Open main menu

Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book/Quondam First Riddle

The Quondam First Riddle

This poem occupies the lower half of folio 100 b and the first lines of 101 a. It is preceded by miscellaneous poems and followed by the first batch of Riddles. As Riddles 1, 2, 3 invite the reader to solve them and this poem does not, as the structure of the poem is quite unlike that of the Riddles, it is rather strange that it should ever have been thought to be a riddle. This is the first edition of the Riddles in which this interesting interloper does not take its place with the poems which follow it in the Codex.

The text is as follows:

The meaning of āþecgan and dogode is unknown, earne may be from earu = quick, active, or from earh = cowardly. Wulf may be the name of some particular person, or perhaps means wolf. Þrēat sometimes means a throng, sometimes a calamity. Bōgum may mean with boughs, or with arms, and wīdlāstum may be either noun or adjective. The following translation must therefore be regarded as tentative:

To my people it is as if one should give them a gift;
They will oppress him if he comes into the throng
It is otherwise with us.
Wolf is on an island, I on another;
The island is firm, encompassed by marsh;
There are fierce men there on the island;
They will
(etc. as l. 2 above).
It is otherwise with us.
I waited
(?) for my Wolf with far-wandering longings;
Then it was rainy weather and I sat tearful,
When the man bold in war surrounded me with boughs:
It was joy for me so far, yet it was also pain.
Wolf, my Wolf, thy hopes
Have made me sick, thy rare visits
A grieving spirit, not at all want of food.
Dost thou hear, Eadwacer? Brisk cub of us two
Wolf bears to the wood.
Easily one tears asunder what was never united,
Our song together.


Leodnum is minum     swylce him mon lac gife
wallað hy hine aþecgan     gif he on þreat cymeð
ungelic is us
wulf is on iege     ic on oþerre
fæst is þæt eglond     fenne biworpen
sindon wælreowe     weras þær on ige
willað hy hine aþecgan     gif he on þreat cymeð
ungelice is us
wulfes ic mines widlastum     wenum dogode
þonne hit wæs renig weder     ic reotugu sæt
þonne mec se beaducafa     bogum bilegde
wæs me wyn to þon     wæs me hwæþre eac lað
wulf min wulf     wena me þine
seoce gedydon     þine seldcymas
murnende mod     nales meteliste
gehyrest þu eadwacer     uncerne earne hwelp
bireð wulf to wuda
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð     þætte næfre gesomnad wæs
uncer giedd geador

Ll. 16, 17 above are so punctuated as to give some intelligible meaning; but the meaning, and therefore the punctuation, is quite uncertain. “Bears” and “tears” may be future tense.

This poem being taken to be a Riddle, solutions had to be found for it. In 1857 Leo, by changing words, meanings, and grammar (lēodum to leoðum and so forth), arrived at this translation of lines 1, 2:

My limbs are as one assigns to them a meaning,
This they will reveal when the meaning gathers itself together.

That is to say that the parts of the riddle may receive different names, but when they are juxtaposed the true meaning will be apparent: the riddle is a charade. Leo then finds that cyn or cyne may be represented by cēne, by cœ̄n, or by cēn. And wæl(h)rēowe = cēne (bold); so too wuda = cēn (a torch) which is made of split wood. A woman speaks in this poem; woman = cwēn or in Northumbrian cœ̄n (a more than doubtful form). The word wulf occurs frequently in the poem. Let Eadwacer represent the vowel e, translate uncerne earne “of us two,” and lines 16, 17 by “Dost thou hear? A wolf bears Eadwacer, the child of us two, to the wood.” Nothing now remains to be proved: Cyn + e + wulf is the meaning gathered together. Mor ingenuity explains the islands as syllables, bōgum as whatever parts the syllables. The last lines signify that, as cēne and cœ̄n are different, they can easily be sundered.

Cynewulf’s authorship of this charade being then admitted by everyone, it was not strange that Dietrich should find that the Latin Riddle and the last Riddle referred to Cynewulf too.

In 1869 Rieger published a short re-reading of the quondam First Riddle with comments on Leo’s explanation. He retained lēodum mīnum, which he explained as cynn (observing that cynn is not cyne); he read cœ̄ne = cwēne instead of cœ̄n = cwēn. In short he agreed with Leo’s conclusion though disapproving of his phonology.

