Reading Runes in the Exeter Book Riddles

Riddles and runes go together, at least in some of those found in the medieval codex known as the Exeter Book of Old English poetry (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501).

J. R. R. Tolkien puts their cryptic association to creative use when, in The Hobbit, the dwarves’ map reveals to Elrond in runic ‘moon-letters” a riddle describing how King Thorin Oakenshield’s company will discover the secret door and enter the Lonely Mountain of Erebor once they arrive to reclaim their stolen treasure-hoard from the dragon Smaug.

Moon-letters revealing the riddle of the secret door into Smaug’s lair from Peter Jackson’s film adaption, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012).

As with Tolkien’s moon-letters, runes found in the Exeter Book Riddles serve to both obscure and illuminate their riddle and its solution. This is to say—if you are literate and can read the runic alphabet—you have an important clue to solving the puzzle. If not, the riddle’s solution is even further obscured from the solver.

While certainly not every Exeter Book riddle contains runes, and indeed most do not, there is a higher frequency of runes in riddles than elsewhere in the extant corpus of Old English poetry, suggesting that perhaps runes offered something useful to the playful, puzzling, at times comical, Old English riddle.

Moreover, there is a general instability in the consistency of runic characters, and this further adds another enigmatic layer of obscurity to a riddle, since no runic standard of writing—or carving—ever truly existed in any standardized form. Rather, form and style of runic inscriptions (as well as the orientation of runic characters) varied wildly in medieval England and Scandinavia, which makes reading runes especially difficult even to those with some runic literacy.

So how do runes enhance a riddle? If one can determine what letter a given runic character corresponds to in the Latin alphabet, how does this knowledge illuminate the riddle and its solution? By looking carefully at Exeter Book Riddle 19 and Riddle 24, we will now explore how runes operate within a broader riddling framework.

Riddle 24 on folio 106v, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501.

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,         wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund,         hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos,         hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge         þone haswan earn,
guðfugles hleoþor,         hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne,         hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte.         G mec nemnað,
Swylce. A ond R         O fullesteð,
H ond I.         Nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas         sweotule becnaþ.

“I am a wondrous thing—I change my voice:
sometimes I bark like a hound
sometimes I bleat like a goat,
sometimes I squawk like a goose,
sometimes I screech like a hawk,
sometimes I imitate the grey eagle,
the sound of birds of prey,
sometimes I utter with my mouth the kite’s voice,
sometimes the gull’s song,
where I gladly sit.

G names me,
also A and R.
O supports me,
H and I.

Now I am called as those six letters clearly show.”

The solution to Riddle 24 is higora, or ‘magpie’ in Old English, as the runes indicate when spelled out. In this riddle, runes function to obscure the solution from anyone unable to read these cryptic characters, but paradoxically they function also to illuminate the solution for the literate solver able to read the runes. However, as mysterious as the runes might appear to some, for those who understood them they aided in solving the puzzle.

Another riddle that uses runes is Riddle 19. In this enigma, there is a game of misdirection:

Riddle 19 on folio 105r, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501.

Ic seah on siþe    S R O
H hygewloncne,         heafodbeorhtne,
swiftne ofer sælwong         swiþe þrægan.
Hæfde him on hrycge         hildeþryþe
N O M         nægledne rad
A G E W.         Widlast ferede
rynestrong on rade         rofne C O
F O A H.         For wæs þy beorhtre,
swylcra siþfæt.         Saga hwæt ic hatte

“I saw, on a journey,
S R O H,
proud in spirit, head-bright,
running very swiftly over the fruitful plain.
It had battle-glory on his back,
N O M,
A nailed road,
A G E W.
Traveled the far-paths,
run-strong on the road,
brave C O F O A H.

The journey was the brighter, that very expedition.

Say what I am called”

Riddle 19 contains one of the prosopopoetic riddling challenges, enigmatic formulae which conclude many in the Exeter Book collection and prompt the reader to solve the puzzle: saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called.”

In order to answer this enigmatic challenge, one must first understand the riddle of the runes. In this case, if one deciphers and reverses the runic characters, the letters spell out a number of Old English words that allows the solver to understand the riddle in its entirety. The runic words are decoded as follows:

S R O H = hors (horse)
N O M = mon (man)
A G E W = wega (way)
C O F O A H = haofoc (hawk)

Now the riddle becomes more comprehensible, though not totally, as the runic words create syntactic breaks in the poem:

“I saw a horse on a journey,
proud in spirit, head-bright,
running very swiftly over the fruitful plain.
It had battle-glory on his back,
a man.
A nailed road,
the way
traveled the far-paths,
run-strong on the road,
a brave hawk.

The journey was the brighter, that very expedition.

