Read an Excerpt
The Exeter Book Riddles
By Kevin Crossley-Holland
Enitharmon PressCopyright © 2008 Kevin Crossley-Holland
All rights reserved.
Who is so clever and quick-witted
as to guess who goads me on my journey
when I get up, angry, at times awesome;
when I roar loudly and rampage over the land,
sometimes causing havoc; when I burn houses
and ransack palaces? Smoke rises,
ashen over roofs. There is a din on earth,
men die sudden deaths when I shake the forest,
the flourishing trees, and fell timber –
I with my roof of water, an avenger
driven far and wide by the powers above;
I carry on my back what once covered
every man, body and soul submerged
together in the water. Say what conceals me
or what I, who bear this burden, am called.
Sometimes I plunge through the press of waves,
surprising men, delving to the earth,
the ocean bed. The waters ferment,
sea-horses foaming ?
The whale-mere roars, fiercely rages,
waves beat upon the shore; stones
and sand, seaweed and saltspray, are flung
against the dunes when, wrestling
far beneath the waves, I disturb the earth,
the vast depths of the sea. Nor can I escape
my ocean bed before he permits me who is my pilot
on every journey. Tell me, wise man:
who separates me from the sea's embrace,
when the waters become quiet once more,
the waves calm which before had covered me?
Sometimes my Lord corners me;
then He imprisons all that I am
under fertile fields – He frustrates me,
condemns me in my might to darkness,
casts me into a cave where my warden, earth,
sits on my back. I cannot break out
of that dungeon, but I shake halls
and houses; the gabled homes of men
tremble and totter; walls quake,
then overhang. Air floats above earth,
and the face of the ocean seems still
until I burst out from my cramped cell
at my Lord's bidding, He who in anger
buried me before, so shackled me that I
could not escape my Guardian, my Guide.
Sometimes I swoop to whip up waves, rouse
the water, drive the flintgrey rollers
to the shore. Spuming crests crash
against the cliff, dark precipice looming
over deep water; a second tide,
a sombre flood, follows the first;
together they fret against the sheer face,
the rocky coast. Then the ship is filled
with the yells of sailors; the cliffs quietly
abide the ocean's froth and fury,
lashing waves, racing rollers
that smash against stone. The ship must face
a savage battle, a bitter struggle,
if the sea so buffets it and its cargo
of souls that it is no longer under control
but, fighting for life, rides foaming
on the spines of breakers. There men see
the terror I must obey when I bluster
on my way. Who shall restrain it?
At times I rush through the dark clouds
that ride me, churn the sea into a frenzy,
then afterwards let the water subside.
When one cloud collides with another,
edge against sharp edge, the din
of destruction, a mighty noise, echoes
above the dwellings of men; dark bodies,
hastening, breathe fire overhead,
flashing lightning; thunderous crashes
shake the sky, then growl darkly.
The clouds do combat, dark drops
fall, rustling rain from their wombs.
A fear-tide flows in the hearts of men,
a growing terror – strongholds succumb
to dread – when that ghastly troop goes
on the rampage, and shrithing evil spirits,
spurting flames, shoot sharp weapons.
A fool is unafraid of the death-spears,
but for all that he will die
if the true Lord lets fly the arrow,
a whistling weapon, straight through rain
from the whirlwind above. Few men
survive if they are struck by lightning.
I am the origin of all that strife,
when I rush through the concourse of clouds,
surge forward with great strength, and fly
over the face of the water. Troops on high
clash noisily; then, afterwards,
under cover of night, I sink to earth,
and carry off some burden on my back,
renewed once more by my Lord's power.
I am a mighty servant: sometimes
I fight, sometimes wait under the earth;
at times I swoop and sink under water,
at times whip up waves from above;
sometimes I rise, stir up trouble
amongst scudding clouds; swift and savage,
I travel widely. Tell me my name,
and Who it is rouses me from my rest,
or Who restrains me when I remain silent.
Ring me, they ring me. I work long hours
and must readily obey my master,
break my rest, and loudly proclaim
that my guardian gave me a halter.
