9-3 | Riddle Hero


Riddle Hero
Play and Poetry in the Exeter Book Riddles

Andrew Higl


The author discusses the Exeter Book riddles, some of the earliest poems in English, specifically Old English, as perfect examples of how play and poetry intersect. Their playfulness, he claims, is most apparent in the original manuscript, but notes that few modern readers read Old English. The orthography of the manuscript also helps to make the play of the poems more obscure. Moreover, contemporary readers nearly always encounter the riddles in modern editions and with modern English translations, and editors and translators often provide the riddles with clear divisions and interpretive notes. They sometimes offer their own solutions to the riddles (although the actual manuscript provides no explanation for them). All of which leads to
a different and less playful experience for readers of the riddles. The author explores what it means to play the riddles in their original context, making the individual reader the riddle hero (hæleþ) whom the text calls on to construct playful worlds of imagination and language. He examines how the Old English riddles demand to be played and how they oscillate playfully
between the mundane, the sacred, and the obscene. Key words: Beowulf and play; Old English poetry; riddles and play in poetry