Strange beings: translating some Exeter Riddles

I saw four strange beings travel together: black were their tracks, very dark traces.  Fast on its journey, bolder than birds, it flew in the air, dived beneath the waves.  The labouring fighter suffered restlessly, he who shows all four of them the paths over ornamented gold.

The four strange beings, if you were wondering, are a pen and the three fingers which hold it.  This is one of the 95 riddles found in the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library MS 3501), a book of Old English poetry which was given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric in the eleventh century and has remained there ever since.  An answer to many of the riddles has been proposed (sometimes because they are based on Latin sources in which the answer is spelled out), but others still remain obscure.  Most are about everyday objects and animals; some refer to Biblical stories; some are a bit smutty; some are kind of strange.  Each one of them presents well-known things out of context, in terms designed to confuse the reader, making inanimate objects appear to be alive, and animals to have a voice.

Tomorrow, the 6th of June 2017, the York Festival of Ideas will open, including one thematic strand on York’s Anglo-Saxon period.  I was very pleased to be asked to select and translate a handful of the Exeter riddles in order to promote this strand: my translations would then be copied out beautifully by a team of expert calligraphers, in scripts appropriate to the era, and printed onto bookmarks.  I was given more or less free rein in my choice of riddles, except with the proviso that the riddles needed to be short enough to fit onto a bookmark, and with the knowledge that the theme of the 2017 festival is ‘The Story of Things’.

I got hold of the third volume of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (a complete edition of all surviving Old English poetry: part III is the Exeter Book) and noted down all the riddles which were 10 lines or fewer.  This ruled out a lot of them.  I filtered out anything which was too fragmentary – the later parts of the Exeter Book have suffered damage – or which were too dependent on runic letters included in the text.  Then, I needed to think about which riddles would be suitable for the festival.  With the theme being ‘The Story of Things’, I gravitated more towards objects than animals, although in the end all of the chosen riddles were animate in some way.  Others were too obscure to be worth including (‘one-eyed garlic seller’, anyone?).

This left me with a longlist of ten:

  • 6 – Sun
  • 7 – Swan
  • 11 – Wine
  • 16 – Anchor
  • 44 – Key
  • 47 – Bookworm
  • 50 – Fire
  • 51 – Pen and three fingers
  • 85 – Fish and River
  • 90 – Uncertain (although ‘the liturgy for Holy Saturday‘ has been proposed!)

I wrote a rough translation of each one, noting problems I had in translation, and possible alternative readings.  Old English poetry is obscure and grammatically odd at the best of times, never mind when the writer was deliberately being enigmatic.  Sometimes I would come across a word I didn’t know, and it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense in its context: for example, ‘reaf’ in the Wine riddle seemed to mean ‘plunder’.  In other places, the grammar would be unclear.  I wrote down a few options for each unclear point, and sent off the rough translations to the organisers.  Everyone was keen on the riddles about writing – the Bookworm, and the Pen and Fingers – and also on the Fish and River: handily, these were also among the easier ones to translate.  The Anchor and the Fish and River were thought to be particularly suitable for York, with its river (although, given what Micklegate is like on a Saturday night, the same could probably be said of the Wine riddle too).

View of river.jpg
The River Ouse, from the Scarborough rail bridge, York

Having narrowed it down to six potential choices, I immediately ruled out the Fire riddle simply on the grounds that I had had relatively more difficulties with it, and then went off to polish the other translations.  I looked into how other writers have handled the riddles: S. A. J. Bradley’s  fairly literal prose translation, Craig Williamson’s considerably looser verse translation, and also the excellent Riddle Ages blog in which a number of translators are working their way through the Exeter riddles, providing both a modern English rendering and also a commentary.  This turned out to be a useful exercise: as well as satisfying my curiosity about other interpretations, I discovered a couple of words which I had misinterpreted.  For example, in the ‘Pen and Three Fingers’ riddle, I initially took the phrase ‘Swift was on fore’ to mean ‘the one in front was swift’, missing the word for, journey.  Although I wasn’t aiming to produce brilliant poetry, I did, where possible, try to echo the alliteration of the originals: the anchor is ‘strong in the struggle’, the fingers are ‘bolder than birds’.  Unlike Bradley’s translation, mine was not aimed at a student audience which would be reading the texts in the original at some point.  Yet I wanted to keep as close to the original text as I could, in contrast to Williamson, who sometimes strays from the precise meaning and grammar of his sources in order to convey a mood.