A man or a woman, weary and bleary,
has often called on me; winter-cold
I answer them, surly as they are. Sometimes
a warm limb looses the bound ring.
But it delights my master, a dull sort
of man, and satisfies me into the bargain,
if anyone can fathom and solve my riddle.
I'm by nature solitary, scarred by iron
and wounded by sword, weary of battle.
I often see the face of war, and fight
hateful enemies; yet I hold no hope
of help being brought to me in battle
before I'm cut to pieces and perish.
At the city wall sharp-edged swords,
skilfully forged in the flame by smiths,
bite deeply into me. I must await
a more fearsome encounter; it is not for me
to find a physician on the battlefield,
one of those men who heals wounds with herbs.
My sword wounds gape wide and wider;
death blows are dealt me by day and by night.
Christ, the true giver of victories,
created me for combat. When my lord
urges me to fight, I often scorch mortals;
I approach the earth and, without a touch,
afflict a huge host of people.
At times I gladden the minds of men,
keeping my distance I console those
whom I fought before; they feel my kindness
as they once felt my fire when,
after such suffering, I soothe their lives.
Silent is my dress when I step across the earth,
reside in my house, or ruffle the waters.
Sometimes my adornments and this high windy air
lift me over the livings of men,
the power of the clouds carries me far
over all people. My white pinions
resound very loudly, ring with a melody,
sing out clearly, when I sleep not on
the soil or settle on grey waters – a travelling spirit.
I've one mouth but many voices;
I dissemble and often change my tune;
I declaim my deathless melodies
and don't refrain from my refrain.
Aged evening-songster, I entertain
men in their homes by rehearsing
my whole repertoire; they sit, bowed down,
quiet in their houses. Guess my name,
I who mimic the jester's japes
as loudly as I can, and rejoice men
with choicest songs in various voices.
In former days my mother and father
forsook me for dead, for the fullness of life
was not yet within me. But a kinswoman
graciously fitted me out in soft garments,
as kind to me as to her own children,
tended and took me under her wing;
until under shelter, unlike her kin,
I matured as a mighty bird (as was my fate).
My guardian then fed me until I could fly
and wander more widely on my
excursions; she had the less of her own
sons and daughters by what she did thus.
My beak was bound and I was immersed,
the current swept round me as I lay covered
by mountain streams; I matured in the sea,
above the milling waves, my body
locked to a stray, floating spar.
When, in black garments, I left wave
and wood, I was full of life;
some of my clothing was white
when the tides of air lifted me,
the wind from the wave, then carried me far
over the seal's bath. Say what I am called.
My garb is ashen and in my garments
bright jewels, garnet-coloured, gleam.
I mislead muddlers, despatch the thoughtless
on fool's errands, and thwart cautious men
on their useful journeys. I can't think
why, addled and led astray, robbed
of their senses, men praise my ways
to everyone. Woe betide addicts
when they bring the dearest of hoards on high
unless they've foregone their foolish habits.
I travel by foot, trample the ground,
the green fields, for as long as I live.
Lifeless, I fetter dark Welshmen,
sometimes their betters too. At times
I give a warrior liquor from within me,
at times a stately bride steps on me;
sometimes a slave-girl, raven-haired,
brought far from Wales, cradles and presses me –
some stupid, sozzled maidservant fills me
with water on dark nights, warms me
by the gleaming fire; on my breast
she places a wanton hand and writhes about,
then sweeps me against her dark declivity.
What am I called who, alive, lay waste
the land and, dead, serve humankind?
I saw ten in all, roaming the greensward,
six brothers strutting with their sisters;
they had living spirits. A garment of skin –
there was no mistaking it – hung on the wall
of each one's house. And none were worse off,
nor their movements more painful, though
they must gnaw at the grey-green shoots,
robbed of their garments, roused by the might
of the guardian of heaven. New clothing
is furnished for those who before walked out
naked; they scatter and roam over the land.
I was once a warrior's weapon.
