04 June, 2007

Old English Riddles - a thousand years of double entendre

“I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”

(Answer at the foot of the post.)

This is Riddle 23 from the Exeter Book, also known as the Exeter Codex. The word ‘riddle’ derives from the same root as the Old English word ‘-raed’, meaning ‘counsel, explain, teach’. A riddle is typically a short poem describing a familiar object or activity in a cryptic way, and the listener (or reader, after they came to be written down) has to work out what is being described. They can be clever, witty, poetic, beautiful, almost mystical. As this one shows, they can also display a bawdy sense of humour. Seven of the Exeter Book Riddles are of the same form as Riddle 23.

English/British humour seems to be uncommonly fond of the risque double meaning. It’s a staple of seaside postcards, Carry On films, Frankie Howerd scripts, and innumerable other sitcoms, not to mention Shakespeare (“Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not Juliet?”). In English, it seems, any entendre can be double’d. It’s rather nice to see proof that this hasn’t changed in a thousand years. Incidentally, is this a characteristically British form of humour? I don’t associate it with US humour, but that may reflect the US material we see over here. Would any American readers care to comment?

The Exeter Book is believed to be the “…one large book in English verse about various subjects” which was bequeathed to the Exeter Cathedral Library by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, in 1072 and survives in Exeter Cathedral Library to this day. The date of its composition is not known, though it’s usually ascribed to the second half of the tenth century, say around 960 or so. The Exeter Book contains a remarkable variety of Old English verse, religious and secular, including The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Husband’s Message, The Wife’s Lament, Widsith and, of course, the Riddles.

To me, the Exeter Book Riddles show early English culture in an attractive light. Clearly these were people who liked jokes as well as elegies, who valued mundane tasks as well as heroes, and who enjoyed intelligent word games but weren’t above a vulgar belly laugh. It’s worth remembering that the Exeter Book was a gift from a bishop to his cathedral library, presumably expected to be read mainly by monks and other clerics. Evidently at least one senior churchman of the time was no prim killjoy.

Do you have a favourite riddle?

Answer: an onion. Whatever were you thinking?


Anonymous said...

I have a very poor memory so I forget anything as soon as I hear it. However, my long-term memory is somewhat better, so I can remember the Beatrix Potter/Squirrel Nutkin riddle, which must have been ancient even then:
"A hill full, a hole full
You cannot fill a bowl full".

Answer: mist.
It was one of Squirrel N's taunts of the wise old owl, before the owl taught SN the hard way to have more respect.

Rick said...

You may be right about English humor - I don't think double entendres are nearly as much the stock in trade in our humor.

Nice point on the picture the riddles paint. There's a stereotype that the "Anglo-Saxons" just Weren't Much Fun - that the men all sat in halls, crying in their beer as a scop sang about Beowulf or Maldon, while the women all kept out of sight. Which doesn't seem much like the later English.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

The Butter Churn Riddle from the Exeter book is very similar in double entendre and one of my favourites - probably because of my juvenile Brit senses of humour (I adore the Carry on Films etc too!). I have a copy somewhere, but can't immediately lay my hands on it (ooer missus!) Looking up an old copy of Regia Anglorum's newsletter, I noticed an article on riddles that says they are 'a glorified version of that old Northern European favourite, the "Kenning" i.e. descriptive phrases, often highly formulated, used for every day items. For example the sea becomes the 'swan's road' or the 'whale's way.'....Riddles are an expansion of this idea, describing objects in an unusual way, often describing the object's uses too.'
I loved the riddling scene in Tolkien's The Hobbit - I think it must have been loosely based on some of the Exeter material.
There's a terrific book on the folklore of Medieval Europe, with a discussion of the tradition of riddles. It's called The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World by Malcolm Jones, published by Sutton. There are explanations of many humorous obscurities that have since been forgotten.
I think that the Victorians have a lot to answer for in sanitising many of our nursery rhymes - many of which were anything but fodder for small children!

Carla said...

Maxine - I'd forgotten that one, thanks for the reminder! It's similar to Bilbo and Gollum's riddles in The Hobbit, as mentioned by Elizabeth, and I'm sure it belongs to a very, very old tradition.

Rick - exactly, and I don't think that image was much like the early English either. Where on earth did it come from?

Elizabeth - yes, I like the butter churn riddle too. And the one about the dough (!). Don't you think Frankie Howerd and Sid James would have gone down a storm at the Exeter Palladium in 960? I think I'd go with Kevin Crossley-Holland's view that a kenning is a condensed riddle, though that's really saying much the same thing as a riddle being an extended kenning. Both forms reflect a delight in wordplay, and a sophisticated and articulate audience. I reckon Tolkien was drawing on the Exeter Book too, or perhaps more precisely he was drawing on the same tradition. He couldn't use the off-colour material in a respectable 1930s children's book, sadly (though I rather imagine it would have flummoxed poor lonely Gollum).

