The Medieval Review 12.01.04

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. Pp. 272. $79.95. ISBN: 978-0-271-04841-3.

Reviewed by:

Martha Bayless
University of Oregon

Study of the Old English Exeter Book riddles as a group has blossomed in recent years, most notably in Dieter Bitterli's Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009). Where Bitterli set the riddles in the tradition of Latin and Anglo- Latin riddling, Murphy now considers the riddles in an even larger context: folk riddles from multiple eras and languages. This wealth of material provides some insight into riddling strategies across periods, but Murphy's main focus is to explore the metaphors and other characteristics of selected Exeter Book riddles. This scrutiny encompasses both possible moral components and textual emendations, but inevitably it tends to culminate in proposing new solutions for many of the riddles. In some ways, then, the book reads like a series of connected essays on particular texts, and indeed three portions of the book have already appeared as journal articles on individual riddles. This makes the structure of the book something of a hodgepodge on the larger scale. Overall, however, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles is a stimulating contribution to the analysis of the riddles, though readers may not follow Murphy all the way down the path to many of his conclusions.

Murphy's project of viewing the riddles in their larger context is the most valuable aspect of the book. The ways in which various objects and activities tend to be characterized particularly helps to illuminate more ambiguous examples. As a notable example, parallel riddles help clarify the possibilities for Riddle 57 ("Deos lyft byred lytle wihte"/"The air bears little creatures"). Scholarship on this riddle has generally assumed that the solution is some kind of flying creature, and debate has focused on whether these creatures are midges, crows, swallows, bees, or the like. Murphy instead sets the riddle in the context of similar texts in which metaphors of flying creatures are employed to describe letters on a page. He then extends the inquiry to Riddle 95 ("Ic eom indryhten ond eorlum cud"/"I am known to nobles and warriors"), and uses further analogues on books and writing to shed light on some of that riddle's darker passages. Although the solution "letters on a page" cannot be accepted definitively in the absence of more precise analogues, the larger context has the effect of making apparently far-fetched solutions seem substantially more probable.

This is a valuable advance in a field where new suggestions frequently confuse rather than clarify the issues. Similar stimulating work is done in Chapter 4, where he sets Riddle 17 ("Ic eom mundbora minre heorde"/"I am the protector of my flock") amidst a host of parallels, suggesting that it alludes to Samson's riddle about the lion and the honey. Again, the answer cannot be definitive, but Murphy's discussion certainly serves to put the possibility firmly on the map.

At other points the reader may find Murphy's interpretations less plausible. As he says about others' ideas, "Each of these solutions makes elegant sense of many details in the riddle, and each at times strains to explain a clue or two" (13). The straining after solutions is especially apparent in Chapter 5, on the Old English double- entendre riddles, and readers will likely find this the least convincing chapter of the book. Surveying sex riddles through the centuries, Murphy finds nearly everything used in a sexual metaphor at one point or another: increasing, growing, standing, standing behind something, hands, rocks, corners, butter, creating butter, spreading butter, or things attached to other things. But where analogues can sometimes help pin down metaphors, here the abundance of parallels can lead the overenthusiastic scholar astray. Just because these things were used as sexual metaphors at some point in history does not mean that they must be sexual in the Exeter Book, despite Murphy's claims. Murphy goes so far as to argue that all "riddles that catalogue body parts" are somewhat suggestive, even the one-eyed garlic seller. In this, for the record, Murphy insists that he does not see "much of a sexual focus" (199, my emphasis)--but there is some, then?

Murphy does not only assign sexual meanings to a number of ambiguous instances, but in several cases argues that the accepted solution for a sexual riddle is wrong and that we should consider a different sexual solution. Riddle 54 ("Hyse cwom gangan..."/"A young man came walking..."), disguises the answer "butter-churn" in terms describing a young man and woman having sex in a corner. Murphy reinterprets the two people having intercourse as one young man masturbating. In an effort to make this solution fit, he has to understand the feminine pronoun "hie" as a neuter "it"--not a linguistic impossibility--and the corner as a man's crotch, an interpretation for which, unusually, he supplies no parallels from other riddles. Even less likely, about the point at which the young man grows tired (traditionally seen as an instance of female sexual energy), he comments, "could it instead be a small joke about the young man's failing arm strength compared to his desire for manual stimulation?" (193). Is this the kind of thing the Anglo-Saxons told riddles about in the hall? And if so, why are there no parallels from other cultures? Murphy's claims do not stop there. About the final line "Hyre weaxan ongon / under gyrdelse" ("Below the belt, something then began to grow in it"), Murphy argues, "there is much to suggest that what the riddler might have in mind is not babies but semen" (194, his emphasis). But the remainder of the poem reads "...thaet oft gode men / ferthdum freogad ond mid feo bicgad" ("...which good people love in their hearts and buy with money"). Good people love semen in their hearts? They buy it with money? Murphy is entirely silent about these lines and how they might fit into his semen-imagery. A tenuous, not to say risible, interpretation like this one detracts from the credibility of the more sober and careful parts of this book.

The strongest parts of this study are thus those in which Murphy assesses the riddles in a broader context, and the value of contextualization is not restricted to the folk tradition, but encompasses learned contexts as well. This is particularly useful in the example of Riddle 22 ("Ætsomne cwom sixtig monna..."/"Sixty men came (riding) together..."). Murphy examines the few proposed solutions and provides careful astronomical support for the most commonly accepted solution, "Charles's Wain" (Big Dipper/Plough).

