, Volume 97, Issue 3, pp 555-579
Date: 13 Oct 2012

Laf-Craft in Five Old English Riddles (K-D 5, 20, 56, 71, 91)

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Except for arms and armor, the decorated sword in particular, reference to other types of ornamental metal-work in the Anglo-Saxon Riddles remains unnoted. Moreover, the transparency of the sword clues in some riddles has been problematic, inviting dismissive treatment, emendation or far-fetched solution and re-interpretation in order to vindicate them as properly clever examples of the riddle genre. If, however, we look more closely at the central role of Old English laf in these riddles, their simple subjects become impressively complex, both visually and rhetorically. I argue here that the artistry of Riddles 5, 20, 56, 71 and 91 mirrors that of the metal-worked objects they describe, and that in the case of Riddle 91, the objects are not confined to swords. In leading the reader from the visual complexities of the artifact to the social complexities of human interaction, Old English laf brings the violence of artistic creation into ambivalent relationship with the violence of human nature; each riddle conjures a scene that requires a moment of moral reflection.