate (him).

V. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Ic seah pa wea, suht, rædel-seoc, æg-hwa, nun witter. Ymb-fer [far? cf. ymb-faran, ymb-feran] eage, nierwede.

      The Riddle-Solver(s): Then I saw woe, sickness, each one riddle-sick, none wise.
                                            The eye goes (went?) round and round, squinted.

      The anagrammatic reading in solution II that produces “cheese” from the string SIECAE is strongly suggested by its context. Though anagrams may seem more “far-fetched” than sequential phonic strings, they appear to be active in the Riddler’s set of tricks—as they are in Cynewulf’s. (Contextually, no gamy reading is really too playful. Though one can hardly insist on strict syntax, a player must try hard to respect it.)


     An alternate arrangement of the implicit codebox in Riddle 68—comprising four half-lines, rather than two full lines—looks like this:

I  C       p A     W I H T    G E S E A H
O N     W E G      F E RA N
H E O    WÆ S      W RÆ T L I C E
WUN D R U M      G E G I E R W E D

          Phonically clustered to help the eye unsnarl it, the inherent acrostic codeline is as follows:


          The opening vertical acrostic string IOHWC seems to tell us that we are on track here because it suggests OE geoc (yoke) and also a Latinate pun on “joke.” The “wondrous creature” that “moves along the track” of a scripted line here, indeed, is on one level the poet’s own riddlic witticism.

          Below are two readings of this codeline. Each reading occurs first in OE, and then as an expanded translation, with comments.

     [O] eow cine geonap, wita eower. Giwie same gif eow giet run tell [tilie], is ierre-cwead.
                                 …widuwe-ar [i.e., a messenger bereft, like a widow with a dead husband]

Forever a folded sheet of parchment, your councilor, opens its yawning mouth to speak to all of you. I ask whether even now the rune, in this manner, might be speaking to you […is still working you over]. Is it still a raging shit?

          Here one seems to hear the Riddler’s voice, coming across as if by medieval FAX.

          The kenning ierre-cwad, ire-dung, suggests “verbal diarrhea” from some distressed, free-flowing source, either the Riddler or us—likely, both. My “translation,” I think, is not licentious.

          A second decoding effort unearths newfound shards of the Riddler’s scholarly polyglot wit, however one sorts out its inherent syntactic potentialities:

2) IOHWC                                                               NEU      ONp         WDA EW
    Geoc(e) [“Yoke,” “Rescue”; cf. “joke,” L. jocus] nu onywep [aegnep] Wita [,] eow [,…eower…]

      …RGÆUW   S      MI   FHEWGTRRE      AÆ      GGNTIELE S      I      RECWAEEHD
           raew        is         me fugitare [L.],           a gentilis [L. adj.],         a (?) requieta [L. adj.]
     …E r o s [L., punning on errare, to err]         …cf. gentil [OF], genitalis [L]
     cf. “error” [OF, L]
          cf. Jesus, giu [OF, cf. L]               cf. Eric…                          …Eric, vade [L.].

At this point the Sage unveils (claims as his own) a joke (…yoke that links you to me, a burden;… rescue or help): [This alphabetic] row is for me to keep running away (from you) […is always speeding away from me (to you)], forever as intimately linked with you as family, forever rested up [i.e., showing no sign of strain from the “chase,” with a pun on the sense “dead forever”].

          Who is running from whom, and who or what stays perpetually rested—the facts seem vague in this iohwc neu. The syntactic ambivalence of “you/your” (code EWR) allows various “swing” readings. The ending code-clusters suggest “Eric the Gentile—born, gone,” or some such. Concurrent puns on “Jew,” “Jesus,” “Eros,” and “error” compound the joke, as do plays on “gentility” and “genital[s].” In one alternative, the Wita calls himself a Jew—suggesting Eros and Jesus as alternate possibilities!—and seems to talk of “running from the Jew,” putting himself among the “unrequiet[ed],” those perpetually seeking rest. Puns on “quiet” and “quit” (cf. L., OF) lie in the codeline terminus CWAEEHD, and the play “eerie quiet” is not out of range. A “code” pun (ME, cf. L. codex, “book”) may also inhere.

          In any case, the codeline phonics insistently adumbrate the Latinate forms fugitare, gentilis (an adjective that has to do with kinship), requieta, and vade, plugged into the OE string. Though “joke” is anachronistic, my belief is that here we see a witty OE scholar moving toward expanding the English lexicon with inkhorn nonce words (esp. from Latin and OF), much as Shakespeare and other creative geniuses did later.

          The letterstrings EWR and IOHWC, heightened in the codestring, seem likely to be yet another nameplay—a two-part anagram, EWR/IOHWC, “Eric.” Together these strings may also pun “Eower [Your] Joke,” with the pun on “yoke” (linkage, burden). The “yoking” of all the possible names here expands the Riddler’s “yoke.” The name “Eric” appears to recur in the codeline as RREAÆGG, and also near the end of the codestring in IREC WAEEHD (cf. “Eric, vade [L. go]…”). Among many readings, the end of the code might mean “Eric the Gentile, aye [forever] requited.”

