Riddle 47: The Book-Moth Riddle

translation by Yvonne Rathbone
©2002

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Riddle 47

Old English Vocabulary

 

"Wherein a moth passes out from drinking to much intellectual verbosity."

 

A moth ate words. I thought it
a strange fate, when I learned of that monster,
that worm swallowing the song of men,
the thief in the darkness, stealing glorious phrases
from those powerful foundations. This thievish creature
was not made wise for all the words he ate.

 



Click to hear this riddle spoken aloud.
(It's the third one, labelled "C")

 

 

(A note on transcription of pesky OE letters: The above poem is rendered as a jpeg in order to show the OE letters, thorn and eth. That option isn't feasible for the following essay and thus I have switched to using 'th' for both.)

 

One of the disadvantages of being not only a newcomer to a subject, but a non-academic as well, is that when you do come up with a compelling interpretation of a text, it's usually one that someone far more experienced has already laid out. But this situation doesn't have to be discouraging, in fact I find it quite the opposite. How nice to know that this thing I made, which looks like a wheel, is in fact a wheel, the very wheel created by someone in a much better position to say just what a wheel is.

I chose to translate the Moth-Book Riddle (a.k.a. "Riddle 47") because it was short and happened to be translated in each of my two volumes of OE verse. As I was glossing the text, I kept stumbling over homonyms. These homonyms ended up allowing me to infuse this short passage with loads of meaning.

Before I begin translating any text, I gloss it one word at a time, entering into my database of OE vocabulary all the meanings that a particular spelling might have. Homonyms become quite apparent in this system as I sometimes end up with quite a few records to choose from. (I have eight possibilities for the word "wege".)

Once I'm at the stage of translating the text, I can usually figure out which homonym is the right one based on grammatical requirements. But sometimes there is very little evidence to point to a particular meaning. And sometimes, the different possible meanings produce interesting alternative interpretations.

Such was the case with Riddle 47. Several words offered up meaty ambiguities. The opening line has two: fræt (ate/proud,perverse) and word (stories, fame, promise/v. weord: mead, sweet drink.) The first ambiguity was neatly resolved by the needs of the sentence. It needed a verb. But the aural pun was still present perhaps implying a proud moth or perverse stories.

The second ambiguity was not so easily resolved. Both options are strong neuter nouns, functioning exactly the same as the object of "eat". Furthermore, they were both semantically possible. Moths can eat parchment and consume mead. (Well, I'm not sure about the second, but that's a scientific subtlety we can assume was lost on the Anglo-Saxons.) The second choice might be the weaker one because it is a variant of a word (Clark-Hill lists it as a variation of "werod".) Nevertheless, the fact that its meaning is a type of food might indicate that it's a viable alternative in this case.

Following on this pair of homonyms, was another in the next phrase. Most neo-pagans with any familiarity with Asatru or Runes will recognize the first meaning given to the word "wyrd". This is the word for fate or chance. Clark-Hill also lists the glosses: transaction and event, meanings that led to translations such as "a miracle"(1) or "a strange thing"(2).

Because of my familiarity with modern runes, I thought this word was a lock, one of the few OE words I could recognize without my dictionary. But to my surprise, there was another meaning listed: verbosity. And again, like word/werod, this meaning had the same gender as the more familiar one. That meant I couldn't use concord with the adjective "wrætlicu" to rule it out. And again, the semantic meanings were both, at least poetically, plausible. Certainly a moth eating a text might meaningfully imply gluttony with 'wondrous verbosity'. Coupled some of the other alternatives, we might get an image of a proud moth getting drunk off his consumption of excess words.

I kept these alternative meanings in mind as I worked at my translation. And from the beginning felt that the images that emerged by linking up the individual words kept hinging on this ambiguity between the image of a moth consuming a physical text and the moth as a symbol for someone reading that same text. I thought I was pretty smart, too, until I read "Artful Ambiguities in the Old English "Book Moth" Riddle"(3) by Fred C. Robinson and realized there was even more to this little ditty that I first imagined.

Along with my wyrd-word pair, Robinson notes several others: swealg, stathol, cwide and thystro. He doesn't comment on my other two, which may mean I'm on to something and may mean I wouldn't have even considered them if I'd known a bit more about Old English. Of all the pairs Robinson does discuss, each shows the ambiguity I found while translating the poem for myself, namely, each of these words highlights a parallel between eating the physical text and digesting its meaning.

Swealg, a form of swealgan, means firstly "to swallow," but Robinson cites Bosworth-Toller as listing an alternative meaning of "to take into the mind." The word "cwide" as well carries a secondary meaning of "what is chewed" along with a primary meaning of "sentence or statement". Both neatly set up parallel readings of the riddle as well as introducing some anachronistically postmodern self-reference. Not only is the moth eating the text, the reader of the riddle is eating the text (including the moth) as well.

The ambiguities of stathol don't directly invoke the concept of eating, but they do further the link between physical reality and the realm of thought and understanding. I'd run across this word before while translating the Rune Poem and had found its range of meanings listed in Clark-Hall to be very interesting, ranging literally from "base, foundation" to "sky, heavens". In the Rune Poem, I'd opted for the meaning of "heavens," thinking I'd invoke a little neo-pagan understanding of the Ash as World-Tree (shameless, aren't I), but in Riddle 47, none of this word's various meanings seemed to fit.

I wasn't the first person to stumble over the presence of the word stathol in this poem. Robinson notes that most translators agree that it ultimately means "the manuscript" even if they don't all agree on why. But he goes on to say that not only does stathol refer to the textual foundation of the manuscript, it also refers to intellectual foundations. This neatly parallels the physicality of the text with the abstraction of thought received through reading the text.

The last word to be considered is thystro, which like stathol, builds on the comparison of physical experience to intellectual enlightenment. (And in this case I also mean "enlightenment" both as "being lit" and "gaining insight".) Thystro means "in the dark," and apparently was also used to mean "ignorance" in some biblical translations. Anticipating the next few lines, it sets up the context of the ignorant moth not realizing what it is consuming (drunk as he is on his verbalistic kegger).

Robinson encloses his linguistic analysis of the riddle with a call to fellow Anglo-Saxonists to enlarge their understanding of how OE authors used metaphor and wordplay. He describes a general feeling toward the poem held by other scholars that the poem doesn't really say anything. For these people, the "answer" to this riddle was "a moth", stated plainly in the first line with nothing of interest added for the reader's benefit. But in a twist of self-referential irony, it would appear that it is they themselves who are the answer to the riddle.

1) Alexander, Michael "The Earliest English Poems." 3rd Ed. Penguin Classics, 1991. <back>

2) Raffel, Burton. "Poems From The Old English." 2nd Ed. University of Nebraska Press, 1964 <back>

3) Robinson, Fred C. "Artful Ambiguities in the Old English 'Book Moth' Riddle." In Nicholson, Lewis E. and Dorothy Warwick Frese (Eds.) "Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays In Appreciation." <back>

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