The Ambivalent Encounter

on Old English Double Entendre

by Elijah Knodell

Cover art: Doubles by Milly Hopkins

Of the surviving literature written in Old English, the Exeter Book Riddles stand out as the corpus’s potentially most misappropriated texts. These poems are unruly and often baffling, and they resist easy classification and understanding. Nevertheless, beginning with the work of Frederick Tupper—whose 1910 edition The Riddles of the Exeter Book led him to be credited as the “first important American student of the riddles” (Tanke, 21)—scholars have toiled to sort and solve the 90-odd poems in the collection, with particular emphasis on demystifying their enigmatic form. Though scholars like Tupper attempt to create classifications or subgenres of riddles, the original manuscript contains none of these groupings, and the Exeter Book provides no riddle solutions. 

The goal of this essay will be to complicate one such academic label: sexual or double entendre riddles, which Tupper first called puzzles of “double meaning and course suggestion” (xxv). I will challenge the existing theoretical framework dealing with such texts, which has been so far too preoccupied with the erotic nature of the subject matter without appropriate attention to how the riddles function poetically. This existing framework was most clearly articulated by Ann Harleman Stewart in her 1983 essay “Double Entendre in the Old English Riddles.” Her understanding of the double entendre poem is that it is ambivalent about its referents—the poem oscillates back and forth between two objects of description, a “true” solution and a “false” solution, which is an “embarrassing obscene reference” (39). However, I will argue through the critiques of more recent scholars including John Tanke and Glenn Davis that a reappraisal of this framework is overdue. With particular attention to Riddles 44 and 62, I will argue that there is only one object being described in the double entendre, not two. What these poems do, rather than provide a description that oscillates between two poles, is narrate this oscillation itself; a new referent is crafted and brought into speech. The double entendre riddle is not a poem that is ambivalent about its referent, but whose referent (singular) is an ambivalence presented as an object itself. 

As double entendre is a retrojected academic classification and not one to be found in the Exeter Book itself, there is dispute as to which riddles truly constitute a double entendre. I will focus briefly on Riddle 44 before turning to Riddle 62 most intently, but Ann Harleman Stewart’s influential study includes Riddles 25, 37, 42, 45, 54, and 62 as other examples in this grouping. To provide an outline on the general function of the double entendre riddles as Harleman Stewart put forward, let us briefly look at Riddle 44:

Wrætlic hongað     bi weres þeo,frean under sceate.     Foran is þyrel.Bið stiþ ond heard,     stede hafað godne; þonne se esne     his agen hræglofer cneo hefeð,     wile þæt cuþe holmid his hangellan     heafde gretanþæt he efenlang ær     oft gefylde.Something wondrously wrought hangs near a man’s thigh,in the master’s under region. Through the front is a hole; it is stiff and hardy, a good stead it has. When the man his own rags raisesover the knee, he wants with his hanging-thing’s head to greet that well-known hole,which his equal-length has oft fulfilled before.

Riddle 44 describes its object of focus while leaving the reader in a state of ambiguity. According to Harleman Stewart, this ambiguity is a trap; the double entendre leads us to a “wrong answer” that is:

“an embarrassing obscene reference. The riddler carefully feeds his listener details that clearly  point to a sexual referent. At the same time, with the same details, he is describing some harmless non-sexual referent which, much to the decipherer’s embarrassment, turns out to be the ‘real’ solution” (39).

So, where has Riddle 44 (mis)led us? To two points: one obvious and false, the other obscured yet true. According to Craig Williamson, who compiled an edition of riddle solutions in 1977, the “true” solution of Riddle 44 (as settled by scholars) is Key (281). However, the guesser is led somewhere more uncouth with the riddle’s phallic description. While the “true” solution is Key, there is a second solution distracting us: Penis.

That is, according to prior scholarship, two referents are brought into meaning at once; in being set to language simultaneously they become doubles. Harleman Stewart further describes the poetic action of the double entendre as a juggling act: 

“Sustaining the double entendre throughout a riddle requires, obviously, a juggling of the two solutions and the two contexts in which they occur, and a painstaking selection of words and images that will suit both. The poet cannot for a moment lapse wholly into one or the other of the two worlds… The words and images he chooses reflect this double preoccupation, since they must apply to both solutions, and participate in both contexts, at once” (40).

But how can Harleman Stewart say the poet participates equally in both contexts, never exclusively entering one world over the other while simultaneously speaking of these worlds as if one were true and the other false? In his essay “Wonfeax wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book,” John Tanke identifies the “artificial semantic hierarchy” imposed here: “one of the two subjects simultaneously represented must be credited as ‘real’ and the other as unreal.” (28) As Tanke points out, iff the Key is really there and the Penis is not, Harleman Stewart’s framework of true and false solutions privileges one of the solutions over the other. How can we say a true doubling has occurred if the alleged doubles are hierarchized, one viewed more important, more “real” than the other? And, as Tanke notes, scholarship is nearly unanimous in its quest to call the sexual solution the false one. Scholars have convinced themselves that the “purpose of the riddle is for the riddler to lure the solver to propose a sexual solution, in order to then expose his salacious imagination” (Tanke, 29). The critics relegate the sexual solution to a secondary status in the poem.

