Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Wisdom Poetry in the Exeter Book Riddles

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Wisdom Poetry in the Exeter Book Riddles

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The paper investigates the parallels between the Old English wisdom poetry and a group of riddles contained in the Exeter Book. Although the riddle form in general as well as the Anglo-Saxon riddles in particular can he identified with broadly understood didactic functions, several of the Exeter riddles appear to be especially interested in the nature of wisdom and in the intellectual game of wits ensuing from it. Moreover, the associations with Anglo-Saxon wisdom literature are not exclusively present on the thematic level of the riddles, but they are also evident on other levels of signification, operating in relation to the entire collection. The Old English riddles, therefore, are not only examples of wisdom literature themselves, but they may also be seen as the evidence for the lack of rigid discrimination between riddles and other, seemingly non-riddlic, poems. What is more, the riddlic element seems to be one of the formative factors among the Old English wisdom literature.

Frige mec frodum wordum. Ne laet binne fero onhaelne,

degol baet bu deopost cunne. Nelle ic be min dyrne gesecgan

gif bu me binne hygecraeft hylest ond bine heortan gebohtas.

Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan.

[Question me with wise words. Do not let your mind be hidden or keep the secret that you know most profoundly. I will not tell you my secrets if you hide the wise craft of your mind and your heart's thoughts. Wise men should exchange wise sayings (riddles).] (1)

"Maxims I (A)", The Exeter Book, 10th/11th c.

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Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixian, says the anonymous author of the Exeter Book "Maxims". 'Wise men should exchange...' gieddum, understood most often as 'wise sayings', although throughout the Old English corpus this word has also been found to denote the concepts whose scope ranges from wisdom and poetry, song and proverb to riddle. Thus this short line directs us to the curious interdependency of all these items in Old English literary heritage, to the fact that the categories superimposed by nineteenth and twentieth century critics are frequently blurred when applied to a particular text. The intention of this paper is to provide some insight into the parallels between the Old English wisdom poetry and the Old English riddle, as well as into a group of gnomic riddles contained in the Exeter Book. I shall attempt to prove that although the riddle form in general as well as the Anglo-Saxon riddles in particular can be identified with broadly understood didactic functions, several of the Exeter riddles appe ar to be especially interested in the nature of wisdom and in the intellectual game of wits ensuing from this interest. Moreover, I intend to demonstrate that the associations with Anglo-Saxon wisdom literature displayed by the riddles are not exclusively present on their thematic level. They are also evident on other levels of signification, operating in relation to the entire Exeter Book collection, not the least of them being the etymologies of the terms denoting riddles in Old English. Therefore the unifying thesis of this paper proposes to look at the Old English riddles as not only examples of wisdom literature themselves, but also as the evidence for the lack of rigid discrimination between riddles and other, seemingly non-riddlic, poems in Anglo-Saxon literature.

Indeed, although the association of wisdom with the riddle form does not strike us now as particularly obvious, it is beyond doubt that the structures which we nowadays predominantly connect with the sphere of childish play originated from a highly utilitarian proto-literature. To a large extent, they were concerned with transmitting and concealing the sacred, the wisdom inaccessible to those unable to decode it. Regardless of the culture in which they were created, riddles, by their very character, are concerned with a subtle game of hiding and unveiling their content. …

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