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 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 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 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.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in Medieval Bestiaries

Dragon and a lion. British Library manuscript Royal 10 E IV f. 80v circa 1275-1325.

Basilisks and dragons and phoenixes, oh my! These fantastic beasts are not creatures you’re likely to see on your next holiday, but in the Middle Ages, they commonly appeared in bestiaries alongside real animals like eagles, lions, badgers and elephants. These magical animals have not faded from the literary imagination and appear frequently in popular culture, like in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s contemporary bestiary, the fictional author Newt Scamander writes:

Astounding though it may seem to many wizards, Muggles [non-magical folk] have not always been ignorant of the magical and monstrous creatures that we have worked so long and hard to hide. A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were then known to be real. The dragon, the griffin, the unicorn, the phoenix, the centaur—these and more are represented in Muggle works of that period, though usually with almost comical inexactitude. (xiv)

Perhaps our medieval counterparts were onto something. While Rowling’s descriptions may not be any more accurate than those of medieval artists, they share some notable similarities, with a few creative innovations.

Basilisk:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 59 circa 1225-1250. Harley 4751 and Bodley 764 are sister manuscripts with very similar illustrations.

Oxford, Bodley MS 764: “The basilisk’s name in Greek (regulus) means little king, because he is the king of creeping things. Those who see him flee, because his scent will kill them. And he will kill a man simply by looking at him…The basilisk is half-a-foot long, with white spots” (Barber 184).

The basilisk is one of the most fearsome mythical creatures found in medieval bestiaries. Rowling’s description incorporates many of the elements common in most medieval descriptions of the basilisk. She retains the scarlet plume (often depicted as a crown in medieval art) and has made the snake green and longer (50 feet). Most versions differ in their descriptions of the size of the snake, but death by sight is an important part of the myth. The scent of the snake appears in some versions but not others.

Phoenix:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 45 circa 1225-1250 depicting a phoenix burning on a pyre.

There are two versions of the phoenix myth, both of which appear in Bodley MS 764.

Bodley 764: The phoenix, “lives for 500 years, and when it feels itself growing old, it collects twigs from aromatic plants and builds itself a pyre, on which it sits and spreads its wings to the rays of sun, setting itself on fire. When it has been consumed a new bird arises the next day out of the ashes” (Barber 141).

Bodley 764: “When [the phoenix] knows that the end of its life is approaching, it builds a chrysalis of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and when it is about to expire it goes into the chrysalis and dies. From its flesh a worm emerges, which gradually grows up” (Barber 142).

Rowling’s phoenix is fire-colored and it has a fairly similar description to those of most bestiaries and that found in the Old English poem “The Phoenix” (a translation/ adaptation of Lactantius’ Latin poem “De Ave Phoenice”). There are multiple versions of how the regeneration happens and its duration, the more common of which involves the pyre. The illustrations often do not depict the phoenix in red and gold, but the immense age and regeneration through fire are quintessential elements of the phoenix myth.

Dragon:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 3244 f. 59 circa 1237-1275 depicting an orange fire-breathing dragon with two pairs of wings.

Bodley 764: “The dragon is larger than all the rest of the serpents and than all other animals in the world…It has a crest, a small mouth and narrow nostrils, through which it breathes, and it puts out its tongue. It’s strength is not in its teeth, but its tail, and it harms more by blows than by force of impact” (Barber 183).

Rowling’s dragons vary by breed, of which she identifies ten. Most of her dragons are fire-breathing and they resemble the dragons usually depicted in contemporary art, film, and literature. Dragon illustrations vary greatly in their portrayal of size, color and characteristics. One of the most famous Old English stories about dragons appears in Beowulf, in which the dragon is slayed. J. R. R. Tolkien famously pays homage to this dragon tale in The Hobbit.

Rowling has crafted an engaging narrative incorporating elements found in medieval bestiaries into her descriptions. She has transformed some of the creatures for plot purposes, but their original origins are very much recognizable. I now leave you with a bit of advice, should you ever encounter a rogue dragon on your travels.

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

(Never tickle a sleeping dragon.)