But there is another hierarchy working counter to this hierarchy of realness. In order for the false Penis solution to do its work, to distract the decipherer from the ‘true’ solution of Key, the Penis must be, in another sense, situated above Key in the poem’s representation (if Harleman Stewart is correct that the sexual solution is what more obviously hits the ear). How can we say the Key solution is “true” if it is not really being described, if it is hidden behind false speech? How can we say that the Penis solution is “false” if it is more vocalized in the poem? There is an ambiguity as to which of these doubles subjugates the other. 

For those whose interpretive aim is to explore what these riddles say about early medieval sexuality, this reversible double hierarchy has served an important explanatory purpose. A large preoccupation has been understanding how these riddles could have possibly found their way into the Exeter Book (a text compiled for the Bishop of Exeter), but this concern presupposes that sexual encounters must have been spoken of in a way that is veiled. When Tupper encountered this “smut,” (xxv) double entendre was a useful explanatory scheme to preserve the Exeter Book’s purity. The existence of an innocent, pure, concealed meaning in the work makes tolerable the riddle’s “smutty” appearance. The Key only exists in the poem hidden within the description of Penis, but that a Key is being “described” also, in turn, sneaks in the Penis. 

As Glenn Davis argues in his essay “The Exeter Book Riddles and the Place of Sexual Idiom in Old English Literature,” understanding the double entendre riddles as being exceptional (and therefore isolatable) instances of obscenity in Old English is an attempt to defend the rest of the Exeter Book’s supposed homogeneity and purity (and likewise that of the entire Old English corpus). The early scholarship took their obscenity as a troubling exception, failing to recognize that other, more celebrated texts (including Beowulf) might also demonstrate similar treatments of sexual themes. As Davis writes, “boundaries that surround the erotic riddles—artificial boundaries established by modern critics because of those riddles’ perceived obscenity—have obscured important connections among Old English texts” (54). To advance our understanding of these riddles, we must complicate the presupposition that we have inherited from modern scholars that the double entendre is somehow unique in its dealings with sex. Perhaps we ought to dissolve the category of double entendre entirely if it only arose out of scholarly prudishness.

Therefore, the point of departure we must take is a reappraisal of what we seek to gain from riddle study. But unlike Davis, I will not attempt in this essay to explore the riddles for their insights to early medieval sexual attitudes, as fascinating as those insights may be. We need to go back further; our understanding of the structure of the double entendre riddle must be confronted before any observations on its sexual themes can be made. Davis was concerned with the reincorporation of the double entendre riddles back into the literary corpus from which they have been expelled on the grounds that similar sexual ambivalences occur elsewhere in the canon. My concern is the poetry taken as such, on isolating and elucidating the poetic mechanism of double entendre without a contrived structure based on the “uncomfortable” fact that one solution is “prim” and the other is “pornographic” (A Feast of Creatures, 201)

What must be asked is if double meaning occurs at all, at least in the oscillatory juggling act as it has been described. Are these so-called double entendre riddles even poems with double referents? If they are, we need a new structure to understand how these poems are able to capture both of their referents in language, one that does not hierarchize one solution over another due to our modern presuppositions of how sex must have been spoken of in the middle ages. We must move towards a theory of double entendre that is not a mere sous-entendre

Where it has so far been argued that the double entendre riddles are ambivalent about their referents—they oscillate back and forth between two objects of description—I argue that there is only one referent, one object being described. What these poems do—rather than provide a description that jumps back and forth between two hierarchically-organized referents—is narrate this oscillation as a referent unto itself. These are not poems that are ambivalent about their referent, but whose sole referent is an ambivalence that is discursively created. For example, Riddle 44 does not speak Key and Penis at once, or even bounce back from one to the other. Rather, the poetic space opens up so a new being can come into language; an ambivalence is presented as something that is independent of the two poles that it stands between.

In some double entendre riddles, this ambivalence speaks for itself; that is, it creates itself by speaking through self-referential first-person narration. Take Riddle 62 for example:

Ic eom heard ond scearp,     hngonges strong,forðsiþes from,     frean unforcuð,wade under wambe     ond me weg sylfaryhtne geryme.     Rinc bið on ofeste,se mec on þyð     æftanweardne,hæleð mid hrægle;    hwilum ut tyhðof hole hatne,     hwilum eft fareðon nearo nathwær,     nydeþ swiþesuþerne secg.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.I am hardy and sharp, strong in entrance,not ignoble in forth-faring from the master,I go beneath the belly, and myself expandthe right path. The man is hasty,he who presses me on from behind,the man in rags; sometimes he pulls me outhot of hole, sometimes he fares anewinto some confinement or other, thrusts exceedingly,the southern man. Say what I am called.