Trautmann in 1883 utterly rejected Leo’s text, translation, and explanation. He declared that there are no syllabic charades in Old English literature, and that Leo had made this one only by outrageous liberties with text and lexicon. Cynewulf belonged to the same class of names as Cyneheard and Cyneweard; Cyne- is the syllable seen in cyne-stōl. The long vowels in Cēnewulf, Cœ̄newulf would have no likeness, in the native and contemporary ear, to Cyne-. The explanations offered by Leo of the island passage are quite impossible, and those of line 16, 17 altogether too far-fetched. Leo’s solution is harder than the riddle, and it is time that it was done away with.

Trautmann’s own solution is Riddle, and he says that, just as there can be no doubt Leo is wrong, so there can be no doubt Trautmann is right. The wolf is the solver, the speaker is the riddle; being on different islands means that the solver cannot get at the riddle; the wæl(h)rēowe weras are other guessers. As the solver makes wandering guesses the riddle sits weeping, but she is both glad and sorry when she is embraced, that is, guessed. The rare visits of the solver are his rare good guesses. When the solver drags the whelp to the wood the riddle is solved. Trautmann makes no attempt to explain Eadwacer. Lines 18, 19 signify that the riddle and solution, never united, may easily be sundered; but the answer brings riddle and guesser together. The last Riddle he also solved as The Riddle.

At the time of its publication, Trautmann’s demolition of Leo’s work did not receive its fair share of consideration, since almost all scholars were too thoroughly committed to the Cynewulfian theory. The Riddle solution was almost unanimously rejected. Professor Henry Morley was then bringing out his English Writers; while accepting Trautmann’s destructive result, he rejected his constructive attempt, and suggested that the real solution was the Christian Preacher. A review of Morley’s second volume by Henry Bradley in the Academy for March 24, 1888, opened an entirely new chapter in the history of the poem. “I may as well state my own view, which is that the so-called riddle is not a riddle at all, but a fragment of a dramatic soliloquy, like Deor and The Wife’s Complaint, to the latter of which it bears, both in motive and in treatment, a strong resemblance.” The speaker is a woman—the grammar shows this—probably a captive in a foreign land, Wulf is her outlaw lover, Eadwacer is her “tyrant husband.” Bradley renders on þrēat cuman “come to want,” āþecgan “give food to,” earne “cowardly.”

Gollancz approved of Bradley’s theory, with modifications. Herzfeld adduced further considerations in its favour, taking lines 16 and 17 to mean that Wulf drags away as a hostage the child of Eadwacer and the lady, while she herself is held in custody by her husband.

In 1891 Sievers, with more thorough and accurate scholarship than Trautmann had displayed in 1883, denied the equivalence of cyni, cœ̄ni, , cwœ̄n (giving these normal Early Northumbrian forms). Cook in 1900 sums up thus: “Cynewulf’s name is not found in the First Riddle, which in all probability is not a riddle at all. Hence there is no ground for assuming that either Riddle 86 [the Latin riddle] or Riddle 89 [i.e. 93] is intended to denote Cynewulf. There is therefore nothing in any of the Riddles to indicate that Cynewulf was a wandering minstrel. Finally, the Riddles, on the best authority (Sievers), probably antedate Cynewulf.”

In 1902 a careful study of the poem was made by W. W. Lawrence and W. H. Schofield. Lawrence declared that the poem is a translation from Old Norse. Lines 3, 8, 17, 19 are very short, and hint at a strophic structure, as the repetition of lines 2 and 3 later in the poem appears to indicate a refrain. Some of the difficult phrases in the poem (on þrēat cymeð, tō þon) seem like Norse idioms. The alliteration is weak, as might be expected in a translation.