Say what I am called”

With these words semantically integrated into the riddle, some resemblance of sense is gained. The solver of Riddle 19 may now better comprehend the riddle’s meaning; however, its solution is by no means as clear for the literate rune-reader as higora is for Riddle 24. With the runes deciphered, Riddle 19 presents an image of a man riding a horse along a nailed road with a brave hawk. But this image seems to fall short of a proper solution to the riddle. Although answers have been put forth, none has proven satisfactory. Riddle 19 remains unsolved, a puzzle yet to be fully unriddled.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Further reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2009.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Spurkland, Terje. “Literacy and ‘Runacy’” in Medieval Scandinavia in Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350: Contact, Conflict and Coexistence, ed. Jonathan Adams and Katherine Holman. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2004.

Translating the Wanderer

A map of the world, showing the various cold, temperate, and hot zones; Macrobius, Commentary on the Somnium Scipionis; Germany, 10th cent.; Oxford, Bodleian Library, D’Orville MS 77, f. 100r

The latest in the Chequered Board‘s ongoing series of poetic translations is one of the most famous, and most haunting, poems in Old English literature.

The Wanderer, contained in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501), is one of a group of nine Old English poems known as the elegies, poems characterized by “a contrasting pattern of loss and consolation, ostensibly based on a specific personal experience or observation, and expressing an attitude towards that experience.”1 In The Wanderer, a litany of loss which extends throughout nearly the entirety of the poem comes to an abrupt halt in its final lines. These concluding moments assure the reader that it shall go well for those who seek consolation with the “father in heaven,” returning to the opening lines of the poem in which we are confronted with a lone traveler seeking to find some kind of favor or honor with his maker. The poem seems to give us resolution, though not one to be enjoyed in the present.

Early in college, long before I had remotely considered the idea of becoming an Anglo-Saxonist, I gave my heart to a very different poem, T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I loved the poem’s frustration with futility, its questions left unanswered, and its dips into existential crisis. The poem impressed me with its lament for the mundaneness of life and concern with ever-passing time: “I shall grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (ll. 120-121). The speaker of The Love Song is keenly aware of his status and absurdity – “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker” (l. 84), “Almost, at times, the Fool” (l. 118) – and also of the difficulty of conveying meaning in the modern world – “That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all” (ll. 109-110). The poem leaves us in the dreamscape of mermaids singing on the sea, “and we drown” (l. 131). It is not a happy poem.

Strangely, The Wanderer, written perhaps a thousand years before Eliot penned his Love Song, strikes some of these same chords. The poem begins with the image of a lone traveler with calloused hands, wandering over the seas and on land with a burdened mind. While Prufrock fears the future, the speaker of The Wanderer grieves for a past in which he enjoyed the company of kinsmen and the secure status of servitude to a lord. Images of a golden past, along with the faces of friends, “float” away from the speaker, and he reflects upon the death of all things of this world, offering a rather ordered catalogue of unfortunate events produced by a failing world. To say the least, it is not a happy poem. But it is extremely powerful poetry responding to the same concerns with which modern poets wrestle. Its world of mead-halls and thanes and warrior-glory is inexplicably also our world of suffering and futility and stagnation.

My main goal in offering this translation is to do some measure of justice to the beauty and depth of the original. I have stayed as close to the original language as possible, hopefully creating a work which sounds poetic to the modern ear while retaining some of its strangeness. C.S. Lewis famously wrote of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”2 Whether or not one believes these words are true of The Lord of the Rings, I hope you will agree that they are true of The Wanderer. The world of The Wanderer may be grey and rimmed with frost, but it is also a world of exquisite beauty, a world where the grief of the human soul is laid bare – the soul fully exposed in all of its wretchedness, yet not wholly defeated.

Maj-Britt Frenze
PhD Student
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

1 S.B. Greenfield, “Old English Elegies,” in Continuations and Beginning: Studies in Old English Literature, ed. Eric Gerald Stanely (London: Nelson, 1996), 143.
2 C.S. Lewis, in Time and Tide, August 14, 1954, and October 22, 1955. Reprinted in Lesley Walmsley, ed., C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins, 2000).

Resurrecting the Phoenix

Phoenix; bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; BL Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

Few mythological creatures have remained as present in Western cultural imagination as the fabulous and fiery phoenix. Phoenix mythology quickly became a poetic muse for classical authors from Ovid (Metamorphoses 15) to Lactantius (De ave phoenice). This mythographic and poetic tradition is later adapted in the Old English Phoenix, a poem found in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). For my contribution to The Chequered Board’s ongoing series on Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation, I selected to translate a section from the Exeter Book Phoenix poem (lines 1-49), which I have titled “Æþelast Lond,” and which describes the heavenly home of the mythological phoenix.

My translation of the Exeter Book Phoenix is—first and foremost—a “creative” adaption of the Old English original. As a translation, “Æþelast Lond” is an interpretive rendition of the Exeter Book poem and should not be taken as a literal translation of the Old English, but rather as an experiment with artistic translation as a means of interpreting Anglo-Saxon verse. Throughout the piece I try to remember the certain poetics specific to the Exeter Phoenix, in addition to the literary traditions of phoenix mythology and the mysterious paradise in which the phoenix bird lives.