Maria Fahs
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.

Sources:

Barber, Richard W., trans. Bestiary Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M. S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993. Print.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.

Cook, Albert Stanburrough (ed.). The Old English Elene, Phoenix, and Physiologus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919.

Detailed Record for Harley 3244.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Harley 4751.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Royal 10 E IV.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Newt Scamander. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Print.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973. Print. 

Medieval Elephants and Middle Earth Oliphaunts

Once upon a time, there was a mystical medieval animal with many extraordinary properties. Towering over the other members of the animal kingdom, this animal possessed the ability to live for 300 years. It was the sworn enemy of the dragon, and as an aid to mankind, this formidable animal frequently went to war with an entire castle on its back! As the animal did not have any joints in its legs, it was required to sleep standing up, reinforcing the idea that it was built upon never-waning pillars of strength and vitality. Our animal mated for life and produced only one offspring, a testament to its sense of honor and commitment.

At least, that’s what the medieval bestiaries will tell you.

This image on British Library, Royal 12 F X III, f. 11v depicts five elephants. None of the elephants are shown in typical grey, and instead are portrayed as cream, tan, beige, grey blue, and dusk blue. In addition, they have very wolfish or boar-like features. This image dates from the 2nd quarter of the thirteenth century where it illustrated a bestiary written in Latin and French.

With all of these attributes, it is curious that men would dare to hunt these animals, yet tales of the trickery necessary for their capture abound in medieval legend. Furthermore, in extreme circumstances, the hair and bones of its venerated and innocent young could be collected and burned, the smoke creating a defense to ward off the aforementioned dragon, which seemed to be quite the problematic creature.

BL Royal 15 E V I is also known as Poems and Romances (or the “Talbot Shrewsbury Book”), a French manuscript dated from 1444-1445. This image found on f. 16v depicts Alexander’s knights conquering two white elephants with spears.

What is this majestic animal, you ask? The great grey elephant of course!

Featured in BL Harley 3244, the image on f. 39 hailed from a text by Peraldus written in Latin sometime closely after 1236. The elephant in this picture appears accurately sized and proportioned, unlike those in the other images.

Also known as the Barrus and Olifant, the medieval elephant was a sight to behold. First noted in English history in 1255, an elephant was presented to King Henry III by King Louis of France. Henry of Florence became the keeper of the elephant, and it lived happily—or probably not so happily—in the Tower of London. Like many tower prisoners, the elephant unfortunately died after four years in captivity. Clearly, elephants were much more up to the task of fighting dragons and carrying around castles than being observed by the king’s curious subjects.

In actuality, elephants really were used in combat.

Folio 11v of BL Royal 12 X III (see the companion image at the top of the post) shows a skirmish between men on an elephant and men on horseback. Unrealistically, the horses appear much larger than the elephant in this English bestiary written in Latin and French.

According to the thirteenth-century British Library MS Harley 3244, elephants were once dubbed Lucanian oxen by the Romans when they met King Pyrrhus in battle in “the year of the City 472.” Persian and Indian warriors were said to construct wooden towers on the backs of these great beasts and fight with tactics normally reserved for a tower wall. As a more rational example, Aelian describes military elephants that carried “three fighting men on a cuirass, or even on [their] bare [backs], one fighting on the right, another on the left, while the third faces to the rear” (Druce).

Today, CGI fighting mûmakil, (Colloquially “oliphaunts”) appear in The Return of the King, a movie inspired by Tolkien’s work of the same name. Possibly more reminiscent of the mythical construction which could fight dragons and live up to 300 years, the Middle Earth oliphaunt is utilized by the men from the East (see Persian and Indian influence) as they engage in battle with the “good guys” of Middle Earth.

Written as a mythology for England, maybe Tolkien’s work really does ring true. If the elephants of today are merely the smaller, sweeter descendants of the Middle Earth oliphaunts, it is quite possible that the medieval bestiary’s description isn’t quite so far from the truth.

Angela Lake
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Druce, George C. “The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art.” Archaeological Journal 76 (1919): 1-73.

This post is one of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.