Literature and Theatre

Abstract only

The Afterword celebrates the communal practice that is riddling—whether composing, solving, interpreting, or editing. It aims to draw together the individual voices of the riddles and of the chapters of this volume into a communal unity that celebrates diverse methods and perspectives. This book’s sections—Words, Ideas, Interactions—arguably move, flow, collapse inward, and reconstitute themselves through the act of interpreting, just as the riddles themselves invite constant re-reading and re-interpretation of clues and solutions. Hence, the Afterword also maps out possible directions for future work in the field of riddle studies: more engagement with the Latin collections and comparative work on Scandinavian and Celtic riddle traditions, as well as critical engagement with identity, especially identity informed by disability, race and gender theories. Finally, it suggests that the insights into daily life offered through the riddles’ subversive concealments and manoeuvrings make them ideal texts for the study of identity in all its complexity.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

This chapter proposes a new grouping of Exeter Book riddles which share a semantic and metaphorical interest in ‘craft’ and ‘sound’: the acoustic craft riddles. In these riddles, worked objects speak, ring, and resound, while the practices which transform raw materials into artefacts are often euphonious and resonant in their own right. The soundscape of the craftsman’s workshop – its musical and melodious contexts – and the gifting of sounding voice to worked objects opens up the riddles to a celebration of the most meaningful of all audible human gifts: language, both spoken and written. This chapter explores how the acoustic craft riddles offer us a new critical picture of riddlic textuality which puts the material into a playful and rich relationship with the aural: sound and language can be crafted, like raw materials, in the production of aural artefacts. The riddles do not only rely on the voices of their poets; their linguistic mechanisms presuppose the social and communal value of the text within the word exchange: they leave space for the reader’s own voice to resonate in response and to re-craft solutions and propositions through the shaping power of their own voices.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
The early medieval contexts of Aldhelm’s cat riddle

Infamous for an ambivalence that riles some and charms others, the domestic cat’s relationship with humans is now the subject of extensive zooarchaeological study. The point at which domestication took place is the subject of a debate that is complicated by the interbreeding of domestic and wild cats. The complexity of the cat’s domestication goes some way toward explaining the sparse literary and linguistic evidence for this animal in early medieval England, where they seem to have existed largely without human interference. Despite this lack, Aldhelm’s fascinating Anglo-Latin riddle, Enigma 65, Muriceps, explores the role of the mouser in vivid detail. This chapter provides a close reading of Aldhelm’s riddle, after discussing the cat’s pathway to domestication and surveying comparative evidence from early medieval sources. It argues that the semi-domesticated nature of early medieval cats shines through in Aldhelm’s poem, which employs both positive imagery of the mouser’s domestic role (faithfulness, vigilance and guardianship), and negative imagery drawn from the biblical tradition (secretiveness, snare-laying and tribal enmity). Aldhelm’s cat is both a welcome cohabiter and diabolical presence in the human household, an ambiguity that is juxtaposed with the more thoroughly domesticated dog with whom the riddle-cat refuses to cooperate.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Abstract only
New translations of Exeter riddle fragments Modor Monigra (R.84), Se Wiht Wombe Hæfde (R.89), and Brunra Beot (R.92), accompanied by notes on process

This chapter offers new translations of some of the most fire-damaged riddles of the Exeter Book, accompanied by a translator’s note discussing the process of translating Old English fragments. While many translators attempt to smooth over missing language, the author is fascinated by the ways in which Old English poetry allows him to walk through its bones, and part of his translation instinct is about paying respect to gaps in these poetic remains, rather than attempting to force a seeming wholeness onto them. Old English poems already exist as sites of multiple kinds of loss. Given that these few remaining poems are in a language no longer spoken, are often damaged, and that many of them are considered without literary merit, it seems crucial to engage them in a way that honours their losses, instead of attempting to offer them ‘accessibility’. This place of loss and temporal and textual scarring is where these translations intervene and build. The translations presented in this chapter do not attempt to find answers to fragmented riddles. Instead, they communicate their words and their syntax, while preserving, rather than hiding, their damage.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

