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a silhouette of birds sitting in a tree

Dr Megan Cavell reflects on a creative project she took part in over lockdown, working with colleagues to bring to life a 10th Century poetic riddle to life in the digital space.

Every day I wake up to the sound of crows throwing a party on the roof above my bedroom. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that birds were on my mind when I embarked on a lockdown project with Double Elephant Print Workshop.

In March, Double Elephant’s Emma Molony put together a team to bring to life a 10th-century poetic riddle from the UNESCO-recognised Exeter Book in Exeter Cathedral library. I spend a lot of my time translating, researching and writing about the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book (along with their less famous but equally fascinating early medieval Latin counterparts), and I joined the team with enthusiasm. We collaborated online with film-maker Luke Hagan, computer programmer Corina Hagan, poet and professor of creative writing at Newcastle University Jacob Polley, and fellow medievalist and professor of English at the University of St Andrews Chris Jones.

Together, we chose the not-so-inspiringly titled (by 20th-century scholars) Riddle 57, which describes small, dark-coated creatures travelling through the air and alighting on trees and human dwellings. These were my house-partying crows brought to life in the 10th century! Though there are lots of other potential solutions to this riddle – from bees to letters, music notes to supernatural beings – I chose to let the solution crawas (Old English for “crows”) guide my translation. With different solutions in mind, Jacob, Chris and I set to work producing three unique translations of the Old English, in order to create an interactive animated riddle encounter that demonstrates how many decisions go into translating a work of poetry like this one. At the same time, a public call-out to artists brought in over 180 artworks inspired by the poem, which would form the basis of the animation.

You can “play” Riddle 57 here, marvel at the beautiful artwork and make translation decisions of your own.  This was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had with the riddles, and – my project colleagues and contributing artists will agree – it provided a creative retreat during those long lockdown months when anxieties ran high. 

Once you’ve played with the interactive Riddle 57, you might find that you want to know more about the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book. If that’s the case (and if you have the stomach for a bit of double entendre!), hop along to my article on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website.

You can also listen to my guest spot on Becca Leppert and Claire Crow’s (fabulously-titled) podcast, Knight School, which is made by students for students of medieval literature and history.

And if you want to read more Old English riddles, well I have good news for you. It’s called The Riddle Ages, a blog that features translations and commentaries of the Exeter Book riddles. With the help of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, my co-investigator at Royal Holloway University of London Jenny Neville and University of Birmingham postdoctoral fellow Neville Mogford, it’s about to get an upgrade. So, stay tuned. Because things are going to get riddley.