A Crossing of Old and New: Riddle 55 of the Exeter Book
I saw in the hall, where heroes drank,
carried onto the floor a wondrous woodtree
of four kinds and wound gold,
cunningly fastened treasure, and part of silver
5 and the sign of the cross, which He raised the ladder
for us to heaven before He stormed
the city of the inhabitants of hell. I can easily tell
before noblemen the origin of this tree:
there was maple and oak and the hard yew
10 and the dark holly: All together [they] were useful
to the L(l)ord; All have one name,
gallows; that often warded off (received)
a weapon for its liege lord, a treasure in the hall,
a gold-hilted sword. Now show me the answer
15 of this song, he who presumes
to say in words how the wood is called.
Most of the riddles contained in the Exeter Book have been answered to the satisfaction of the majority Anglo-Saxon scholars. One that continues to elude a definitive answer, however, is Riddle 55. Several solutions have been suggested, but only three have received critical consideration. Dietrich first offered the solution as scabbard, explaining, "The scabbard is richly decorated and divided into quarters by a cross, probably each quarter was made of a different wood" (qtd. in Taylor 497). Craig Williamson refutes this answer by pointing out that Anglo-Saxon shields were lined with leather or fleece and sometimes covered with cloth. In addition, "the structural weakness of such a hybrid should be obvious" (Williamson 307). Another solution, suggested by Leibermann, is sword rack, to which Williamson remarks, "there is no evidence in Old English or in Anglo-Saxon archaeology for the existence of an early English sword rack. There is no Old English word for sword rack and there are no manuscript illustrations of sword racks" (302). Clearly, neither of these solutions is acceptable.
This leaves Tupper’s solution of cross, which seems the most plausible for several reasons. A non-biblical tradition exists that the cross was made of four woods. The Anglo-Saxons most likely adapted this tradition and chose four woods native to their region of the world. As for the ornamentation, "The Dream of the Rood" provides a precedence for the cross being decorated with treasure: "the brightest of crosses; that emblem was entirely / cased in gold; beautiful jewels / were strewn around its foot, just as five / studded the cross beam" (ll. 6-9). Furthermore, the cross is the ladder by which Christians get to heaven, and as such the four woods were useful to the Lord as a means of gaining salvation for believers. The gallows conforms to the riddle’s solution since the cross was a gallows for Jesus. Conclusively, the solution is quite credible. However, a few words and phrases throughout serve to complicate this riddle and indicate another meaning is lurking under the surface. First, it is curious this takes place in a mead hall. Secondly, it is unclear whether...