Anglo-Saxon poetry, as it is found today, contains a collection of riddles, ninety-five in all. These riddles stand out, apart from the other specimens of Anglo-Saxon poetry. They are generally attributed to Cynewulf, although there is hardly any convincing evidence in support of such a conjecture. It is supposed that those riddles, found in Exeter Book, were inspired by a similar collection of Latin riddles by Symphosius. Aldhelm was the first English writer to acclimatize Latin riddles in English.
Riddles are intellectual exercises to exhibit as well as test wit and sagacity. They are intended only to provoke attention and sharpen wit. They are of a short length. The Anglo-Saxon riddles are, however, different from the conventional Latin riddles. They are not the poetic bits of wit and intelligence. They are rather the true poems of varying, and occasionally considerable, length. They lack the courtly precision of the conventional lyric, and cannot technically be called lyrics.
The Anglo-Saxon riddles are the pieces of poetry rather of an uneven length and an unequal quality. They deal with a number of subjects-animals, especially domestic animals, natural phenomena, astronomical bodies, different tools and instruments and weapons, customs, and so on. Some of these riddles describe the animals and the birds and their bodily features the nightingale, the swan, the bull, etc. One such riddle is On the Bull’s Horn. Some other riddles treat the elemental force of nature. The power of the elemental forces of nature is described and emphasized in such riddles. Here may be mentioned the riddle On the Storm or The Wind. Several of these riddles, again, dwell on the customary life and the implements of war of the Anglo-Saxons. The riddle On a Shield is a felicitous instance in this respect. There are also riddles with the themes, borrowed from native folk songs and sagas.
The Anglo-Saxon riddles, as they are found today, are hardly original. They have been made rather Christian by their Christian editors. In any case, they display the characteristic merits as well as weaknesses of Anglo-Saxon poetry. They are graphic in description and rich in imagery. The description of the coming of the storm in the riddle On the Storm is most original, and may be taken as an anticipation of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. The social pictures, presented in the riddles, are also praise-worthy. Their appeal, however, is not to intellect but to imagination. The riddles are often found obscure and vague and their effect in some cases becomes wearisome.
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