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This review is taken from PN Review 19, Volume 7 Number 5, May - June 1981.

DECKED AND DOLLIED Michael Alexander, Old English Riddles from the Exeter Book (Anvil) £2.95

The riddles Michael Alexander has translated survive through a tenth-century manuscript which was used at various times as a beermat and a cheeseboard before finding sanctuary in Exeter Cathedral. One of the most valuable miscellanies of Old English poetry, it also contains masterpieces liked 'The Wanderer' and 'The Seafarer', but the ninety-odd riddles occupy a unique place. Besides whetting natural curiosity they reflect many of their society's preoccupations. War is one (with shields, spears and swords among the solutions), traditional Germanic values of stoicism and heroism another, Christianity yet another.

But the bulk of the riddles celebrate daily life in the natural world: the sun and moon, the sea, sky and earth, animals and plants, farming, eating and drinking. The whole builds into a picture of peasant life which for freshness and concreteness is unrivalled until the Miller's Tale four centuries later. Some of the riddles are frank too, showing that the monks who recorded them certainly weren't prim. Take Riddle 44 beginning: 'Swings by his thigh a thing most magical . . .!' Answer: a key (of course). Half the pleasure of the riddle lies, as here, in seeing the familiar presented in a new way. Thus even a prosaic thing such as the tuft of reed in Riddle 60 takes on a foreignness, shrouds itself in mystery:


I was by the sand at the sea-wall once;
Where the tide comes in I kept my dwelling,
My homeland in that ...


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