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Joseph Falaky Nagy - Review of Andy Orchard, editor and translator, The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Volume 1); A Commentary on The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Volume 2)

Joseph Falaky Nagy - Review of Andy Orchard, editor and translator, The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Volume 1); A Commentary on The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Volume 2)

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English riddle, which like its Germanic cognates derives from the Indo-European root *re-, meaning “intelligence, counting,” is akin to the verb read and the archaic noun rede “advice, counsel.” Though the process of finding a convincing solution to a riddle (which of course may have more than one credible solution) involves metaphorically “sifting” through the evidence the riddle(r) is willing to provide, riddle meaning (noun) “sieve” or (verb) “to perforate” comes from a different root altogether—but the image, and the coincidence, remain apt. (The wordlore cited here derives from the relevant entries in the Online Etymological Dictionary at

Andy Orchard, the distinguished Anglo-Saxonist who edited/translated/provided the commentary for the massive two-volume work under review, prefers to use a word for “riddle” derived from Greek and delivered into English via Latin as (a)enigma (from Greek ainigma), suitable in the highly Latinate milieu in which these riddles were enjoyed and recorded. This word, aínigma, also comes with fascinating and telling etymological baggage. It is related to another Greek word ainos, already attested in Homeric epic, with the meanings “praise, story, discourse with a hidden meaning or conveying an implicit request,” as explicated by Miriam Kamil, “Homeric Ainoi in Latin Literature, Part I: Homer,” at

Cousin word to ainigma, ainos, plural ainoi, comes to denote the animal fables attributed to Aesop—riddle-like stories that often come with a framing narrative context making clear that the “fabulist” is addressing a particular audience, with an underlying message or even critique in mind. The challenge posed to the audience of these fables is to find the application of what happens in the world of animals to the world of humans. According to legend, one such ainos,when accurately decoded, drove an outraged community to throw Aesop, the “riddler” who was chastising them, off a cliff (Sonia Pertsinidis, “A Dung Beetle's Victory: The Moral of the Life of Aesop (Vita G),” Antichthon 54 [December 2020]:141-163).

This excursion into the history of words serves to remind us that the riddle as a traditional form of verbal performance and intellectual exchange has deep roots in the history of civilization, engaging in complex relations with other genres of verbal folklore—a truth of which Andy Orchard, as witnessed by the insightful thought and diligent care he has lavished on this remarkable publication, shows himself to be keenly aware. Riddles, constituting a major part of the legacy left in Latin and Old English by the Anglo-Saxon writers, producers, and editors of our surviving manuscripts, provide “contrasting perspectives,” demonstrating as they do “the intimate connections between the learned and the lewd, the lay and the devout, the Latin and the vernacular, the inherited and the imported, and the oral and the literary” in the culture of England in the early Middle Ages (Vol. 1, pages vii-viii).

Aenigmata, often associated in Anglo-Saxon culture with the entertainment characteristic of drinking parties (a connection already present in ancient Greek and Roman tradition), do sometimes seem, deceptively, to be exercises in trivia. As a wise king says to a riddle-posing guest whom the king suspects is the god Odin in disguise, “The chatter has gone on too long, when dung beetles are the subject of the questions of powerful men” (Vol. 1, page 858). And yet, coincidentally, the dung beetle that figures in the enigmatic ainos Aesop tells before he is executed, and that represents Aesop himself, provides a counter-example to this dismissive characterization of the humble and unsavory creature (see Pertsinidis, “A Dung Beetle’s Victory,” cited previously).

It is also true of the genre universally—a point made forcefully by Dan Ben-Amos in “Solutions to Riddles,” Journal of American Folklore 89 (1976), pages 249-54—that riddles can reflect a very serious worldview, although one that they reflexively show to be eminently re-arrangeable, suggesting how everything is relative. Orchard says, “The Anglo-Saxon riddle tradition poses many questions and seems to be comfortable with the fact that for each and all of those questions there is not necessarily a single or simple and unanswerable solution. Sometimes just asking is apparently enough, and in picking a path through the question at hand the respondent seems encouraged to wander” (Vol. 1, pages xxxii).

Clearly, many of the riddles as collected in manuscripts, whose mind-challenging treasures are so attractively presented in this entry in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, served a pedagogical purpose, giving classroom tyros the opportunity to analyze critically with the fresh intelligence of youth, perhaps arriving at a solution even sooner than would their teacher—see Orchard, “Alcuin’s Educational Dispute: The Riddle of Teaching and the Teaching of Riddles,” pages 162-201, in Childhood and Adolescence in Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture, edited by Susan Irvine and Winfried Rudolf (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018). This didactic function (leading to the possibility of competition and an almost subversive demonstration of superior wit) is hardly unique to the Anglo-Saxon riddle tradition. If the reviewer may be allowed a personal recollection, I was struck by how in the TV Batman series of the late sixties it was always Robin the Boy Wonder who was quick to solve the riddle-clues left tantalizingly by the villainous Riddler. Never did the solution, it seemed, come from Robin’s otherwise all-knowing mentor, Batman himself.

A work of impeccable scholarship, featuring a comprehensive collection of the original texts (many of them poetic) in Latin, Old English, and Old Norse as well as facing-page translations into lucid modern English, all accounted for in an accompanying volume containing ample information about sources, proposed solutions, and analogs, Andy Orchard’s The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition presents a wealth of material of compellingly “enigmatic” interest for not only folklorists but admirers of verbal art in general.


[Review length: 983 words • Review posted on November 11, 2023]