The Bachelor-Warrior of Exeter Book Riddle 20

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The Exeter Book riddles occupy a unique place in Old English literary history. Whereas the subject matter of most of the extant verse derives from traditions of Christian Latinity and Germanic legend, many of the riddles refer us to the social body of Anglo-Saxon England. (1) A surprising variety of folk--English and Welsh, nobles and slaves, warriors and poets, farmers and farmers' daughters--inhabit the landscape of these poems. Of course, such "realism" is based on a highly symbolic rhetoric. The riddle subject is often a personified object that utters a lyrical self-representation--one that concludes, implicitly or explicitly, with the challenge: saga hwaet ic hatte, "say what I am called." Prosopopeia serves as a master trope which allows the poet to define the subject, and the world at large, from an exterior, decentered vantage point. It is left for us to decide whether the language of a given riddle represents an insubstantial fantasy of words, a complex set of concealments that disguise a simple, non-enigmatic solution, or whether this language reveals a subject, and a world, that is genuinely mysterious.

Riddle 20 has been solved as "sword," "hawk," and "phallus." (2) The hawk solution is unconvincing, (3) and although the sword and phallus solutions are each correct, scholars have yet to explain how and why this should be so. The riddle is not a double entendre. It is constructed in two parts, each of which supports one solution and disallows the other. The unifying principle, I will argue, lies on the subjective level: first as a sword and then as a phallus, the speaker represents himself throughout the poem as a bachelor-warrior. This is by no means merely a poetic conceit, since such men comprised a recognized class in Anglo-Saxon, as in later medieval England. Once we realize that the speaker's personified identity is consistent, the contradictions between the sexual and non-sexual solutions are resolved, even as they come into focus as the enigmatic premise of the poem. Whereas many Old English riddles hold out an illusion of subjectivity as a means to encrypt the identity of one or more non-human objects, Riddle 20 manages a compelling inversion of this strategy: here we are presented with the illusion of a sword that is also a phallus in order to explore the social and psychological predicament of a "real" human subject:

   Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, on gewin sceapen,
   frean minum leof, faegre gegyrwed.
   Byrne is min bleofag, swylce beorht seomad
   wir ymb pone waelgim pe me waldend geaf,
   se me widgalum wisad hwilum
   sylfum to sace. ponne ic sinc wege
   purh hlutterne daeg, hondweorc smipa,
   gold ofer geardas. Oft ic gaestberend
   cwelle compwaepnum. Cyning mec gyrwed
   since ond seolfre ond mec on sele weorpad;
   ne wyrned wordlofes, wisan maened
   mine for mengo, paer hy meodu drincad,
   healdep mec on heapore, hwilum laeted eft
   radwerigne on gerum sceacan,
   orlegfromne. Oft ic oprum scod
   frecne aet his freonde; fah eom ic wide,
   waepnum awyrged. Ic me wenan ne pearf
   paet me bearn wraece on bonan feore,
   gif me gromra hwylc gupe genaeged;
   ne weorped sio maegburg gemicledu
   eaforan minum pe ic aefter woc,
   nympe ic hlafordleas hweorfan mote
   from pam healdende pe me hringas geaf.
   Me bid ford witod, gif ic frean hyre,
   gupe fremme, swa ic gien dyde
   minum peodne on ponc, paet ic polian sceal
   bearngestreona, Ic wip bryde ne mot
   haemed habban, ac me paes hyhtplegan
   geno wyrned, se mec geara on
   bende legde; forpon ic brucan sceal
   on hagostealde haelepa gestreona.
   Oft ic wirum dol wife abelge,
   wonie hyre willan; heo me wom spreced,
   floced hyre folmum, firenap mec wordum,
   ungod gaeled. Ic ne gyme paes compes. (4)

[I am a mysterious being, created for (or: in) strife, dear to my lord, fairly adorned. My byrnie is multi-colored, likewise a bright wire-ornament rests about the death-gem that the ruler gave me, (5) he who directs me, wide-ranging, to battle. …