Several textual moments in the Vercelli Book have some similarity to the rhetoric of riddles. This chapter illustrates their conformity to a larger pattern in that manuscript’s texts, a pervasive engagement with conditional revelation that promotes what the author calls ‘enigmatic knowing’: a form of access to discourses of authority that stands in radical contrast to those that characterise modern academic structures of thought about similar problem-solving tasks. Many Vercelli Book poems and homilies show a preoccupation with revelation of truth only through the effort or virtue required to obtain privileged understanding; they posit a structuring of information or knowledge whereby signs inscrutable to many nevertheless contain what is needed to interpret them correctly, provided that their interpreters bring the proper ethical orientations and address themselves to the challenge with a spirit of responsibility. Such narratives of revelation often play out through rhetorical engagements with wisdom, celebrations of paradox, and scenes of intellectual confrontation that intersect the discursive mode of riddles in numerous ways.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Abstract only
An ecofeminist reading of Modor Monigra (R.84)

Recent studies of Exeter Book riddles and Old English literature have begun to reveal their ecological underpinnings, drawing on ecocriticism to explore the relationship between human beings and the rest of the created world. There is still much to explore in this growing field, including the relationship between the oppression of the natural world and the oppression of women. This chapter discusses Old English texts from an ecofeminist perspective, exploring the representation of, and forging links between, these two oppressed groups. It suggests that, where texts like The Wife’s Lament and The Order of the World depict both nature and women as dominated by an androcentric and anthropocentric worldview, a number of Exeter Book riddles challenge such depictions, offering us, for example, the depiction of water as both a feminine natural force and a celebrated monstrous female that is sellic (‘wonderful’) and freolic (‘free’). Drawing on recent ecofeminist scholarship in the field of eco-theology, this chapter suggests that certain riddles, including Modor Monigra (R.84), interrogate the human- and male-centred nature of wisdom and free early medieval women and the natural world from patriarchal oppression.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

This first chapter introduces how riddles work in the tradition of early medieval England and its neighbours. It argues that the balance between the communal and individual, struck by Aldhelm in the preface to his Enigmata, lies at the heart of the early medieval riddling tradition and underlies its current popularity. A brief reading of Heanmode Twa (Exeter Book Riddle 42) illustrates the interplay between the demand for solution and the other kinds of work—on value, literacy, sex, interpretation—that these texts initiate. An overview of scholarship, from 1857 to the present day, follows. The chapter notes particularly the past focus on solution-hunting, questions about genre, different contexts for interpretation, linguistic play, and categorisation. Above all it stresses the multifarious nature of the riddles themselves and the scholarship this has inspired. Finally the General Introduction summarises the book’s chapters, divided into three sections. Part I, ‘Words’, exemplifies interpretations based on close readings of texts. Part II, ‘Ideas’, engages with theory to examine how the riddles invite new ways of thinking about objects, relationships, and experiences. Part III, ‘Interactions’, showcases the ways in which the riddles lead us to make connections with other fields, languages, times, and places.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Incongruity in Feþegeorn (R.31)

Incongruity is the sine qua non for humour, as any good humour theory will suggest, conjuring up an appropriately inappropriate doubleness. But incongruity alone is never sufficient to explain humour. This chapter brings together consideration of humour theory with the interpretation of Feþegeorn (R.31) to ponder whether riddles can provide a key to understanding the humour of early medieval England. Pinpointing humour always requires an awareness of the multiple frames within which the comic stimulus works. For literary humour, this requires a sensitivity to register (with implicit questions of expectations of genre) as well as to meaning (attending to the doubleness of diction) and to context (since performance and social context plays a significant role). Interpreting humour also requires a fine-tuned sense of the timing of the revelation of doubleness, and here memory plays a significant role, since earlier tellings (of a riddle or of a joke) allow an audience to usefully anticipate the upcoming resolution.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

The chapters in this section explore words as words, sounds, and language, engaging to greater or lesser extents with the long history of philological approaches to Old English language and literature. Working from words outward—to text, genre, language as a whole—is rewarding because the gradual amassing of evidence as the frame of reference expands is orderly, methodical, and systematic. And yet it is never the only, or the correct, way to approach a text. Ultimately, philological approaches rely on the interpretation of words, and there are many ways to interpret both words and the texts in which they survive. These interpretations all rely on good close reading, on grappling with polysemy, and on translation and solving as an act of interpretation.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

The chapters in this section go beyond the riddles’ words to explore the ideas that theoretically-inflected approaches can reveal in them. This approach is not new; the study of early medieval riddles has already benefitted from gender and sexuality studies, among other interdisciplinary approaches. The chapters here use the riddles to test ideas about humour, sentience, monstrosity, ecofeminism, hyper-objects, and conceptual blending.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition