Poetry Archive Intern Steph Bennett explores Kevin Crossley Holland’s translation of the Exeter Book of Riddles.
Kevin Crossley-Holland’s archive is a diverse collection, covering over sixty years of his literary work. The archive clearly demonstrates Crossley-Holland’s preoccupation with history and legend and commitment to bringing these to a modern audience, often through translation. The depth of research undertaken, and painstaking edits and scribbles across the archive are key to understanding how Crossley-Holland can preserve the past on a page yet make it vital and relevant to audiences today. His translation of the Exeter Book of Riddles is a good example of this work.
Probably copied by a single scribe towards the end of the tenth century, The Exeter Book Riddles are notorious for their playful, and often bawdy, euphemisms. If the manuscript had not survived, our understanding of poetry today would be much more limited. The ninety-six riddles represent a wonderful introduction to the early medieval world, offering glimpses into the lives and attitudes of people of the time. From Christian concepts of creation to the more humble, domestic items, there is a strong engagement with the early medieval past.
Crossley Holland’s translation deliberately echoes the distinctive orality of Anglo-Saxon storytelling. He employs assonance and alliteration, ensuring a rich sense of early medieval oral tradition. The translations are subtle and meditative yet playful. Through them, early medieval culture becomes palpable. Shot through with earthy humour and observation, the riddles’ translation through a modern lens offers a unique perspective. Riddle 23 highlights the complexity and genius of early medieval poetry. Can you guess what the answer is?
“Wob is my name, if you work it out;
I’m a fair creature fashioned for battle.
When I bend, and shoot a deadly shaft
From my stomach, I’m very eager
To send that evil as far away as I can.
When my Lord (he thought up this torment)
Releases my limbs, I become longer
And, bent upon slaughter, spit out
That deadly poison I swallowed before.
No man’s parted easily from the object
I describe; if what flies from my stomach
Strikes him, he pays for its poison
With his strength – speedy atonement for his life.
I’ll serve no master when unstrung, only when
I’m cunningly notched. Now guess my name.
Crossley-Holland’s translation of the Exeter Riddle Book will feature in an exhibition of his work at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, due to open in June 2021: ‘Time stands still. Time flies. History, legend and poetry in the work of Kevin Crossley Holland’.
(Image credits for the Exeter Riddle Book and drafts, Leeds University Library.)