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Megan Cavell, Jennifer Neville and Victoria Symons

This first chapter introduces how riddles work in the tradition of early medieval England and its neighbours. It argues that the balance between the communal and individual, struck by Aldhelm in the preface to his Enigmata, lies at the heart of the early medieval riddling tradition and underlies its current popularity. A brief reading of Heanmode Twa (Exeter Book Riddle 42) illustrates the interplay between the demand for solution and the other kinds of work—on value, literacy, sex, interpretation—that these texts initiate. An overview of scholarship, from 1857 to the present day, follows. The chapter notes particularly the past focus on solution-hunting, questions about genre, different contexts for interpretation, linguistic play, and categorisation. Above all it stresses the multifarious nature of the riddles themselves and the scholarship this has inspired. Finally the General Introduction summarises the book’s chapters, divided into three sections. Part I, ‘Words’, exemplifies interpretations based on close readings of texts. Part II, ‘Ideas’, engages with theory to examine how the riddles invite new ways of thinking about objects, relationships, and experiences. Part III, ‘Interactions’, showcases the ways in which the riddles lead us to make connections with other fields, languages, times, and places.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Incongruity in Feþegeorn (R.31)
Jonathan Wilcox

Incongruity is the sine qua non for humour, as any good humour theory will suggest, conjuring up an appropriately inappropriate doubleness. But incongruity alone is never sufficient to explain humour. This chapter brings together consideration of humour theory with the interpretation of Feþegeorn (R.31) to ponder whether riddles can provide a key to understanding the humour of early medieval England. Pinpointing humour always requires an awareness of the multiple frames within which the comic stimulus works. For literary humour, this requires a sensitivity to register (with implicit questions of expectations of genre) as well as to meaning (attending to the doubleness of diction) and to context (since performance and social context plays a significant role). Interpreting humour also requires a fine-tuned sense of the timing of the revelation of doubleness, and here memory plays a significant role, since earlier tellings (of a riddle or of a joke) allow an audience to usefully anticipate the upcoming resolution.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville

The chapters in this section explore words as words, sounds, and language, engaging to greater or lesser extents with the long history of philological approaches to Old English language and literature. Working from words outward—to text, genre, language as a whole—is rewarding because the gradual amassing of evidence as the frame of reference expands is orderly, methodical, and systematic. And yet it is never the only, or the correct, way to approach a text. Ultimately, philological approaches rely on the interpretation of words, and there are many ways to interpret both words and the texts in which they survive. These interpretations all rely on good close reading, on grappling with polysemy, and on translation and solving as an act of interpretation.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville

The chapters in this section go beyond the riddles’ words to explore the ideas that theoretically-inflected approaches can reveal in them. This approach is not new; the study of early medieval riddles has already benefitted from gender and sexuality studies, among other interdisciplinary approaches. The chapters here use the riddles to test ideas about humour, sentience, monstrosity, ecofeminism, hyper-objects, and conceptual blending.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville

The early medieval riddles reveal points of contact with the world in which they were created and with which they still interact today. These interactions occur on many levels: between texts within one manuscript, between collections within an overall tradition, between genres and disciplines within an intellectual tradition, between material cultures separated by time and distance, and between poets during the translation process. The chapters in this section seek to explore a small fraction of the interactions between the riddles of early medieval England and the wider world. Each of these chapters is unique and particular to itself, and cannot be reduced to a single, homogeneous approach, but it is perhaps useful to consider them all as aspects of ‘translation’ in its most basic meaning of ‘carrying across’. Fittingly, the collection ends with a chapter that offers new, creative translations of several Exeter Book riddles and reflects upon translation as a practice.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Pirkko A. Koppinen

Many Exeter Book riddles refer to the primordial phenomenon that enables human life—fire—and the duplicate texts of Legbysig (R.30a) and Ligbysig (R.30b) are no exception. There is a wide consensus that the solution to the riddle is ‘tree or cross’, first suggested by F. A. Blackbaum in 1901. That solution fits very well with the text, which even refers to ‘a blooming grove’ (4a). Blackbaum’s solution depends on understanding the materiality of a tree and cross, the latter created out of the former. Although such a comparison of the tangible world and the fictional world represented in the approach is used widely in Old English studies to explore material culture in poetry, this chapter argues that focusing on materiality, especially on the function and sensory experience of materials, can lead to new interpretations of literary texts. Using an approach from material culture studies to discuss the role of sensory experience in materiality of fire in Legbysig, this chapter offers a new solution, ora (‘ore’, ‘metal in its unreduced state’).