In other instances Murphy's reach for metaphor may exceed his grasp. Of Riddle 29, "Sun and Moon," he informs the reader, "It is this insistence on viewing Riddle 29 as pure 'nature poetry' that blinds us to its central metaphorical focus: Christ's Harrowing of Hell" (126). He proceeds to adduce much explicitly religious literature in which the sun symbolizes Christ, concluding with a lengthy argument that descriptions of the rising of dust and dew are metaphors for the resurrection of humanity in religious literature, and hence also in riddles. In Murphy's view then, rising is never a neutral symbol, much less not a symbol at all: it is either an allusion to the resurrection or, as in the riddles mentioned above, to tumescence. Given his ardor for finding sexual or scriptural metaphors in so many riddles where they have lain unsuspected, one has to be grateful that Murphy stops short of arguing that rising means both resurrection and tumescence at the same time.

Other instances in which Murphy sees scriptural allusions in riddles will probably not form the most convincing part of the book. He concedes that the commonly accepted solution to Riddle 13 ("Ic seah turf tredan..."/I saw walking on the ground..."), "chicks," is correct. But he insists that it is implausible to claim that the riddle evokes a henyard scene, contending instead that it alludes to the loss of Eden. Indeed, he appears to believe that not having some greater allusion would be a failure on the part of the riddler. "Surely," he writes, "the half-line ["hraegl bid geniwad"/"clothing will be renewed"] in Riddle 13 is charged with more significance than the fluffing of feathers?" (57). He hence argues that the poem compares the nakedness of the newly hatched chicks to that of Adam and Eve. But surely the word geniwad is a sticking point in this argument: the chicks were formerly "clothed" by their eggshells, but Adam and Eve were formerly clothed by nothing at all, so how can their clothing be said to be "renewed"? The renewal of garments is a common image in medieval religious literature, but as a symbol of renewed spirituality and salvation, not of exile from Eden.

Murphy further protests that the "haswe bled," "gray fruit," that the chicks are "compelled to tear with their mouths" does not allude to any realistic food, dismissing previous scholars' attempts to identify it as shoots, seeds, and so on (no one involved seems to have thought of grubs). Noting that one instance of "bled" ("fruit") elsewhere in the corpus refers to the forbidden fruit of Eden (but where? he sends us to the dictionary, not to the source itself), Murphy argues that the "bled" of the riddle "probably evokes substandard postlapsarian fare" (57). So "gray" is a signifier for "substandard"? In maintaining that the metaphorical meaning is the only one that makes sense, he writes the chicks out of the picture and focuses on Adam and Eve as the primary beings in the riddle. But then why does the riddle note that the creatures are compelled to "tear [the fruit] with their mouths"? Doesn't this merely mean that the creatures of the riddle are eating? That is notable in the case of newly hatched chicks, but pretty dull as an element of Adam and Eve's lives--toiling for their food, rather than chewing it, would have been a more convincing sign of the postlapsarian condition. Murphy's other pieces of evidence are on a par with these, and on the whole his argument shows the strain.

Identifying scriptural metaphors such as the loss of Eden and the Harrowing of Hell in various of the riddles is one component of Murphy's examination of metaphor in the riddles generally. Clearly some of the riddles hinge on a central metaphor, some employ a succession of metaphors, some appear to be pure description with no metaphor (for instance, if we take the solution of Riddle 57 to be a kind of bird), and the double-entendre riddles construct two equally apt descriptions so that each becomes a metaphor for the other. Murphy does not parse out these varying kinds out, however, and so unfortunately the book comes to no conclusions about larger patterns of metaphor. He might have noted that his solution for Riddle 57 means that the riddle would hence have both a metaphor (birds) and a solution (letters on the page), which is further support for his idea. But on the whole his view of metaphor is restricted to a single individual riddle at a time, and so the way in which a particular riddle compares with others in the Exeter Book rarely surfaces. Part of the problem is that it is hard to know how the metaphor of a riddle relates to the solution when the solution remains uncertain. Thus any study of the corpus will fall prey to the temptation to start proffering solutions, and despite Murphy's best intentions, his new solutions, convincing and implausible both, do take center stage in the book.

Another distinctive feature of Muprhy's enterprise is his whimsical phrasing. On beehives, he declares himself "skeptical" about skeps (167); he notes that the riddles contain "a couple cups" (153); on his argument about the wagon and horses of Charles's Wain, he says "I am perhaps putting the cart before the horses" (111); on drawing conclusions about the chick riddle, he says, "We are able to count our chickens quite confidently" (53); on the Exeter Riddles generally he says, "many of these riddles rely on an allusive relationship to well- worn riddling conceits, some of which are quite elusive to a modern sense of wit" (181). A little of this goes a long way.

Murphy embarks on his examination of the Exeter Book riddles with the stated objective of examining metaphors and invoking contexts. This he certainly does, albeit one by one rather than in a way that provides the reader with a great sense of larger patterns or generic trends. His exegesis is hit and miss: readers will likely find themselves nodding at some insights while dismissing a number of the proffered solutions. One might wish that Murphy's reach did not exceed his grasp quite so often. But it is unquestionable that this book is a provocative addition to the increasingly lively field of Anglo-Saxon riddle studies, and challenges its competitors and successors to do better.

Copyright (c) 2012 Martha Bayless

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login