Before diving into how the riddles work, we need to keep a few key terms in mind. “Anglo-Saxon” refers to the history and culture of the people living in what is now England from about A.D. 450 to 1066, that is, when the Normans took over. “Anglo-Latin” is Latin that was written in England. “Old English” is the earliest recorded version of the language we speak today, though Old English bears about as much resemblance to contemporary English as English does to modern Danish: Knowing one and not the other, you’ll be able to pick out some words and phrases, but that’s about it. (Middle English — think Chaucer — is different; once you learn some basic accent shifts and key vowel changes, you’ll be reading “The Canterbury Tales” in an hour.)
Riddles aren’t just clever one-offs: They show the full range of literature from this era, and they illuminate an interconnected world. Riddles tap into crossword-brain from all angles. First, you have to figure out how the riddle is asking you to think — Is this a straightforward definition? A double entendre? A wordplay-based web? — and then you try to solve. Orchard’s collection reveals how much riddles speak to one another not only across time, but across languages. To crack Old English riddles from the Exeter Book, you have to know about their Anglo-Latin predecessors. One Exeter Book riddle describes a creature with one eye and 1,200 heads. It makes no sense — some readers have proposed weird answers like “organ” — unless you know an aenigma by a Latin riddler called Symphosius that also describes a one-eyed being with many heads, but gives the answer: a one-eyed seller of garlic.
Anglo-Latin riddlers often put their collections together in a very particular order involving elaborate acrostics. The Exeter Book riddles use several traditional riddle opening and closing formulas, like Saga hwaet ic hatte (Say what I am called) and Ic geseah (I saw). Old English poetry uses complex patterns of alliteration, and the riddles are no exception, leaning heavily on repetition and rhythm to give hints. They also play with grammatical gender. Lots of riddles like the paradox of a mother that is also a daughter, but where Latin riddles typically involve the feminine glacies (ice) and aqua (water), Greek riddles favor “night and day,” since both those nouns are feminine in Greek; in Old English, the trope takes another twist, as both waeter (water) and is (ice) are neuter.
The best way to get better at crosswords is to do crosswords. That’s how you become fluent in crosswordese: AERIE and ARIA and OREO; ISSA RAE and MEL OTT and TERI GARR. Similarly, many riddles rely on the same motifs, and once you start seeing a theme used one way, you can’t help seeing it again and again. Orchard tracks themes like the “biter bitten,” starting with more literal veggie-based riffs — an onion bites the eyes, pepper bites the tongue — and moving on to metaphorical variants as well, like “wind” (indeed, the “tooth of the wind” becomes a common riddle within a riddle) or “greed.”
Many riddles play with form as well as content. Here’s where the riddles start to act like cryptic crosswords, a variety more common in Britain than in America. Cryptic crosswords differ from the symmetrical New York Times kind by their extra wordplay. Every cryptic clue has two layers: There’s the content of the clue itself, and then there’s a part of the clue that tells you how to solve it. Cryptics might involve anagrams, containers (the word is hidden in plain sight, sandwiched between other words), reversals or deletions; in all cases, there’s something you have to do to the letters themselves to get at the solution.