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Rafał Borysławski

Fear and memory are connected to ideas that are essential to riddles: to what initially appears unknown, shadowy and uncertain, as well as to the experience of recognition and the relief stemming from it. This chapter argues that, because of the nature of the poetic riddle and of Old English riddles in particular, memory and fear are their intrinsic sine qua non. It begins by discussing the ways in which memory and fear are related to the riddle on structural, narrative and meta-textually affective levels, before offering a broad overview of the ways in which fear was understood in medieval Christian thought. Finally, it discusses transformative fear in three Exeter Book riddles: XII Hund Heafda (R.86), solved as ‘One-Eyed Seller of Garlic’; Gryrelic Hleahtor (R.33), solved as ‘Iceberg’; and Nama Min is Mære (R.26), solved as ‘Bible’. Ultimately, the types of fear operating within the Old English riddles lend them a particular capacity to corroborate the early Christian view of seemingly negative experiences that must be understood as positively transformative. Thus at least some of the Old English riddles may be read as miniature lessons and parables of Christian thinking.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
James Paz

Recent scholarship has shown that an Old English riddle’s description may at times relate not only to its solution but also to an unspoken metaphor, lending the riddle an underlying coherence beyond the literal answer. While it has long been agreed that the solution to the first Exeter Book riddle(s) is a meteorological event, a natural phenomenon, here the ‘wind’ is described in terms akin to the workings and movements of the human mind (OE mod or hyge) within and without the body. Therefore, OE mod provides the unspoken metaphor for the opening riddle(s). This chapter contends that the human mind is not detached or divided off from nature in these riddles, but participates in the violent moods of the storm. Like one of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, the storm is so massively distributed across time and space that it cannot be grasped, and the power of the wind destabilises dualisms such as human–nonhuman, self–other, internal–external, forcing us to question whether the mod is inside or outside, apart from or a part of, the storm.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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Aldhelm’s leech riddle – Peter Buchanan
Peter Buchanan

Aldhelm’s Enigmata depict a range of monstrous figures described in terms of a dual nature. Against this backdrop of monstrous duality, the leech (sanguisuga) reveals itself through a monstrous visage but a healing touch. The monstrous appearance of the leech builds into a figure of apparently monstrous touch. Stripped of appendages, the leech is reduced to a biting mouth, even as Aldhelm’s characteristic sound-play puts emphasis on the mouth of the speaker with strings of bilabials. A sudden turn at the end turns the bite of the monster into a beneficial kiss. This chapter contextualises the metaphor of the salvific kiss with reference to Aldhelm’s own depiction of Christ’s kiss as a synecdoche for the healing touch, reinforced by the connection of the leech with the dead. The disjunction between the leech’s sensory reduction and the human’s misleading sensory richness allows for a reappraisal of the phenomenological tradition’s treatment of flesh. The leech’s reduced capacity gives the lie to the idea that these expressions are equivalent and points to a way in which senses not only enhance each other, but also deceive.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Neville Mogford

Computus and riddles are not obvious bedfellows, but the Bern and Eusebius riddle collections include several original enigmata on computistical and astronomical subjects. How these riddles fit into the tradition inherited from Symphosius, what kinds of literary devices they employ, and why riddles should be an appropriate medium for communicating these subjects, are the central questions of this chapter. Frequently, these riddles represent their subjects in terms of familial relations. Some are harmonious: Bern Enigma 62 depicts the stars as sisters and the heavens as a monastery. More often, familial relations are problematic. For example, in Bern Enigma 56, the sun and moon are siblings whose complicated calendrical relationship is imagined as one of incestuous nativity. Several riddles play with the apparent paradox between the moon as it is observed and as it is measured. Bern Enigma 59 illustrates how the imperceptible movements of the moon can nevertheless be measured in fractions. Most notable of all is the unusual description of the saltus lunae (‘leap of the moon’) intercalation in Eusebius Enigma 29, which combines the sibling trope with complex calculations originating in Irish computistica.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition