Friday 27 March 2009

Medieval riddles: 'A Knight's Captive'

With A Knight's Captive, I thought I would talk a little about Anglo-Saxon poetry. There are some beautiful and very poignant poems in Old English. Poems such as The Seafarer and The Wife's Lament speak to us even today of love and loss and longing. There are poems that contain useful information - verse is a useful memory device - and poems celebrating places such as Durham, battles such as the battle of Maldon, biblical heroines such as Judith and profound mystical experiences. The Dream of the Rood takes the idea of the cross on which Christ was crucified: the 'wondrous tree' from which he hung, and has the tree speak to us directly as it too suffered with Christ.

I wanted to honour this great tradition in A Knight's Captive, which takes place in 1066, the year when the doomed KIng Harold of England issued the coin in the picture above. I did so by devising my own versions of poems that were another part of Anglo-Saxon society and poetry - riddles.

There are riddles about wine, about a bookworm, about a reed, about a shield, about a plough. Some are saucy and double-edged in meaning; all give clues as to what people noticed in those times, what was important to them, what amused them. Some of the original riddles can be seen here and here. I read them and even though the poems are in translation I feel directly connected to a people long past - a wonderful, slightly eerie event.

Here are my own riddles. They appear in A Knight's Captive as the heroine Sunniva and hero Marc are attempting to escape the clutches of her uncle in the mysterous and dangerous fenlands:

She was a good traveler, Marc thought, kneeling up in the log boat to row. As the darkness faded to a dusky rose and the sun began to burn off some of the river-fog, she began to ask him riddles.
"This is one way we English pass the long winter evenings, so it is a skill you need," she said.
"Ask away," Marc answered. It passed the dull time of rowing and he could still listen and keep watch. Her voice lilted to him over his shoulder, teasing and playful.

"A giant, now toppled,
hollow and dead,
still glides where it never would
when alive."

That was easy. "This boat," Marc answered.
"Here is another," Sunniva paused to wrap her head-square about her alder paddle to save her hands against the knobbly bark. She had offered to tear it in two for him to share but, when Marc shook his head, she cleared her throat and declared,

"This knave creeps and clings,
A friend to mischief, the enemy
of sight. The sun may drive him off -"

"You cannot claim fog is male," Marc interrupted. "It is a woman. Listen." He listened himself first, checking all about was still and reedy, no dogs or busy hunters, then spoke.
"She winds her promise of mystery about you,
Endlessly deceiving and beguiling. Softer than dew."
"Not so," Sunniva replied at once. "Listen -"
And so they went on, moving slowly but steadily through the fens until they reached a point where the mist seeped away and they found themselves on a river, rowing to a fording-place.

[Photograph of the coin of Harold II from the British Museum by courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]


Kaye Manro said...

Oh Lindsay-- this is so brilliant! I love what you've done here. And the coin-- I also wrote about King Steven's coin in my 1136 medieval! It's all so much fun isn't it?

I put a little thing up on my blog about you being there on Monday.

See ya soon!

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Kaye! And yes, I agree- it is fun!

Looking forward to being with you on Monday, at your super blog!

LK Hunsaker said...

I love that you included riddles in your novel! I never thought about poetry and riddles being related but it makes sense that they are.

I was doing that a few years ago when I did a little fantasy novella for a contest. I haven't touched it since, as I don't actually write fantasy but was stretching my wings. Maybe I'll have to look at it again one of these days. ;-)