          It seems possible that the codeboxes incorporate puns not only “Eric” but also on the place name “Chelsea.” In both the two- and the four-line forms, the visually linked endings ECIL… [l. 3, reversed] and …SEAH [l. 1] may play on that place name (OE Ceal-chyd ). (My explorations of Riddle 38 reinforce this possibility to point hypothetically toward one Eric of Chelsea as the Riddler—or one of the Riddlers—whose works the Exeter Book preserves.


          Three other examples below further illustrate my early attempts to decipher the Riddles. All three examples come from the homemade booklet titled “The Runic Beowulf and Other Lost Anglo-Saxon Poems, Reconstructed and Annotated” (Martin, 1979), mentioned above in the headnote.

Riddle VIII
(The Exeter Book, Thorpe’s Numbering)

     W U N D O R    W E A R p    O N   W E 3 E                                    A wonder happened along the way,
     WÆ T  E R    W E  A R    T O    B A N E                                      Water became bane [bone].

           The Letterstring Code [top-to-bottom, left-to-right]:

W W U Æ N T D E O R R   W W E E A A R R p p   T O O N   B W A E N    3 E E

           Some OE elements possibly encoded in this letterstring:

Wened                               r a r e p……………[....]                             bewegan
Wund                  deor             wear[th]……….                  to    on      be-waegan        ge            
               an                       ruh                                  pe                 nebbian           
               an                                  wea ….             repe..               nebb                       gee           
      [repian]                        waegn           
               aenet                              wer……….                             in       waen                        
                            diah or               we…          ar                                 buan     in
wundor………                                                            paet..                 bugan

winter……….[..]                             ear                                                bewe..neah
wintru……………………………….........eart………….          teon              bun
wawan..                                                ierp…….                 ten
(?)              wenige                                                                                          wear[th]e[th]                  [cf. toh]             wanige                            
                                             ruwe        ierp…      repe                    on-ben
         Possible readings of the riddle:

1) Weaned                 deer      rises                                       to kill               you.    
     Wounded                           roars                                          aggravate           

2) Winter                                     roars                                     to            aggravate you.           

3) Winter-                                    ruwe, ear repe,                     to             on-ben      ge [OE]—i.e.,
     Winter- blanket,                         the earth fierce;                  you, to cursing.           

            Notes: The basic encoded “answers” seem to cluster around the ideas of 1) an attacking deer or other animal and 2) a furious winter—both of which are “banes” (with a pun on the “bone” of the deer’s antlers). The “water” (or liquid) in the case of winter is, of course, the moisture that becomes snow and ice, both “banes.”  If the deer is “weaned,” then the apparent conceit is that the doe’s milk is transformed into rage (and antlers, “bone”); if the deer is “wounded,” then “water” means flowing blood that is triggers rage.
            In the “WÆTER” of the riddle itself lurks a likely pun on weder (weather) and on witter (“the wise”).  
            As it happens, in this riddle the spaces between the words don’t make any difference in the implicit “vertical” letterstring code. (The riddle below shows how such spaces might matter in some riddlic texts as a player tries to determine the exact nature of the vertical code; perhaps word divisions ought to be ignored in determining the code?)
             An implicit pun on bene [L.] in the original riddle (code BANE) and also in the expanded vertical code (BWAEN3EE) suggests that the Riddle may be playing in this text with the concept of the Wonder of Christ’s Crucifixion, where the liquid spilled (and water that poured from His side on Calvary) becomes a beneficial blessing. Accordingly, the “Way“ of the riddle proper suggests the Via Dolorosa, and water suggests baptism. The original riddle, then, suggests this coy meaning: “A Miracle happened along Christ’s tortured Route, as blood and water transformed into Bene!”
             Thus the fuller, encoded comment may be contrived to be an echo of components in the overt riddle and to comment on this religious meaning, e.g.,

4) Code: W W U Æ N T D E O R R   W W E E A A R R p     p T O O N   B W A E N    3 E E
     OE:     Wundor                                   wearp                              pat   on           Bene                                                          Possibly: A Miracle                             occurred,                       that being in [the riddlic element]  “Bene.”                                                                     


Riddle XV (The Exeter Book, Thorpe, p. 488)

     I C    A N E    3 E S E A H                                                I saw one
     I D E S E     S I T T A N                                                    virgin sitting.

