Oh man, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songsis so cool. An exegesis of the Exetor Book – one of the four surviving major manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon poetry – the other three being the Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, and Beowulf. The ninety-odd poems that survive from that manuscript – and the object itself shows signs of surviving at least one fire, being used as a cutting board, and storing gold leaf sheets like an unimportant cabinet – are all riddlic poems – word games that use their lines to catch the creatures of meaning and being. The poem-smiths themselves have all been hammered into anonymity, a name here and there with no referent. Sometimes the riddles themselves are unsolvable, the millennium between their inception and our reception an unbreachable gap. Oh em gee, it makes me want to crawl under the table and freak out for an hour. Unsolvable tenth century Anglo-Saxon riddles!!!1!!
Craig Williamson is one of those scholarly dreamboats who steers his craft with a poet’s oar, but balanced with a nerdy, exacting taxonomy that keeps his prose from spinning out into fancy. (Like you do.) He drops more names than a telephone book, but only if the telephone book were full of Classical and Medieval scholars, poets, and translators. (He does have a tumescence for Whitman that I can’t entirely embrace, but we’ll chalk that to age difference. I may to his December.) I am not disparaging Williamson here – translation and interpretation is a tricky business – the source material fixed in unknowable history – the target reader a moving bullseye that is best hit with the steadying arms of those who have tried before. Reading his list of the varying translations of a single riddle-poem was like reading a sudoku puzzle where this word changed and that, but the equations strove to the same sum. My eyes turned into little hearts.
The book is split into three sections: an opening of headings and footings that both set and sink these poems, the poems themselves, and then a section of individual gloss on the riddles, one by one. The opening is less an argument or a logic chain, that sets to strangle meaning out of these words, but more a string of related insights that bead up like breath on glass. Apparently, Williamson published a translation in the late-70s, though that was more concerned with translation, the text broken by gloss on gloss. Kinda made me think about how Post-Modernism moves easily from Classicism, with its historically broken, rended texts broken even more by the footnote; meaning this elusive thing in a sea of contextualization. Dag, yo.
Undoubtedly Tolkien knew of these riddlic poems when he wrote The Hobbit – Bilbo’s riddle match against Gollum where he wins the Ring of Power – but from what I can tell with my deep understanding of having read one book, those were more Latin riddle-poems stripped of their titles. The Latin riddle-poem is titled by the thing it riddles, and then the poet shows off how clever he is in an almost-epigram. (And, believe me, I love the epigram, so I’m not complaining.) The Anglo-Saxon riddle-poem is much more personal than this. The poet takes on the persona of the thing, the creature, and tells the tale of how the inkhorn and the lost twin live in the same house, eat the same food. It both collapses the Self and the Other, and sets them vibrating like a plucked string of being. When Williamson talks of Grendel himself as a riddle-poem – how this monster is in the same mead-hall, at the same feast, with the same needs as the baleful Beowulf, growling from the edge of the heart-fire, “Say who I am.” Good lord, blew my mind. (And another mind-blow happened with a riddle-poem of the cross that Christ was nailed to and its metaphorical accountings, but I am not getting into theology here on the Internets. But still, it moved.)
But, I don’t want this to sound like not-fun, with my talk of monsters and Christ-nailed trees. The Anglo-Saxons were some bawdy folk, and even though (because) these writers were mostly monks or priests, there’s a ton of obscenity if you’re into that sort of thing. (And I am.) Most of the obscene riddles are double entendres, with a naïve meaning, and a more that’s what she said interpretation, so the riddle riddles the solver: how dirty is your mind? I clutch my pearl necklace in horror that you thought the term pearl necklace meant anything but pearl necklace! Check this:
I am the hard punch and pull of power,
Bold thrusting out, keen coming in,
Serving my lord. I burrow beneath
A belly, tunneling a tight road.
My lord hurries and heaves from behind
With a catch of cloth. Sometimes he drags me
Hot from a hole, sometimes shoves me
Down the snug road. The southern thruster
Urges me on. Say who I am.
Cough cough, right? I’m going to assume you booksters are of the dirty mind, so I’ll note that the more parent-safe interpretation is something like a belt or a cinch. If you can’t think of the dirty reading, I can’t help you, friend. Good luck with that.