Hæbbe ic gefrugnen  þætte is feor heonan
eastdælum on  æþelast londa,
firum gefræge.  Nis se foldan sceat
ofer middangeard  mongum gefere
folcagendra,  ac he afyrred is
þurh meotudes meaht  manfremmendum.
Wlitig is se wong eall,  wynnum geblissad
mid þam fægrestum  foldan stencum.

I have heard that hence in faroff dales
Are Eastern fabled fields,
A fay realm known yet impossible and impassible
To human folk of earthen mold,
Guarded and disguised and determined,
Purged of evil and impurity.
A place of winsome wonder, blessed with edenic bliss
And the fairest fragrance of paradise.
(“Æþelast Lond,” ll. 1-8)

The Exeter Book Phoenix is itself a translation of Lactantius’ De ave phoenice—from Latin hexameter into Old English alliterative verse—which I have here translated into modern English free verse. Anglo-Saxon poetic and homiletic styles work in tandem throughout the Exeter Book poem, as Janie Steen and others have long noticed. It can be noted that the first line of my translation “I have heard that hence in faroff dales” (1), metrically echoes, even mimics, the Old English alliterative verse structure. While there is a somewhat contrived, mechanical quality to this line, I wanted to begin by paying metrical homage to the original poetics, before swiftly departing from any strict metrical parameters. However, despite that only this line attempts to slavishly resurrect Old English metrics, alliterative adornment remains a consistent stylistic feature throughout “Æþelast Lond”.

I attempt to resurrect the homiletic style of the Exeter Book Phoenix in my rather literal rendition of the ne…ne formulaic sections of this Old English “translation” (such as lines 15-19 and 22-25), which is in part an expansion on the nec…nec formula from Lactantius’ De ave phoenice. These formulae, Latin and Old English, are also popular in contemporaneous Old English and Anglo-Latin homilies. The cadence of this section in the original produces a masterful blend of Old English homiletic style and alliterative verse. For this reason, I felt this section deserved a more literal translation, with as much attention and adherence to metrics, style and diction as possible, in order to reproduce the rhythm and rhetorical effect produced by this simple, formulaic repetition.

Moreover, diction—for any poet or translator—is a point that merits some brief discussion. Again, I begin with a higher frequency of words etymologically derived from Old English, such as “hence” (1), “folk” (4), “mold” (4), “winsome” (7), etc. However, by the ninth line of the poem, my diction shifts toward the Latinate and ecclesiastical, and terms such as “celestial” (9), “creation” (11), revelation” 12), “angelic” (13), etc., in order to reflect the spiritual concerns and homiletic tone of the Exeter Book original poem.

The eastern wong or “plain” where the phoenix lives is heofon “heaven” in the Old English original, and thus in my translation, I focus my attention on the mystical space and mysterious home of the phoenix, central to this section of the poem. In the Exeter poem, two traditions of phoenix lore come together regarding where this mythical bird originates. The classical description of the phoenix as coming from the East (usually Egypt—at times India or Arabia) derives from Herodotus’ famous Greek account in his Histories, which lays the foundation for much of classical phoenix mythography. The Old English echoes this origin for the bird’s home: Hæbbe ic gefrugnen þætte is feor heonan/ eastdælum on  æþelast londa (1-2) “I have heard that there is the best of lands far hence in the eastern parts.” The other tradition, which becomes syncretized with the classical accounts, comes from the Abrahamic tradition, and describes the phoenix as a bird of paradise.

M. R. Niehoff has noted commentaries on the Midrash and Talmud, which describe the phoenix (chol) as refusing to eat the forbidden fruit and thereafter gaining everlasting life along with the chance to remain in paradise. The paradisal quality is present also in the Old English, as the phoenix’s home is a place not of this world: wlitig is se wong eall,  wynnum geblissad/ mid þam fægrestum  foldan stencum. “The plain is all shimmering, blessed with joys and with the fairest smells of the earth” (7-8). As Christianity developed during the late classical and early medieval periods, phoenix mythology became assimilated into Christianity, often recast in allegorical association with Christ and his resurrection. These allegories are often coupled with the Abrahamic interpretation of the phoenix as a bird of paradise, featured prominently in the Old English Phoenix.

“Æþelast Lond” highlights Old English homiletic and poetic styles, combines Abrahamic and classical traditions of phoenix mythography, and raises questions about semantical versus literal translation. It is my hope that, rather than simply offering another slavish translation of the Old English, “Æþelast Lond” encourages others to engage their creativity when reading and translating Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Stay tuned for additional forthcoming translations from the Exeter Book Phoenix, reborn as modern English poems!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Hill, John Spencer. “The Phoenix.” Religion and Literature 16.2 (1994): 61-66.

Niehoff, M. R. “The Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature” The Harvard Theological  Review 89.3 (1996).]: 245-265.

Petersen, Helle Falcher. “The Phoenix: The Art of Literary Recycling” NM 101 (2000): 375–386.

Steen, Janie. Verse and Virtuosity: the adaptation of Latin rhetoric in Old English         poetry. University of Toronto Press Inc.: Toronto, ON, 2008.