The first half-line of this riddle, “Ic eom heard on scearp [I am hardy and sharp]” immediately draws us into an encounter with something able to describe itself, something able to gather its own being into a singular “ic.” It is an “I” able to speak itself into discourse. The indicative mood of “ic eom” demonstrates the directness of the narration; the poem plainly opens with the utterance “I am.” This “I” describes itself to us confidently; it does not employ the subjunctive mood. It does not dance around, oscillating between two descriptions saying what it might be — “I” never wavers.

The poem’s “I” informs us how it acts autonomously in the world. We see this in Line 3: “wade under wambe / ond me weg sylfa / ryhtne geryme [I go beneath the belly, and myself expand the right path].” “I” tells us that it is able to act of its own accord, “I” acts for “myself.” This “I” understands itself as acting on its own behalf, and we can see the riddle poem as an instance of this ability, as it functions as an autonomous act of narrating the self. The riddle poem is the space through which this “I” can narrate its own self-determinacy to us; the poem creates an encounter with this self-powerful, self-referential being.

In the final line, the riddle’s “I” exerts its power over us. Saga hwæt ic hatte—the unknown referent speaks directly to us, almost tauntingly, to “Say what I am called.” But how do we answer this demand? Let us not confuse what something is called with what something is. To say how we call something is a naming, but it is also an ordering, a return of the unnamed into the fold of classification. Embedded in this ostensibly plain request is the double meaning of the verb hātan. It is “to name,” but also “to command, to direct, to bid, to order.” To “say what I am called” is more accurately to “say how I am ordered.” Naming is revealed to be a subjugation through this simple line, Saga hwæt ic hatte, which emphasizes the fallacy of equating solution with referent. To solve the riddle is to provide a solution, which takes the form of a name, but we must not assume that the referent (what is) and the solution (how we name/order what is) are the same. Here I am, the riddle says to us, I am this, I do this, here is how I act. “I” renders itself into speech; “I” is the one who creates this encounter and speaks to us, an encounter without need for our input. 

We are the ones who need the solving word, but “I” can do without it. “I” speaks of what “I” is; the only thing we can add is what “I” is called, providing a word, a word that will always come up short of capturing the fullness in which “I” signifies itself. In order to speak of “I” we must resort to a single word, the solution. As solvers, we are beholden to that word; without this word we cannot complete our task. But “I” has no need for it; “I” can describe itself without the name we have given to it; “I” can describe itself without us. 

The two possible solutions in a double entendre riddle have nothing to do with what the object is, but rather what we want to call it. Likewise, dwelling on these solutions, which are merely names, misses what occurs within the poem, what is referenced. It reduces what is spoken in the poem to a lesser importance than what is heard; the solver becomes more important than the poem itself. What is described in Riddle 44 and 62 is not a double referent. It is actually a singular ambivalent referent, and our encounter with this ambivalence exposes and frustrates our compulsion to give names. In our panic, we say give it this name or that. But the fact that its objectness cannot be rendered univocally into one name—that the ambivalence is a referent that subverts the act of naming—does not mean that it does not exist. And that these ambivalences give rise to dual solutions also does not deny their existence as objects unto themselves. A name (or two names) is not what an object is, but rather how we interpret an object and force it beneath a signifier. 

What occurs in the double entendre riddles is simply that we encounter this ambivalence, but it spins two ways, tearing itself from our grasp. In an attempt to return the referent back into classifiability, we insist on our right to name and contrive a pair of doubles to serve our will. But as the poem speaks this ambivalence into being through such a subversive language, we cannot decide on one word or the other to be its “true” name. The double entendre is almost analogous to the way we encounter and experience the world. Surrounded with endless ambiguity and ambivalence, we are constantly striving to demystify, explain, and solve. But the double entendre riddles expose just how flimsy our solutions are. We can only offer up mere words, names that are incapable of going to the heart of things. After this encounter with the riddle poem, we come away with an almost ethical realization that objects are always subverting our desire to name them. The ambivalent world around us is constantly resisting our desire to solve it.

Elijah Knodell is a junior in Columbia College studying English, with a particular interest in Old English poetry, literary theory, and translation. Eli is most often occupied as the Managing Editor of Columbia’s student news website Bwog.

Works Cited

Bolding, Jacky. “The Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” Simon Fraser University, 1992.

Clark Hall, JR. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Davis, Glenn. “The Exeter Book Riddles and the Place of Sexual Idiom in Old English Literature.”
Medieval Obscenities, edited by Nicola McDonald, University of York, York, 2014, pp. 39–54.

Harleman Stewart, Ann. “Double Entendre in the Old English Riddles.” Lore and Language, vol. 3,
no. 8, 1983, pp. 39–52.

Krapp, George Philip and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. The Exeter Book. Columbia University Press, 1936.

Tanke, John. “Wonfeax Wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” Class
and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections, edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian

R. Overing, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 21–42.

Tupper, Frederick. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Ginn and Company, 1910.

Williamson, Craig. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Williamson, Craig. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. University of North Carolina Press,