Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Two New Answers to Riddle 86

Translated by Jonathan Wilcox:
Riddle 86 in the Exeter Book is unusually difficult to solve.

With cwom gongan, þær weras sæton
monige on mædle mode snottre
hæfde an eage ond earan twa
ond twegen fet, twelf hund heafda
hrycg ond wombe ond honda twa
earmas ond eaxle, anne sweoran
ond sidan twa. Saga hwæt ic hatte.

[A creature came walking where men sat, many in an assembly, wise in mind; it had one eye and two ears, and two feet, twelve hundred heads, a back and a belly and two hands, arms and shoulders, one neck and two sides. Say what it is called.]
Wilcox goes on:
the survival of a partly analogous Latin riddle has made possible a solution to the puzzle posed in riddle 86. Symphosius composed in the fifth century a sequence of one hundred three-line Latin enigmata, three of which serve as sources for the Exeter Book riddles. Symphosius's enigma 95, Luscus alium vendens, can be translated as follows:
Now may you see what you scarcely may believe: one eye within, but many thousand heads. Whence shall he, who sells what he has, procure what he has not?
This is less teasing than the Old English riddle: it contains more clues and is, in any case, entitled with the answer, "One-Eyed Seller of Garlic." Since the Old English riddle contains the same paradox, albeit in more bewildering form, this same answer has been universally (and gratefully) accepted by modern editors and commentators ever since the discovery of the analogy by Dietrich."
Wilcox is surely right, though, that 'nevertheless, riddle 86 clearly cheats on the conventions of a riddle. Obliquely described elements should add up to a recognizable object, whereas the object assembled here is arbitrary and unusual. The text violates the rule that a riddle "is potentially solvable from the information included in the question if the riddlee is able to determine the witty devices for confusion employed to frame the riddle" -- [this is part of the definition of riddles proposed by W. J. Pepicello and Thomas A. Green, The Language of Riddles: New Perspectives (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984), 88]. Wilcox thinks the riddle all chaff; the answer ('say what I am') being 'riddler' (he compares the 'As I Was Going To Saint Ives' rhyme).

Here are two possible other solutions. We could follow a similar logic to Wilcox and ask: what does hæfde modify? Does 'it had' refer back to the creature, or the assembly? The latter, after all, may have 1200 heads, but act with one willl, speak with one voice and so on.  Another possibility is that the riddle quibbles on 'twelve hundred heads' and 'twelve hund, or 'dog', heads'; and that the body parts are not to be assembled, but rather to be understood as dissociated -- the creature having been torn apart by the pack of dogs, and carried severally between them.

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