BMCR 2022.03.41

The Old English and Anglo-Latin riddle tradition

, A commentary on 'The Old English and Anglo-Latin riddle tradition'. Supplements to the Dumbarton Oaks medieval library. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2021. Pp. xxviii, 712. ISBN 9780884024774 $65.00.
, The Old English and Anglo-Latin riddle tradition. The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 69. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021. Pp. xxxiii, 893. ISBN 9780674055339 $35.00.

The Anglo-Saxon riddles are a fascinating verbal realm where ambiguity and polysemy, suggestion and a big dose of distraction and deflection make the rule rather than the exception. Andy Orchard paves a way through this slippery territory by bringing together in one place the entire riddle corpus, Latin and Old English, with a detailed and informative commentary.

Included in the edition and translation are an introductory essay, Latin and Old English editions of the riddles on left-hand pages, modern English translations facing on the right, and some useful ancillary tools: a generous collection of source and analog texts (in Latin and Icelandic), brief notes on the texts, a textual apparatus, fuller notes on the translation (including solutions), a bibliography, and an index of solutions.

The commentary volume reprises and expands much of edition and translation: 654 pages of commentary (against about 240 in the other), 30 pages of bibliography (against five in Volume 1), a larger index of solutions. One especially useful addition is a “Concordance of Parallels with Isidore’s Etymologiae,” giving correspondences between the riddles and Isidore of Seville’s encyclopedia, a ready reference for all medieval riddlers.

Simple, clear organization make the work easy to use. Both volumes follow the same sequence with Latin riddles first, Old English second, and with texts arranged chronologically within these two divisions: for Anglo-Latin, from Aldhelm (whose 100 riddles make up more than a third of the section) in the seventh/eight century through the Bibliotheca magnifica (The High-Minded Library) of the mid eleventh; for Old English, from the Franks Casket Riddle ca. 700, through the late tenth-century Exeter Book riddles (whose ninety odd riddles make up more than three fourths of the section), to the eleventh-century Old English Prose Riddle.

The size of the work alone bespeaks years of industrious effort. The author revisits all the riddles and the literature on them, and proposes many new solutions (identified by a typographic symbol in the index). I must mention as well some sharp critical thinking. Orchard’s introduction, for example, disproves much earlier scholarship which drew rigid divisions between the Latin and the vernacular, and instead emphasizes commonalities: a brief glance at the commentary citations of the many points of contact between riddles Latin and English proves the case beyond any real argument.

I should say as well that these riddles are immense fun (a statement that cannot be made about every weighty tome of Anglo-Saxon literature), and these two volumes make them accessible to all. As the books lay on my desk for a couple of months I was amused to see casual visitors, some with no Latin and no Old English, open Volume 1 out of idle curiosity, only to be drawn in and reach for Volume 2. Expressions of surprise, delight, or consternation followed.

What flaws or weaknesses in the work can I point out? Not the translations. Given the fluid semantics of the originals they of course cannot capture all the nuance and wordplay, but the discussion in the commentary makes up that deficit. I can say, nevertheless, that the volumes are something of an awkward hybrid. The redundancy of the two volumes is very great, as the author acknowledges. Orchard sees the volumes being used independently, with users of earlier editions having recourse just to Volume 2. Yet I was very happy putting Volume 2 to use as an aid to Volume 1, with the two books open side by side, rather than flipping back and forth between text and the shorter commentary in Volume 1. Orchard’s editions also pose a few questions, since some were executed without personal examination of the manuscripts. A third criticism: the idiosyncratic and arbitrary abbreviation of authors’ names in the discussion of the scholarly literature is more annoying than helpful.

Yet these are minor flaws. the two volumes make an immensely valuable contribution to scholarship. The all inclusive scope of the editions, the detail of the commentary, and the usefulness of the indexes combine for a reader-friendly treatment of a subject which has been most often a monopoly of specialists. Orchard’s work is certainly not the last word on Anglo-Saxon riddling, but it will just as certainly be a first stop for all who want to read and write about these enigmatic texts. The author’s states the expectation that his work will stimulate a new wave of scholarship dedicated to this interesting subject. I can only concur.