Logophagy

Riddle 47 of the Exeter Book breaks from tradition in revealing its solution in the first word. The poem describes a bookworm—moððe ‘moth’—that has eaten through a manuscript page, recklessly devouring some of the written text along with it. Alliterating sounds are boldfaced:

Moððe word fræt.    Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd,    þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg    wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro    þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol.    Stælgiest ne wæs 5
wihte þy gleawra    þe he þam wordum swealg.

1   Moððe fem ō lit. ‘moth’—word neut a; can be singular or plural ‘word(s)’—fræt V fretan ‘devoured’ cf. fret, Ger fressen < for-etan ‘eat up’—þæt looks ahead to l. 3 þætþuhte 1 þyncan ‘seemed’

2   wrætlicu fem adj wrǣt-līc ‘curious’—wyrd ‘fate’ = ‘happening’—gefrægn III ge-frignan ‘learned, found out’

3   forswealg III for-swelgan ‘swallowed up’—wera … sumes ‘of one of men’ = ‘of a certain man’—gied neut ja giedd ‘song, poem’

4   þystro fem ō þīestru ‘darkness’ cf. Ger düster, finsterþrymfæstne masc adj ‘majestic, illustrious’—cwide ‘sentence, saying’ < *kʷidiz; related to *kʷeþaną ‘speak’

5   staþol ‘fixed position, foundation’; þæs strangan staþol ‘the foundation of that strong one’ refers to the physical page, the foundation on which the mighty word stands—stælgiest ‘thievish guest’; the first element, from stelan, implies not only material theft but the creature’s flitting about unnoticed; for this semantic development, cf. nimble from OE niman ‘take’ and furtive from Lat fur ‘thief’

6   wihte ‘by a thing’ = ‘at all’—þy … þe is a correlative pair; the second þe is relative = ‘by the fact that’—gleawra masc adj glēaw comp ‘wiser’—þam wordum dat pl; read as the object of swealg

A moth devoured words. Methought it
a curious occurrence, when I heard of that wonder,
that the worm had swallowed up a certain man’s poem—
a thief in the darkness [swallowed up] an illustrious sentence
and the strong thing’s foundation. The thievish guest was 5
none the wiser for having swallowed those words.

(Featured image by Emir O. Filipović)

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