Checking these other editions also helped to clarify a couple of things: for example, in the Wine riddle, I couldn’t figure out what was meant by the horda deorast (‘dearest of treasures’) which the unwise man would one day heah bringan (‘bring high’) – of course, the riddler is referring to the soul when it goes to heaven (or not, as the case may be).  I straightened out a lot of the rather confusing syntax of Old English poetry, but without losing the approximate word order altogether; I did not wish to use words that strayed too far from colloquial modern English, but I was happy to use a slightly elevated register – after all, Old English poetry tends to use a special vocabulary which is different from prose.

In the end, we decided to narrow it down to three – the Bookworm, the Fish and River, and the Pen and Three Fingers – which were written up by local calligraphers Sue Sparrow, Louise May and Jane Jenkins.  The finished bookmarks look like this!

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Full texts and translations of these can be found on the Festival website.

Since the Wine riddle did not, ultimately, make the final cut, here is the original text, my first translation, and the final draft, together with Williamson’s looser translation for purposes of comparison.

Old English Original

Hrægl is min hasofag,         hyrste beorhte,

reade ond scire         on reafe minum.

Ic dysge dwelle         ond dole hwette

unrædsiþas,         oþrum styre

nyttre fore.         Ic þæs nowiht wat

þæt heo swa gemædde,         mode bestolene,

dæde gedwolene,         deoraþ mine

won wisan gehwam.         Wa him þæs þeawes,

siþþan heah bringað         horda deorast,

gif hi unrædes         ær ne geswicaþ.


Rough translation:

My garment is grey-stained, my decoration bright,

red and shining in my plunder/armour.

I lead the foolish astray and urge the stupid down unwise roads,

and guide others in more useful ways.

I know nothing of that which it thus maddened, with mind stolen,

erring actions: they love my idle ways.

Woe be to them for that behaviour:

they afterwards bring high the dearest of treasures,

if they do not turn away from foolishness beforehand.


Final translation:

My garment is grey-stained, my decoration bright,

red and shining on my clothing.

I lead the foolish astray and urge the stupid down unwise roads,

and guide others from more useful ways.

I know nothing of why, so maddened, with mind stolen

and erring actions, they praise my empty ways to everyone.

Woe be to them for that behaviour

when afterwards they bring high the dearest of treasures,

if they do not first turn away from foolishness.


Williamson’s translation:

My dress is silver, shimmering gray,

Spun with a blaze of garnets.  I craze

Most men: rash fools I run on a road

Of rage, and cage quiet determined men.

Why they love me – lured from mind,

Stripped of strength – remains a riddle.

If they still praise my sinuous power

When they raise high the dearest treasure,

They will find through reckless habit

Dark woe in the dregs of pleasure.

Williamson, A Feast of Creatures, p. 69

Image by André Karwath, via Wikimedia Commons

The York Festival of Ideas 2017 is running from the 6th to the 18th of June.  Events relating to the Anglo-Saxon era include a city walk, a bread-making session, and puzzles in the pub!


Works used:

S. A. J. Bradley, trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1982)

George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936).

Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).

2 Comments Add yours

  1. This is great stuff, and it sounds like an amazing event. You might also be interested in The Word Exchange (Ed. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, Norton, 2011), which is pretty loose, but has most of the riddles translated by famous poets on both sides of the pond (Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the US, translated the wine glass riddle you were working on). Also, for another view on them, you may want to look at my efforts to translate the Exeter Book Riddles, which can be found here:

    My website, The Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, contains translations of 79% of the extant corpus, and I am trying to mop up the remaining lines, mostly in minor or obscure poems. I got through the Riddles in early 2016, and have been brushing them up & revising them recently. There are also blog posts there that describe different problems in translating the Riddles.

    If you come by, be sure to leave a note & let me know what you think!


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