Now a noble young retainer
dresses me in threads of twisted gold
and silver. At times men kiss me,
at times I summon close friends
to do battle; a horse sometimes bears me
over the earth, sea-horses sometimes
sweep me, gleaming, over the ocean;
now and then a maiden, ring-adorned,
replenishes my paunch. I must lie on planks
at times, plundered, hard and headless;
often, gold-garbed, I hang on the wall
above drinking warriors, a splendid sight,
instrument of war. Covered in riches,
I draw in breath from a brave man's lungs
when retainers ride towards battle.
At times I tell proud warriors
that wine is served; at times rally them,
save booty from hostile men, drive off
the enemy. Now ask me my name.
Whereas my neck is white, my head
and sides are brown; I move swiftly
and bear a battle-weapon; hair covers my back
and my cheeks as well; two ears tower high
above my eyes. I step on my toes through
the green grass. Grief is ordained for me
if any fierce creature should catch me
in my hole where I have my house and children;
should I stay there with my offspring
after this guest comes knocking
at my door, they are doomed to die.
I must bravely carry my infants
far from our house, and save them by flight,
if that creature still follows me.
He advances on his breast. I dare not await him
in my hole ? that were not a wise plan at all.
I must burrow through the steep hillside
with my two forefeet as fast as I can.
I can save the lives of my loved ones
with ease, once I've guided them out
by a secret way through a hole in the hill.
Then, if it comes to blows and battle,
I feel no fear of this murderous foe.
If he still gives me chase
through that narrow hole I've just made in the hill,
I will not fail to fight him fiercely.
Once I've tunnelled my way to the top,
I will angrily batter my enemy,
that hateful foe from whom I long fled.
I must fight with the waves whipped up by the wind,
grapple alone with their force combined,
when I dive to earth under the sea.
My own country is unknown to me.
If I can stay still, I'm strong in the fray;
If not, their might is greater than mine,
they'll break me in fragments and put me to flight,
meaning to wreck what I must protect.
I can foil them if my fins are not frail,
and the rocks hold firm against my force.
You know my nature, now guess my name.
Confined by a wire fence, and filled
with princely treasures, I'm the bulwark
of my people. Many is the morning
I spew spear-terror; the more I'm fed,
the greater my strength. My guardian watches
how darts whistle out of my belly.
At times I almost swallow the burnished
dark bolts, the baleful weapons,
searing poisoned spears, esteemed by warriors.
Men remember what issues from my mouth.
I'm a strange creature, shaped for a scrap,
dear to my lord, finely decorated.
My clothing is motley and bright metal threads
mount the deadly jewel my master
gave me – the man who at times involves me
in a fight. I carry treasure then,
the handiwork of smiths, gold in the court,
all the clear day. I often despatch
well-armed warriors. A king enriches me
with silver and precious stones, honours me
in the hall; he doesn't stint but sings my praises
to the gathering – men swigging mead;
at times he holds me in reserve, at times
sets me free, travel-weary, eager
in the fray. Often I put friend
at the throats of friends; I'm widely reviled,
the most accursed of weapons. If a cruel warrior
should assault me in battle, I cannot hope
for a son to avenge me on my slayer;
nor will the family from which I sprang
be increased through children of mine
unless, lordless, I have to leave
the guardian who once gave me rings.
If I follow a warrior and fight on his behalf,
as I've done before for my master's satisfaction,
I must forego, as fate wills, the chance
to father children. I cannot lie
with a woman, but the same man who once
bound me with a belt denies me now
the rapture of loveplay; I must enjoy
the treasure of heroes single and celibate.
Tricked out with metal threads, I often
irritate and frustrate some woman; she insults me,
smacks her hands and runs me down,
yells abuses. This is not my kind of contest ?
I keep my snout to the ground; I burrow
deep into the earth, and churn it as I go,
guided by the grey foe of the forest
and by my lord, my stooping owner
who steps behind me; he drives me
over the field, supports and pushes me,
broadcasts in my wake. Brought from the wood,
borne on a waggon, then skilfully bound,
I travel onward; I have many scars.
There's green on one flank wherever I go,
on the other my tracks – black, unmistakable.
