On Interpretation

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

A wonderful examination of the “question” of riddles in the Exeter Book by Adam Roberts at The Valve (links/blockquotes in original). Here’s a nice snip:

So let’s take it as a single, one-line riddle. Here it is, followed by Kevin Crossley-Holland’s concise translation

Wundor wearð on wege: wæter wearð to bane.

On the way, a miracle: water becomes bone.

Scholars agree that answer to this riddle is: ice. Scholars don’t always agree on the answer to any given riddle. For example, various OE riddle experts have looked at Riddle 74 (‘I was once a young woman,/a glorious warrior, a grey-haired queen./I soared with birds, stepped on the earth,/swam in the sea—dived under the waves, languid amongst fishes. I had a living spirit’) and variously suggested cuttlefish, water, siren and swan as the answer. By comparison, and remembering that the answers to these riddles are nowhere written down or ‘officially’ tabulated, ‘on the way, a miracle: water becomes bone … ice’ looks relatively straightforward. It’s a nicely satisfying and poetic image, too.

But here’s another answer to the riddle:

Climbing Cooper’s Hill, and looking back at the curve of the Thames in the bright, cloudy light: the afternoon sun polishing away all grey or blue from the water until it is white, its edges sharpened by the angle of illumination, looking like nothing so much as a mighty rib-bone gleaming, set in the flesh of the land … and I thought to myself yes, water becomes bone.

The answer ice identifies two points of similarity (hardness, colour) with bone; but this vision of the Thames identifies three (colour, shape, setting). Does that make it a ‘better’ answer to the Exeter Book riddle?


2 responses to “On Interpretation”

  1. gibb says:

    Depends if you’re coming or going, that is, offering more clues is all I see of the Thames question over the simple one-liner. If one guesses the answer of the Exeter riddle, the riddle may be better, but not the answer.

    However, if an answer of “ice” more readily fits three parameters, that may indeed make it more selective and accurate over filling only the obligations of two.

    Or not.

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    My guess to Riddle 74 would be “courage”, an essential quality to all of the objectives described. Then again, I do as well in charades as I do in arithmetic.