Riddling with Things

Teaching narrative strategy in the Exeter Book Riddles using digital objects.

The narratives of talking objects form a rich seam in the corpus of Old English literature, a tradition of things that suddenly speak in human voices. Some of these objects are the imagined, textual subjects of verse: the Riddles of the Exeter Book give voice to a range of domestic items, natural phenomena, academic paraphenalia, religious icons and weaponry. An object as mundane as a butter-churn may speak alongside a concept as vast as Creation in the conjectured space of the Riddles. Real, material objects speak too, through inscriptions wrought in gold, bone and stone. The Alfred Jewel and the Franks Casket both carry first-person messages which bring these ornate objets d'art to life. Speaking-texts frequently serve as truncated creation narratives, with objects explaining the material processes by which they were made, glorifying their creators and declaring their purpose in the hands of human possessors. The Riddles - typically small but finely-crafted - are therefore an invaluable source of information on the way subject-object relations played out in the early medieval English imagination.

This page presents materials to help tutors seeking to teach classes about the Old English riddles and early medieval English speaking objects. Each of the riddles below (see TEXTS) corresponds with an object in the digital gallery (see OBJECTS). Clicking on one of the links in TEXTS will take you to a text and translation of that riddle on the fantastic Riddle Ages blog,[1] while clicking on an image in OBJECTS will take you to an information page relevant to that particular object. Students should select a riddle, and seek to identify the corresponding object in the gallery, making full notes on the techniques used by the riddle to obfuscate and elucidate its meaning(s). Having done this alone or in small groups, they should discuss their findings as a class.

Some questions you might ask your students to mull over and discuss are given below. You might consider writing key points from class discussion on a whiteboard, to curate your students' responses. At the end of the class, the whiteboard will represent a collective mind-map of the various narrative strategies of riddles, with references to a selection of poems. This allows you to fill in any gaps, adjust any misunderstandings, and add references to other texts as you go.

  • How did you decide which object best suited your riddle? How certain were you in your choice?

  • What did the riddle do to conceal the solution? How did it mislead or trick you?

  • How did the riddle reveal the solution?

  • How is the object-solution treated in your riddle? Does the object have any kind of power or agency?

  • Did the object change across the course of the riddle? If so, how?

  • Does the object-solution have any relationships in the riddle, either with human subjects or non-human things?

  • How were the material features of the object used in the riddle narrative? Can the object be read on a spiritual level?


A more detailed version of this class plan can be found on pp. 20-21 of the 2019 TOEBI Newsletter: http://www.toebi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/TOEBI.2019.Newsletter.pdf.

[1] The Riddle Ages: Early Medieval Riddles, Translations and Commentaries, ed. by Megan Cavell, with Matthias Ammon, Neville Mogford and Victoria Symons (2013; redeveloped 2020), https://theriddleages.com.



Image information

Images of the helmet, chain mail, chalice and sword are © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC 20BY-NC-SA 204.0); image of the Wessex Gospels is from <http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_1_A_XIV>