Title Background

Hits and Misses in Interpreting Patience’s Riddle.

Hits and Misses in Interpreting Patience’s Riddle.

This essay won the 2005 Literature Compass Graduate Essay Prize, Medieval Section. Adair proposes that Patience’s riddle in PPl B.13.151–56 was misinterpreted for almost a century because of a misplaced hyphen in Walter Skeat’s 1886 edition. This hyphen joins two words—laumpe and lyne—which seem to mimic other alliterative connections. This misplaced hyphen prompted a wild-goose chase for a non-existent ‘lamp-line’. Instead, as Andrew Galloway reveals in his 1995 study, the line in question is a reference to another riddle (in which laumpe and lyne belong to different subjects), casting Patience’s riddle as a poetic mise en abyme. The poem’s saturation with alliterative phrases seems to be one of the most obvious intrinsic guides to reading the poem; in this case, it is also one of the most deceptive. After examining the breadth of riddle scholarship, Adair concludes that that one of the inherent characteristics of the poem—alliteration—accounts for a majority of these mistaken solutions, and thus it is L’s propensity to wordplay that poses such a problem of translation and interpretation for contemporary scholars. Building on Galloway’s article, she questions why other parts of the riddle remain unsolved: do modern scholars lack a text or cultural reference that would help decipher the riddle? If so, would the riddle’s components have been familiar to L’s contemporary readers? Or was L as enigmatic to them as he is to us? To begin to answer these questions, she proposes a cumulative understanding of the riddle based upon an investigation of its individual parts and offer possible explanations for its near-chronic misinterpretation. She also explores how these scholastic failures fit within in the greater context of the poem’s scholarship, since the riddle’s elements represent many of the poem’s larger thematic and technical components. Her investigation of the language, imagery, grammar, and Latin code-switching reveals that, independent of the different interpretations of these elements, all scholars reach a collective agreement of the riddle’s ‘greater meaning’. This shared solution is indicative of an overarching characteristic of PPl: the poem speaks in multiple voices on tiered levels of complexity. In the same way, the simple and abstruse solutions of the riddle, and by extension, the poem, coincide, perhaps by the design of L himself.


Literature Compass, 3.3 (2006), 270-81. http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00316.x


Adair, Allison