Commentary for Exeter Riddle 91


Date: Mon 02 Nov 2020
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 91

Content Warning: the post discusses sexual assault and violence

I honestly don’t know what I think about Riddle 91. While the object in question seems to be a Key, or perhaps Keyhole, the way it’s violently sexualized needs *a lot* of contextualizing.

The first thing to do is remember all the way back to Riddle 44 and its delightful double entendre approach to the same solution. That riddle similarly dwells on the key’s hardness and mentions a þyrel (hole), but it does so with a cheeky glint in its metaphorical eye.

Lincolnshire key from several angles

Check out this cool 9th-century key on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (licence: CC BY 2.0).

Riddle 91, on the other hand, conflates sex and violence in a way that should make us question just how “funny” this particular double entendre riddle is supposed to be. It’s certainly meant to catch out any would-be solver with their mind in the gutter (see Bitterli, page 431). It starts by telling us that the riddle-object is manufactured violently – all those hammers and pointy objects – before being chained up and thrust into a hole. All of this is done in order to serve a lord’s mod · ᚹ · (mind-JOY), with an interesting use of the wynn rune here, which means “joy,” acting as a little riddle within the riddle. But, on the whole, Riddle 91 is a lot less joyful than Riddle 44, as it replaces the cheeky sexual reading with battle imagery, warfare and conquest.

So what have previous scholars made of this riddle? Elinor Teele argues that the riddle plays off its descriptions of both sexual conquest and the plundering of a treasure hoard (pages 193-7). She notes that the Key is itself a victim of violence in the opening lines of the riddle, before it becomes an object of violence wielded by a lord who is driven by violent appetites. The violent coercion of lords is something we see in other riddles, even if they sometimes treat their retainers less cruelly (I’m thinking of Riddle 20 here).

Edith Whitehurst Williams, on the other hand, reads the riddle as empowering. She takes the solution to be Keyhole and points out that the riddle fits within well-established conquest motifs, as well as sexual metaphors of hammering, wounding, etc. Touching upon the violence of the poem, Whitehurst Williams claims that it nonetheless “offers the strongest argument of all for the mutuality of the sex experience. A female persona relates the incident; four of the significant verbs in the power describe her own actions which seem to be both voluntary and vigorous. Her allusions to joy and pleasure place the same high value on the circumstance that we have seen in the other Riddles. As for the conquest, she seems to take an Amazonian delight in it – except for the figurative “wounded” there is no other word which suggests either discomfort or distaste” (page 144). Was there BDSM in early medieval England?

A square comprised of 50 shades of grey

It’s 50 shades of grey…get it? Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

I’m not sure I buy Whitehurst Williams’ reading, which hinges on an imagined female persona who is both assertive and appropriated into a violent fantasy. And I would also question the heteronormativity of these sorts of interpretations, in assuming that the sexually-charged riddles only ever depict sex between a man and a woman. Why can’t this riddle be about male lovers? Do the power dynamics change if we read it that way? Does imagining that this riddle invites us to observe sex between men as a battle say something about warrior culture? Or about the monks recording these riddles and, in so doing, writing themselves into said warrior culture? Food for thought.

However we interpret the beginning of this riddle and its various key players, the final four lines ask us to read in a new context. Here, the riddle seems to move away from double entendre to focus on eating. The scene turns to a lord plundering dead bodies for his own desire (ew), though the heroism is seriously deflated when we realize we’re actually reading about a person raiding the store cupboard for a midnight snack.

Sandwich and crisps

Behold, a midnight snack! Image via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Still, there’s a link between literal and sexual appetites here, which is interesting, especially in the context of all the hyper-masculinity this riddle packs in. The ecofeminist in me wants you all to go read Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, which argues that patriarchy and misogyny go hand-in-hand with meat-eating. Oh looky look, Carol, Riddle 91 got there first! There’s certainly something very uncomfortable in those final lines’ references to consuming the lafe (remains) of those the lord commanded to be killed wælcræfte (through slaughter-skill). We’re 100% being invited to think about cannibalism here. As if the beginning of the riddle wasn’t unpleasant enough…

So, is this riddle supposed to be one of those “so-uncomfortable-that-it-is-funny” jokes? Realizing that descriptions of an aggressive sexual encounter and cannibalism are actually a person jiggling a key in a lock to nick a bit of food is certainly deflating enough that it might bring about some nervous laughter. But – sorry Riddle 91 – I prefer jokes that punch up.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. “The One-Liners Among the Exeter Book Riddles.” Neophilologus, vol. 103 (2019), pages 419-34.

Teele, Elinor. “The Heroic Tradition in the Old English Riddles.” Diss. University of Cambridge, 2004. esp. pages 193-7.

Whitehurst Williams, Edith. “What’s So New about the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes toward Sexuality in Women Based on Four Exeter Book Riddles.” In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pages 137-45.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 91 

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