There’s a certain state of mind I call crossword brain: It’s both intuitive and counterintuitive, knowing when to turn away from the seemingly obvious solution, but also knowing when to trust your instincts and go with the answer that feels good. Yet as The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition, a comprehensive new collection beautifully edited by the Oxford professor Andy Orchard, demonstrates, everything you need to know about crosswords you can learn from Anglo-Saxon riddles: Riddles are the ür-crossword puzzles.
Riddles are at the heart of language. The Old English verb raedan lies at the root of “to read” and “to riddle”: To read is to riddle, to riddle is to read. What makes the riddle so special and weird as a form — and so like the crossword — is its ability to be at once highbrow and lowbrow. Riddles represent the whole of Anglo-Saxon life. These short pieces range about as widely as possible in tone and form, from ribald cracks to grammar lessons to ornate religious puzzles by the archbishop of Canterbury. For perhaps the first time, Orchard’s collection gathers these early medieval riddles from across centuries and languages. An equally hefty companion book of commentary traces the riddles’ provenance, how scholars over the centuries have solved them and where they’ve gone astray.
Riddles, games and crosswords might seem like throwaways, entertaining diversions from real life. Crosswords entered The New York Times in 1942 to give readers a distraction from the bleak headlines of World War II. But crossword-brain and riddle logic tap into the heart of what it means to read, and to be human. To think inside the box, you have to let your mind wander free.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review