Riddles In Literature: Old English Riddle

Term Paper, 2006

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background

3. Old English as a Language

4. Riddles in the Book of Exeter
4.1. Historical Context
4.2. Linguistic and Literary Aspects
4.3. Didactic Purpose

5. Influence of Old English Riddles on Modern Literature

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Riddles and rhymes are very common in English speaking countries; they are even part of oral lore among children and students. True riddles or punning ones with a word of two uses are very popular, i.e. “What runs but never walks? – A river.”1 Although they are regarded as special forms funny puzzles, enigmas and sayings were also an important element of poetic diction throughout the history of literature. Old English prose and verse are considered to be the oldest literature written in vernacular, although Latin and Germanic influence is apparent in the Old English language. During the Anglo-Saxon Period and especially under Alfred, King of Wessex, Old English language and poetry reached its highpoint. At this time the clergy was considered as the intellectual elite and so poetry was composed in monasteries and the so called “writing-rooms”.

The surviving manuscripts include heroic, elegiac and religious elements, as in the Beowulf poem, The Seafarer and The Dream of the Rood. Old English riddles can be found in The Book of Exeter anthology. The collection includes about ninety riddles with heroic, religious and philosophical elements. This special form of poetic diction provides characteristic stylistic devices like alliterative verse and kenning. Besides that, the enigmas had a didactic purpose, as they were intended for religious and linguistic learning at the monastery schools.

2. Historical Background: The Anglo-Saxon Period

(ca. 440-1066 AD)

In order to understand the context of Old English (OE) Riddles it is necessary to recapitulate the period of Germanic settlers and later Christianization of Britain, since these historical incidents shaped OE language and poetry. There are only a few sources for the fifth and sixth centuries, because “[…] the Germanic peoples were illiterate during their first two centuries in Britain.”2 There are no exact dates available and so years can only be estimated. The most reliable sources are the monk Bede, the first English historian, who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,“[…] which give a year-by-year summary of events in the southern English kingdoms.”3 “From the 430s onwards […] Germanic settlers arrived in large numbers” at the British Isles.4 The Germanic invaders came from Saxon, Angles and Jutes tribes and “[…] belonged to the same broad culture as southern Scandinavia, Germany and northern France.”5 They brought with them their own language, cultural habits, i.e. warrior traditions and beliefs. Their paganism was defined by their principle gods Tiw, Woden and Thor, which can be recognised in the day-names Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.6 They drove the “Christianized Celtic inhabitants of Britain westwards […]” to Wales and northwards to Scotland. In the late sixth century the process of re-Christianization began and Celtic monks started missionary work in Scotland. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury led the mission in the south, which was initiated by Pope Gregory the Great in 596 AD.7 The Catholic clergy replaced the runic alphabet of the Germanic tribes with Roman letters.

The runic letters were not a completely developed written language, the Germanic sagas and stories normally were traded orally:

“Literacy in early England may well have been limited to those in holy orders, but literature in a broader oral form appears to have remained a more general possession.” 8

At this time Latin was the language of nearly all written literature and the clergy was considered as the intellectual elite. Christian culture and education found its way into society through this medium and “[…] a highly distinguished pattern of teaching and scholarship was steadily developed at English monastic and cathedral schools […] “9

In the ninth century, during a period of devastating Vikings raids and under the reign of Alfred, King of Wessex10, Old English language and poetry reached its highpoint:

“From this period date the four most significant surviving volumes of Old English verse, the so-called Junius manuscript, the Beowulf manuscript, the Vercelli book, and the Exeter Book. These collections were almost certainly the products of monastic scriptoria (writing-rooms) […].”11

The poems and riddles show the apparent coexistence of Germanic heroic myths and Christian faith. One the one hand there are famous sagas such as Beowulf, the “fantastic folktale” about adventures of a Germanic warrior, composed between the eight and eleventh centuries.12 On the other hand there is Christian inspired literature, i.e. The Dream of the Rood, a poem of the Vercelli Book in which Christ is portrayed as human being and saviour.13 Unfortunately the Norman conquest in 1066 put an end to the Anglo-Saxon era and OE poetry. However the surviving works allow us to study the structure of written OE language and literature.


1 Iona and Peter Opie . “Riddles”. The Lore And Language Of Schoolchildren, Ed.

Marina Warner. (New York: New York Review of Books, 2001), 73-86, 79.

2 John Blair. “The Anglo-Saxon Period. (c. 440-1066)“. The Oxford History Of

Britain, Ed. Kenneth O. Morgan. (Oxford: OUP, 2001), 61.

3 Ibid., 60.

4 Ibid., 61.

5 Ibid., 63.

6 Ibid., 64.

7 Andrew Sanders. “Old English Literature”. The Short Oxford History Of Literature, Second Edition, (Oxford: OUP, 2000), 17.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Riddles In Literature: Old English Riddle
University of Kassel  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
506 KB
Riddles, Literature, English, Riddle
Quote paper
Katharina Fischer (Author), 2006, Riddles In Literature: Old English Riddle, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/83584


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Riddles In Literature: Old English Riddle

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free