The Victorians have quite a lot to answer for (suspect they are responsible for the Not Much Fun image that Rick refers to). Astonishing in a way that Victorian culture still has so much influence. I suppose that's the power of mass education for the first time. I wonder if the Victorians altered what was considered suitable for small children (and for everybody else...). I guess earlier ages were much more relaxed about the content of nursery rhymes and much less uptight about what counted as 'rude'. Wonder if there was a playground subculture of juvenile rude lyrics in Victorian times that the adults either never knew about or were too shocked to write down?
Many thanks for the book recommendation!

Bernita said...

The modern riddle is where did my post go?
The Ornamented Shirt Riddle is also considered a double entendre of the same ilk.
I like the Horn riddle.

Carla said...

Bernita - Would you care to share the Ornamented Shirt riddle with us to save us looking it up?

Blogger is a riddle in its own right on some days. (Anyone care to try inventing a modern riddle or kenning for Blogger and its vagaries? Double entendre optional).

Bernita said...

"Oft a goodly damsel, a lady, locked me close in a chest. Sometimes with her hands she took me out and gave me to her lord, a fine chieftain, as he commanded her,
Then he thrust his head well inside me, up from below, into the narrow part.
If the strength prevailed of him who received me,
adorned as I was, something or other rough was due to fill me. Guess what I am.
(Baum translation)

Carla said...

Thanks, Bernita! Some people solve that one as 'helmet' instead.

Bernita said...

I suppose so, Carla.
I just picked the title used in Greenfield's "A Critical History of Old English Literature."

Rick said...

Carla - the Victorians among other things were really sharp and articulate, and they created vivid myths - like Vikings with horned helmets - that are hard to shake off.

But on the Anglo-Saxons, think about one almost-Victorian, Tolkien, who knew as much about them as anyone. If the hobbits are meant to be timelessly English, the Rohirrim were obviously inspired in part by the "Anglo-Saxons" - and they don't come off as especially fun-loving either. (Though Eowyn is neither silent nor invisible.)

Maybe, though, Tolkien just intends two sides of a coin here. There's a linguistic and cultural kinship between the hobbits and the Rohirrim, even though they're different races in the schema of Middle-Earth.

Carla said...

Bernita - many of the riddles don't have accepted solutions. It was very remiss of the scribe not to have put the answers at the back of the Exeter Book :-)

Rick - every age invents myths of the past to reflect its own preoccupations. I do wonder if the image of passive historical women has a lot to do with the Victorian ideal of the ornamental lady. In many primary sources the women are outnumbered by the men (reflecting the distribution of political and religious power), and they may be disapproved of by the chroniclers, but they aren't all silent or invisible. Eg Wealhtheow in Beowulf, Raedwald's unnamed queen in Bede, Empress Maud, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella the 'she-wolf', Margaret of Anjou...

To be fair to Tolkien's Rohirrim, we see them at a time of crisis. First their king is failing, then they're holed up in Helm's Deep facing an overwhelming invasion, then they're marching to the aid of a beleaguered ally, always against an enemy of vastly superior numbers. Not surprising if they didn't have much time or inclination for cracking jokes! I think I'd take your two sides of a coin theory. The fun-loving hobbits perhaps represent the farmer/craftsman side of AS culture, the side we see in the Riddles telling jokes about onions and churning butter. Also the side you see in the Norse myths that feature Thor as a figure of fun in drag. It's a different side to the heroic warrior culture in Beowulf, which the Rohirrim seem to have been modelled on. Maybe it's intended to reflect a (real or imagined) class difference, with the ceorl class cast as hobbits and the eorl class cast as Rohirric warriors.

Judith Weingarten said...

The ancient Greeks adored riddles too, but not (afaik) double entendres -- must check that. In i Zenobia, I used many playful, and often quite difficult, ones: she always solved them :-)



Visit Zenobia's new blog at Empress of the East

Carla said...

Hi Judith, and thanks for dropping by. The Riddle of the Sphinx must be one of the oldest riddle traditions recorded - I wonder if it's a tradition that originated in the easter Mediterranean and spread out, or if lots of cultures came up with it independently? I'm sure Zenobia was clever enough to deal with most riddles, and probably to set some fiendishly difficult ones too!

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Anne Gilbert said...

Hi. I know something about Old English riddles, and before I read your blog, I had read the "onion" riddle --- somewhere. Can't remember exactly where. Being American, the riddles I know are a lot less --- well, "racy". The only one I can think of offhand, is the one my daughter just loved when she was about 8. It goes like this:

"What's the difference between a coyote and a flea?

Answer: One howls on the prairie, the other prowls on the hairy". Not as sophisticated as the AS ones, but fun, nevertheless. I can just see people in AS times, on those long, cold, dark winter nights, entertaining themselves with these complex pieces! And I'm going to put a riddle or two in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece!

Anne Gilbert said...

I'd also like to add(because I forgot in the previous post), that there are some peoples in Africa who "do" a lot of riddles and proverbs, and some of them have a very similar "flavor" to the Anglo-Saxon ones. I guess great minds really do think alike!

Carla said...

Hello Anne and welcome. I'm sure riddle games were a popular pastime for people in all walks of life. The Exeter Book must have been very expensive to produce and as it was a gift to a cathedral library the compiler may well have chosen riddles at the sophisticated end of the range since he knew his audience was likely to be highly educated.
Do you have any examples of some of the African riddles?