I’m going to be honest and say that I was never a big fan of riddles. Whether they be modern brain-teasers or Anglo-Saxon poems, riddles simply never held my attention. Why relates to simply how my mind works—it is skilled in abstracting reality but not piecing an abstraction back together (almost ironic). So I tend to ignore riddle poems; and so with these Anglo-Saxon riddle poems, I mostly skimmed.
To give an overview, though. Included in this anthology is a collection of thirty-one riddle poems, riddles which are in poem form, taken from the Exeter Book’s primary collection of ninety-something riddles. The content of these riddles, “[m]ore than any other literature that survives from the period… is the song of the unsung laborer” (237), and so focuses on the minutia of everyday existence. Many extant riddles dwell, yes, on religious matters, but bodily desires as well, with numerous riddles making obscene gestures and allusions, lewd acts, and politically incorrect rants. In a way, to put it bluntly, riddle poems are the ‘lowbrow’ art of the Anglo-Saxon age.
But in order to really appreciate what I mean, here is a selection to read.
I’m a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
A service to the neighbors! No one suffers
At my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in bed,
I’m hairy underneath. From time to time
A beautiful girl, the brave daughter
Of some churl dares to hold me,
Gripes my russet skin, robs me of my head
And puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
With plaited hair who has confined me
Remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens (241)
I’m not going to say that this is sexually vulgar, but… well, decide for yourself.
In any case, I am going to shelve these riddle poems for another day, one where I have access to a deal more scholarship and perhaps understand a tad more Old English (it would be fun to study these riddle poems in the original tongue, if I am to study them). They sound interesting, what with their emphasis on the average Joe, so I will come back to them sooner or later.