Renee R. Trilling

title.none: Niles, Enigmatic Poems (Renee R. Trilling)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.030 08.04.30

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Renee R. Trilling, University of Illinois,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in teh early Middle Ages, vol. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. xv, 330. $85.00 (hb) 2-503-51530-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.30

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in teh early Middle Ages, vol. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. xv, 330. $85.00 (hb) 2-503-51530-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Renee R. Trilling
University of Illinois

As John Niles points out in the introduction to this volume, readers of Old English poetry often find themselves confronting a cultural enigma: "we are like persons who find themselves accidental eavesdroppers on a discussion that is already underway, between unknown numbers of unseen persons, about topics only some of which are likely to make sense to us today" (1). This is true to varying degrees of all Old English poems, but it is an especially apt description of what Niles calls "the more obscure" and, consequently, "more interesting ones" (4), such as the riddles and elegies that offer tantalizing glimpses of a mental world but leave so much unsaid. In coining the admittedly ad hoc category of "enigmatic poetry," Niles hopes to reframe the investigation of these poems as a contest of wits between author and reader, emphasizing the playful and ludic aspects that such a contest embodies and accentuating the sheer intellectual pleasure that comes from achieving understanding through a game that is not unlike solving a puzzle. Rooted in close readings of the texts set against a sprawling background of history, anthropology, linguistics, and critical theory, the project sets out, above all, to read Old English poetry as an Anglo-Saxon reader would have done. Whether it succeeds in that particular goal is impossible for me to say, but it achieves an equally admirable feat in producing a series of carefully delineated new readings of some of the more interesting specimens of the Old English canon.

The book dives into its task with a playful spirit indeed. The first four of its eight chapters explore some of the riddles of the Exeter Book, and Chapter One, "Exeter Book Riddle 74 and the Play of the Text," outlines the methodology that will inform the readings in subsequent chapters as well. Niles begins with an analysis of various translations of the riddle, emphasizing the circular logic by which an accurate translation of a riddle demands that the translator know in advance what the answer to that riddle is. As a result, "translations can easily predispose a reader in the direction of one or another solution" (14), and Niles notes quite rightly that the only person who can say definitively whether an answer is correct is the person who first posed the riddle. In the absence of such an authority, what is the modern reader to do? Niles proposes four criteria for determining the validity of an interpretation: that it be "philologically exact" (29), "comprehensive," "a good historical/contextual fit," and "elegant" (30). Niles methodically challenges the inconsistencies in each previous translation and solution before finally arriving, through this process of elimination (and via a brief detour through Emily Dickinson) at his own philologically exact, comprehensive, historically/contextually fitting, and elegant solution to Riddle 74. At the same time, he suggests that the process by which we arrive at the solution to a riddle parallels the process of interpreting literature in general; the riddles thus serve as a test case for a larger argument about how to read Old English poetry in general, or indeed any poetry at all.

The method delineated in Chapter One becomes the foundation for the rest of the book, incorporating the "text as puzzle" metaphor into readings of more riddles and of texts that are less explicitly riddling, but equally enigmatic. Chapter Two, "Exeter Book Riddle 55: Some Gallows Humour" sets the solving of a riddle against the context of Anglo-Saxon material culture to arrive at an answer that fulfills not only the literary requirements of the text itself, but also the context of the audience's probable expectations. Because riddles so often refer to objects, Niles argues, thinking about the objects that might be familiar to a typical Anglo-Saxon reader puts a modern reader into the proper mindset to arrive at a contextually appropriate and elegant solution; it also emphasizes, once again, the playfulness with which riddling poets describe their objects in terms that deliberately invoke misleading images from daily life. Chapter Three, "New Answers to Exeter Book Riddles 36, 58, 70, and 75/76" similarly proceeds through the history of interpretation of each of these riddles, discarding evidence that does not fit with the linguistic demands of the riddle and supplementing them with investigations into the Anglo- Saxon cultural milieu. In Chapter Four, Niles suggests "Answering the Riddles in their Own Tongue," reminding modern readers that the correct answer to an Old English riddle is not just a concept, but an actual Old English word. Here, the linguistic playfulness of puns and other forms or paronomasia emerges as a key component of the riddling poet's art and one that ties the riddles firmly to the aesthetics of the wider Old English poetic tradition.

The second half of the book looks at poems that are enigmatic in other ways: the narrative enigma of the elegiac Wife's Lament and Husband's Message, and the lexical enigma of the runes in The Rune Poem and the signatures of Cynewulf. Drawing upon the methodology he developed for reading the riddles, Niles approaches these texts also as puzzles to be solved, looking for clues in the language of the poems and the cultural world to which they refer. These clues accumulate to form a spectrum of evidence that ranges, in "The Problem of the Ending of The Wife's Lament," across traditions of cursing, its gendered and religious implications, and its practice in ancient Rome, the medieval North, and modern Africa. "The Trick of the Runes in The Husband's Message" turns out, on closer examination of tenth-century shipbuilding practices, to be the paronomasia of a ship's treow, or mast, which stands in for the treow, or troth, of the man who sent it to collect his beloved. By reading The Rune Poem as a series of riddles rather than as a rune dictionary, Niles proposes several new meanings for old runes, and this method also informs his reconsideration of Cynewulf's runic signatures which, he finds, emphasize the eschatological purpose of the poems rather than connecting them to secular traditions.

Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts is, to be sure, on the long side; each chapter is loaded with background, analysis, rumination, and speculation that ultimately lead to a "solution" to the enigma in question. As a result, readers are able to follow Niles through his thought processes about these poems, witnessing his reflection on the texts and the different kinds of knowledge against which he is considering them. He does not skimp on detail, and the book is interspersed with helpful addenda, appendices, and mini-chapters that offer further tidbits of information to enhance the points made in the chapters. A table cataloging the range of proposed solutions to the Exeter Book riddles, for example, is an extremely useful tool (141-48). Some readers may find this range of detail distracting, but Niles' purpose is not to offer quick answers; rather, he seeks to meditate on the poetic operations of these texts and the experiences they produce for readers. "[W]hen one writes about the riddles and riddle-like poems composed in Old English," he concludes, "what one is finally talking about is Old English poetry itself as a mode of expression. From there it is only a short step to the aesthetics of poetry in general" (307). In this, Niles focuses as much on how Old English poetry means as on what it means. The pleasure of the book, then, comes not just from learning what another scholar thinks a riddle or a poem really means, but from witnessing the journey that takes him to that conclusion.