A sharp weapon, rammed through my spine,
hangs beneath me; another, on my head,
firm and pointing forward, falls on one side
so I can tear the earth with my teeth
if my lord, behind me, serves me rightly.
Sixty men in company came
riding down to the estuary. Eleven
of those mounted men had horses
of peace, and four had pale grey horses.
The warriors could not cross the water
as they wished for the channel was too deep,
the shelf too abrupt, the current too strong,
the choppy waves thronging. Then the men
and their horses climbed on to a waggon – a burden
under the cross-bar; and then a single horse
hauled those proud spear-warriors with their steeds,
dragged the waggon right across the estuary,
although no ox, nor carthorse, nor muscular men
dragged it with him; and he did not swim,
nor wade because of his guests' weight,
nor muddy the water, nor ride on the wind,
nor double back. Rather, he carried
the warriors and their horses across the creek
from the steep bank, the staithe, so that they
stepped up bravely on the opposite side,
men and their mounts unscathed by water.
Wob is my name, if you work it out;
I'm a fair creature fashioned for battle.
When I bend, and shoot a deadly shaft
from my stomach, I'm very eager
to send that evil as far away as I can.
When my lord (he thought up this torment)
releases my limbs, I become longer
and, bent upon slaughter, spit out
that deadly poison I swallowed before.
No man's parted easily from the object
I describe; if what flies from my stomach
strikes him, he pays for its poison
with his strength – speedy atonement for his life.
I'll serve no master when unstrung, only when
I'm cunningly notched. Now guess my name.
I'm a strange creature with various voices:
I can bark like a dog, bleat like a goat,
honk like a goose, shriek like a hawk,
at times I mimic the ashen eagle,
the battle-bird's cry; the vulture's croak
trips off my tongue, and the mew of the seagull,
as I sit here, saucily. G suggests
my name, and Æ, R and O assist it,
so do H and I. I'm called
what these six characters clearly spell out.
I'm a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
a service to the neighbours! No one suffers
at my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in a bed,
I'm hairy underneath. From time to time
a good-looking girl, the doughty daughter
of some churl, dares to hold me,
grips my russet skin, robs me of my head
and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
with plaited hair who has confined me
remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.
An enemy ended my life, took away
my bodily strength; then he dipped me
in water and drew me out again,
and put me in the sun where I soon shed
all my hair. The knife's sharp edge
bit into me once my blemishes had been scraped
fingers folded me and the bird's feather
often moved across my brown surface,
sprinkling useful drops; it swallowed the wood-dye
(part of the stream) and again travelled over me,
leaving black tracks. Then a man bound me,
he stretched skin over me and adorned me
with gold; thus I am enriched by the wondrous work
of smiths, wound about with shining metal.
Now my clasp and my red dye
and these glorious adornments bring fame far and
to the Protector of Men, and not to the pains of hell.
If the sons of men would make use of me
they would be safer and more sure of victory,
their hearts would be bolder, their minds more at
their thoughts wiser; they would have more friends,
companions and kinsmen (true and honourable,
brave and kind) who would gladly increase
their honour and prosperity, and heap
benefits upon them, holding them fast
in love's embraces. Ask what I am called,
of such use to men. My name is famous,
of service to men and sacred in itself.
Favoured by men, I am found far and wide,
taken from woods and the heights of the town,
from the downs and the dales. During each day
corbiculas carried me through the bright sky,
with care they brought me to a safe shelter.
Then men bathed me in a tub. Now I bind
and chasten them, at once throw a young man
to the ground, sometimes an old churl too.
He who struggles against my strength,
he who grapples with me, will find
he must hit the hard floor with his back
unless he forgoes such a foolish fight.
Robbed of his strength, but not of his tongue,
he has no say over his mind
or his hands or his feet. Who knocks
young men stupid, and as his slaves binds them
in broad, waking daylight? Yes, ask me my name.
Excerpted from The Exeter Book Riddles by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Copyright © 2008 Kevin Crossley-Holland. Excerpted by permission of Enitharmon Press.
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