Schofield sought to connect the poem with Teutonic legend. He calls it ”Signy’s Lament,” and declares that it represents a phase of the Völsungasaga. Signy, the daughter of Volsung, has married Siggeir, who treacherously slays Volsung and all his sons except Siegmund, who escapes and lives in the forest. Siegmund and Signy plot to avenge the death of their father and brothers. Signy’s two sons by Siggeir are in turn tested by Siegmund, but failing courage are slain by him. But a boy born to Siegmund by Signy, and thus of Volsung blood on both sides, is bold enough to carry the revenge through. Signy dies with Siggeir, not caring for life as long as the task of the blood-feud is accomplished. (In after days Siegmund, with his son and nephew Sinfjötli, performed many exploits: their names were know to the English, see ll. 875 ff. of Bēowulf.) In our poem Signy speaks, hinting at her connection with Siegmund in ll. 11–12, the removal of her cowardly offspring in ll. 16 and 17, her loathed union with Siggeir in ll. 18 and 19. ‘Wulf’ is a word well applied to Siegmund both as outlaw and as head of the Wolfing clan. The crux is Eadwacer. Shofield supposes an Old Norse auðvakr = “the very vigilant one,” not a proper noun.

Bradley retorts that auðvakr is not Old Norse, but new American of Schofield’s own coinage, and finds Eadwacer a good English name borne by at least two historical Englishmen. Gollancz declares that Eadwacer is Odoacer (in the Hildebrandslied etc.), and that Wulf applies better to Theodoric than to Siegmund. In 1907 Imelmann elaborately connected our poem with the Odoacer cycle. It seems that Bradley’s view is the right one in essentials: the poem is the monologue of a woman bewailing her absent lover who is in danger. Whether it may be assigned to a Teutonic legend, and if so to which, there seems to be as yet no sufficient evidence to show.

It will be seen (section on Authorship) that Tupper in his edition of the Riddles (1910) denied Cynewulf’s authorship; he also gave a general adhesion to the views expressed above. “The First Riddle is thus unquestionably a lyrical monologue,” he wrote.

By the end of the year (see Modern Language Notes, December, 1910) he had made a complete volte-face: “Now all is changed.” He revived, with the utmost confidence, the theory that the quondam First Riddle is a cryptogram, giving the name of Cynewulf in the form Cynwulf (as in the Crist and the Fates of the Apostles). Apparently the quodnam First Riddle is a combination of acrostic and charade after “the Icelandic method.” Runes are employed, not the runes themselves but their names, or if not their names synonyms for their names, with a little further rectification when necessary. Everything means something else. The first word, Lēodum = Cyn; two or three other words also = Cyn. In l. 5 ēg- = ēa (which is not true) = Lagu, the name of the L-rune. In l. 11 bōg = boga (which is not true) = Yr, one name for the Y-rune. The letters L and Y, essential to the acrostic, are given in this way only. The student must be referred to Tupper’s article. But a few things have to be said. The Icelandic rīmur, here supposed to be imitated, are as dreary as Chaos, but they are consistent. They pursue one method consistently. As Tupper says, “In the Icelandic rīmur the synonyms of the runes fill the text to the exclusion of other ideas.” The first line, “It is for my people as if one should give them treasure,” might, on the Icelandic method, stand for the word king. Tupper admits that there is no attempt at anything of the kind in the English. That is to say, we are asked to believe that the sole and solitary instance (for that we offer humble thanks) in our language of a charade and acrostic imitated from the Icelandic departs completely from the traditional method. Then who could possibly know how to interpret it? Even the ingenious, original Cynewulf had to be intelligible. Lēodum is interpreted Cyn; but Tupper gives no example of a riddle or acrostic in Icelandic or Latin, where the hidden word is not defined but has to be guessed from a case of a similar word. In the Icelandic, every line has a pointed reference, in one way or another, to the hidden meaning: what point is there in our refrain, ‘Ungelīc is ūs’? Lastly, Cynewulf’s other signatures are not particularly difficult to read; why should he have made this riddle undecipherable, one would imagine, even to a man of his own day?

It must be added that Tupper proceeds to restore the great majority of the riddles to Cynewulf. “The proper interpretation of the ‘Cynewulf’ cryptogram shifts the burden of proof to the shoulders of him who endeavours to show that this collection of poems, in the main homogeneous, was not (with a few exceptions) the work of Cynewulf. … The undoubted variations in metre, language and style from the usage in the generally accepted poems of Cynewulf are after all too slight to avail against the explicit evidence of the First Riddle.”