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The Exeter Book Riddles

The Exeter Book Riddles

by Kevin Crossley-Holland

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The ninety-six Anglo-Saxon riddles in the eleventh-century Exeter Book are poems of great charm, zest, and subtlety. Ranging from natural phenomena (such as icebergs and storms at sea) to animal and bird life, from the Christian concept of the creation to prosaic domestic objects (such as a rake and a pair of bellows), and from weaponry to the peaceful pursuits of


The ninety-six Anglo-Saxon riddles in the eleventh-century Exeter Book are poems of great charm, zest, and subtlety. Ranging from natural phenomena (such as icebergs and storms at sea) to animal and bird life, from the Christian concept of the creation to prosaic domestic objects (such as a rake and a pair of bellows), and from weaponry to the peaceful pursuits of music and writing, they are full of sharp observation, earthy humour and, above all, a sense of wonder. The main text of this volume contains Kevin Crossley-Holland’s newly-revised translations of seventy-five fascinating and discursive riddles – all those not very badly damaged or impenetrably obscure – while a further sixteen are translated in the notes. These translations are very widely anthologised in Britain and the USA. Sir Arthur Bliss and William Mathias set some of them to music, Ralph Steadman has illustrated them and Michael Fairfax has incorporated them in his Riddle Sculpture.

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Enitharmon Press
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The Exeter Book Riddles

By Kevin Crossley-Holland

Enitharmon Press

Copyright © 2008 Kevin Crossley-Holland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-910392-55-3



    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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kevin Crossley-Holland is a poet, translator from Anglo-Saxon and Carnegie Medal author for children. His new and selected poems, The Mountains of Norfolk, were published in the autumn of 2011, and he is the author of the bestselling Arthur trilogy, Gatty’s Tale and The Penguin Book of Norse Myths. His most recent book for children is Bracelet of Bones, in which a Viking girl travels from Norway to Constantinople, and he is the author of The Hidden Roads, a memoir of childhood praised by Rowan Williams. Kevin has worked with many composers, including Sir Arthur Bliss, William Mathias, Nicola LeFanu and Bob Chilcott, as well as with the artists Norman Ackroyd, John Lawrence and James Dodds and the photographer John Hedgecoe. With Lawrence Sail, he has edited two anthologies for Enitharmon Press: The New Exeter Book of Riddles and Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems. Kevin is spokesman for Look North More Often, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree project sponsored by the Poetry Society and the Royal Norwegian Embassy. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Patron of the Society for Storytelling and of Publishing House Me, and an Honorary Fellow of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. In 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Anglia Ruskin University. He has four children (Kieran, Dominic, Oenone and Eleanor) and he and his Minnesotan wife Linda live in north Norfolk.

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