The world of the riddle

I am thinking that, rather than alter the previous post, I’ll wait until I trim the unruly poem down to size and then include that in a separate entry at some other time. (I guess if I were at all abashed about putting the messier byproducts of the creative process on display, I’d probably never post a single poem – or even blog at all!)

In the back of my mind as I put it together was the model of the Anglo-Saxon riddle. Those who are unfamiliar with this genre should not think of the parlor-game kind of riddles that are brief and admit of only one answer. In fact, a half-dozen or so of the 96 riddles preserved in the 10th-century Exeter Book are double-entendres. A handful incorporate runes and sophisticated puns, while others stray into vatic modes. Some are riddles in form only, the thing to be guessed at unveiling itself line by line with all the dramatic flair and linguistic flourish at the poet’s disposal. Some are obscure to the modern reader simply because the solution is a thing no longer in use, or a phenomenon that we would designate with more than one word. Such is the case with the opening poems of the collection, which describe tornado, earthquake, seaquake and storm at sea as one, compound being:

Sometimes my Lord corners me;
then he imprisons all that I am
under fertile fields – He frustrates me,
condemns me in my might to darkness,
casts me into a cave where my warden, earth,
sits on my back. I cannot break out
of that dungeon, but I shake halls
and houses; the gabled homes of men
tremble and totter; walls quake,
then overhang. Air floats above earth,
and the face of the ocean seems still
until I burst out from my cramped cell
at my Lord’s bidding . . .

(#3, translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Exeter Book Riddles, Penguin, 1979)

Thus the opening trio of riddles also point beyond their own solutions. The anonymous cleric who compiled the manuscript doubtless wanted to invoke the power of the Almighty, but in a manner appropriate to the medium. The people who composed and delighted in these riddles were – as so many of their greatest poems remind us – a seafaring folk for whom the ocean was a source of both joy and terror. A man’s relationship with the sea was very much like his relationship to the divine: one of awe-struck reliance tempered by feeble efforts at propitiation. The storm and earthquake were signs not only of divine power but of the ultimately fluid and changeable nature of the things we take for granted, setting palaces on fire, uprooting forests, swallowing fleets. Earth and ocean are commingled by the elemental power of the Creator/Destroyer.

. . . Spuming crests crash
against the cliff, dark precipice looming
over deep water; a second tide,
a sombre flood, follows the first;
together they fret against the sheer face,
the rocky coast.

This sense of awe (which I define as fear leavened by wonder, or vice versa) is a fundamental part of the outlook of all pre-modern cultures of which I am aware. But many civilizations tend to leave it out of their high-culture products. The Germanic cultures of the so-called Dark Ages were unique in producing (or at least writing down) a body of literature that did not reflect merely the refined sensitivities of an urban aristocracy – refinement so often involving a willful insulation from life’s starker and more humbling circumstances.

There is just enough of this poetry preserved to allow us to form a fairly complete picture of how the universe appeared to the ancient Anglo-Saxons. It is interesting to me how much their outlook anticipates what we have come to think of as the unique heritage of the modern era: the worldview of scientific rationalism. The riddles in particular display a fascination with the world as an endless series of puzzles to be solved. But even poems that are not riddles bristle with kennings, the cunning metaphors that were the skaldic poet’s stock-in-trade. Solving one mystery often points simply to further mystery, but this is felt to be a source of delight rather than frustration. Enough of the pagan outlook has survived the general conversion to Christianity to preserve intact the instinct that all things have inherent value, a unique spirit that is capable of saying its own name, of questioning and calling into question.

I’m a strange creature with various voices:
I can bark like a dog, bleat like a goat,
honk like a goose, shriek like a hawk,
at times I imitate the ashen eagle,
the battle-bird’s cry; the vulture’s croak
trips off my tongue, and the mew of a seagull,
as I sit here, saucily . . .

The translator says of this poem (#24) that it bristles with onomatopoeia in the original. (The evident solution is a jay or magpie.) Another bird riddle, one of uncertain solution, in the very last line spells out the connection between animal vocalization and speech: “They name themselves (#57).”

The challenge can be literal:

He who struggles against my strength,
he who dares grapple with me, discovers immediately
that he will hit the hard floor with his back
if he persists,

says the mead (#27).

As the translator points out in his introduction, by and large the makers of these poems stay resolutely focused on the everyday world of working people. “There are riddles about bucket and bellows, churn and key, ale and mead, anchor and plough; riddles about badger and bullock, the swan, the jay, the swallow, the copulating cock and hen; riddles about the sun and moon, and sudden storms, and ice (p.15).” But in fact, all of Creation is a riddle to be solved:

I stretch beyond the bounds of the world,
I’m smaller than a worm, outstrip the sun,
I shine more brightly than the moon. The swelling seas,
the fair face of the earth and all the green fields,
are within my clasp. I cover the depths,
and plunge beneath hell; I ascend above heaven,
highland of renown; I reach beyond
the boundaries of the land of blessed angels.
I fill far and wide all the corners of the earth
and the ocean streams. Say what my name is.

(# 66, in its entirety)

Thus, although these poems are deeply Christian, they very much partake of the conjurer’s art. The world may be full of terrors, but nothing is too great to be encompassed by the skaldic art. Do we have a word for this kind of unveiling, this Adamic naming that still permits the thing so named to unfold its own destines in secret? Again, I can’t help thinking of the modern scientist who knows that all classification schemes are provisional and that theories, wonderful tools as they are, will always fall far short of a comprehensive description of nature. Like #66, #40 – the longest riddle in the manuscript – also assumes the voice of Creation, the ultimate subject (since God cannot be subjected to such a naming). It abounds with paradox:

My age is much older than this circle of earth
or this middle-world could ever attain,
and I was born yesterday – a baby
from my mother’s womb, acclaimed by men.

This is much closer in spirit to something like the Yoruba hymn to Eshu I quoted here a while back than to the allegorical poems of the high Middle Ages, where abstractions in anthropomorphic form utter moralizing lines glorifying the very small wonders of a rigidly hierarchical, perfectly geometric, Ptolemaic universe. I can’t help thinking that it was this latter spirit, nurtured by the pieties and persecutions of the Roman Church, that produced the true Dark Ages, culminating in wars, famines, pogroms, the burning of heretics, witches and herbalists and the conquest of the New World. All of this activity was, if not caused, at leased licensed by the radical devaluation of nature and deracination of reality that still distinguishes European and Euro-American civilization. What happened, sometime around the 11th century, to turn awe into suspicion, even hatred? The names of things, once sources of wonder, became stereotypes. Wild animals – wolves, eagles, stags – turned into object lessons and heraldic emblems. The rich natural imagery of the Bible was universally seen simply as a code, a set of ciphers. For close to 1000 years, no one in the West would climb a mountain for pleasure or write a poem celebrating the power of the storm.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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