           The code [assuming spaces between word elements]:

I  I  C  D  E  A  S  N  E  E  S  3  I  E  T  S  T  E  A  A  N  H

           Some OE elements possibly encoded in this form of the letterstring:                       

                             ..isiht [icy]
  Ic...                   sna [snow]      giet..                     ane (aene) [once (adv.), one]           
                   EA        neosan [investigate, inspect, go to bed, visit, attack] 
             deah [vb.: avail, be of use, be good (3. sing. of dugan)
                         be virtuous, be worthy, be lilberal, be equivalent to (with dative, genitive)]       
                                snaes [(f.), spit, skewer]  staena [earthenware jug]                                      
                                                                    stand [(m.), delay]
                                                                                                                       ...stande [3 sing. opt.] 
                              ?cneo [knee, generation] standan [(2), remain]            Ic stond [I stood]                                       
                                                                      stan [stone, rock]
            dysi [irrational]                                  staenan [(v.) to stone]     
                                      ese [heathen gods]  
                                      ess [“S”]                       teon [draw, pull together]
                                               ge [ye]                 teona [(m.) injury, suffering, wrong, quarrel]   
                                                                taesan [pull to pieces, tease (wool)]     
                                                               testa [L., earthenware piece, etc.]          
                                                               ?testian [to burn, test by fire?], hence, testan [stones]   
                                           ?scite [excrement]

           Notes:  The lines seem to reveal one reading in which the “sitting virgin” is a blanket of (virginal) snow, and another in which the viewer’s masculine response to the “virgin” is the covert subject of the riddle’s “answer.”  In each case the “sitting virgin” is a test of manliness. The one option has a clear suggestion (in the idea of “skewer”) of a sexual response, as does the verb neosan.

           Possible encoded solutions to the riddle:

1) Ic deah snaes, giet stane […stande].                I become a skewer, yet stone […erect].
2) Is deah, sna-ese ge testian.                               Ice avails, pagan snow gods to test you.

3) Ic deah “ess.” Neose giet stande.                     I crumple. Go to investigate [pun: get into bed], yet remain.
4) Ic deah snaes, gie testian.                                 I become a skewer, to test you by fire.
5) Ic deah snaes, gie testa aene […testan].           I become a skewer, you at once an earthen vessel [...vessels].  

           Other encoded alternatives would emerge if a player assumed no spaces between words in the riddle proper.     


Riddle XVII from The Exeter Book (Thorpe’s numbering, p. 488)

I   C     E O M   Æ p E L I N 3 E S                                        I am nobleman’s 
Æ H T     &    W I L L A                                                        property and will

           The hidden vertical code [Note: Here the code is the same whether a player spaces between words or not]:

I  Æ C  H  T  E  O  & [= +, also phonic A N D or O N D]  M  W Æ  I  p  L  E  L  L  A  I  N  3  E  S

           Possibly encoded OE elements: 

Ic                       eom,                                                                           lael [(f.) twig, whip, etc., or mark of same]...laellan 
                                   and                                                                            …laelian [become black and blue]
Eac…         teohhe [band, company]    …ane [one, once]        wi[th]           …laelienne [gerund]  
                   teohhian [(2), appoint, assign, etc.]                                                                      ge [ye], giese [yes]                                               anda [(wk.m) anger], andum [pl. dative]                         in; in-gang? [entering, right of access]    Aeht [property]                                                                            iep [easily], iepelic [easy]    “ess” [“S”]  
       cyte [cottage]                                                                                          laen [loan], laenan [to lease, lend]                                     teonian [irritate]                                                                   laene [“lean,” frail, frivolous, perishable]   
                         teon [injury]                                                            iepe [desolate, waste]    ges [geese]  
                         teond [accuser]                                                  maegep… [virgin, maiden]                       
                                                                                                   maegp [family, tribe, generation, country] 
                                                               wiht [creature; (pron.) anything at all]       la [then! indeed]                                                                                 wiht [(n.) weight]                                                      naess [ground, earth]                                                                                                                                                   naes [nose]           
                                                                                               langes [long (gen.)?, langest [(adj., adv.) longest]                                                                                                           langian [desire, summon, belong (2nd sing.)]

           Possible OE readings of the hidden codeline, with suggested translations:

1) Eac teoh, andum wiht laelian, giese. And company as well, a creature to be beaten black & blue in fits of anger, too.

2) Eac teohhian maegep laelian giese.   Also his to regard, a maiden to be beaten black & blue, in fact.

3) Eac teond, maegp laelienne, giese.      Also his accuser, a country being ravished, yes.

4) Eac teon andum, we iep lael langest [laelan?].    Also injury, because of his anger; we readily belong to the whip.

5) Aeht eom, etc.                                      Property [I] am, etc.

           One notes that the “answers” here tend to assert continuations of the syntax of the riddle itself while continuing the theme of control by an abusive authority.
           This riddle proper (or improper) suggests on its face a joke about masturbation, and some of the hidden encodings may pursue that line of wit. Does some pun about an “eaten willow” lurk in ...Æ H T & W I L L A ? Or a phallic pun on “eight,” with “will” sexually suggestive, as it was in the Renaissance?

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