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17.12.30, Dale, The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles

17.12.30, Dale, The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles

The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles marks the launch of Boydell & Brewer's Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages series. Edited by Michael D. J. Bintley, this timely and relevant forum engages "new work throughout the medieval period broadly defined (c. 400-1500), and covering literature, history, archaeology and other allied disciplines in the humanities" (ii). Innovatively bringing dual approaches in ecocriticism and ecotheology to bear on selected Old English riddles found in the Exeter Book manuscript, Corinne Dale provides an ideal foray into this series' admirable endeavors. In brief, this well-written and convincingly-presented volume argues that "there is a programme of resistance to anthropocentrism at work in the riddle collection, whereby the riddles challenge human-centred ways of depicting the created world" (2).

One of this book's many strengths lies in its presentation of close readings of individual texts within the context of a much more widely applicable approach. Dale's bibliography and notes alone provide a valuable resource for scholars in any area of medieval literature who wish to delve more deeply into ecocriticism or ecotheology. In recent years ecotheology has offered an important new perspective within religious studies, but its influence has been far less wide-reaching than that of the more recognizably multidisciplinary field of ecocriticism. Thus, to assist readers new to this emerging field, Dale summarizes two key goals of ecotheology that most directly impact her own project: "to explore the non-human in the Bible with a view to improving the relationship between humans and nature, and to liberate Christianity from […] its reputation as a highly anthropocentric religion" (12). Careful not to project modern or potentially reductive agendas onto pre-modern texts, Dale devotes an entire sub-section titled "Navigating the Dangers" to the importance of letting analysis be led by the texts themselves.

With this focus on individual poems positioned clearly in the foreground, Dale analyzes selected riddles through a series of seven chapters progressing through the themes of place, labour, creation, transformation, accountability, mastery, and wisdom respectively. With special attention given to Riddles 15, 72, 77, 88, and 92 [1], Chapter 1 observes that where "the built world is the place of comfort in most Old English poetry," the natural world becomes the source of solace and refuge in the riddles (52). The narrative anxiety of Riddle 88 (antler), for instance, hinges on the speaker's removal from the sheltering forest, which had formerly "scildon wið scurum" ["shielded against showers," l. 14a], to its solitary and miserable position as an inkhorn on the end of a table, now reduced to a role for human use. In imagining the world from a non-human perspective, Dale argues, these riddles contemplate "the impact of postlapsarian human beings on the natural order of the created world" (50) and ultimately "resist human-centred notions of place" (55).

Chapter 2 then examines the ox riddles from the perspective of shared labour, concluding that these beasts of burden are here accorded "the ecologically aware status of subjugated sentient beings" (84). Dale's readings give purpose to riddles that might otherwise be dismissed as simplistic due to their fairly obvious solutions: "rather than gaining a feeling of self-achievement through discovering the solution, the reader gains an increased awareness of the plight of the ox and of humanity's relationship with the enslaved animal" (75). This effect is especially pronounced in the paradox created within Riddle 72, where an ox forced to endure suffering and hardship narrates its own painful silence: "næfre meldade monna ængum, / gif me ordstæpe egle wæron" ["Never did I tell any man if the spear-goads were painful," ll. 16-17]. A similar switch in perspective is explored in Chapter 3, where Dale creatively reads Riddle 26 (book or Bible) as "an inversion of the traditional colophon, with its information about the scribe and his endeavors" (87): "If the colophon tradition recorded what was human and spiritual, Riddle 26 records its antithesis, interrogating the scribal practice it appears to echo and reverting to the animal and material" (95). Indeed, the maker of the riddle's book is openly identified at the outset as the enemy, "feonda sum" (l. 1), implicitly challenging the ethics of craftsmen and their creations.

Chapter 4 examines "the post-lapsarian themes of wounding and shaping" in Riddles 53 and 73 "in order to show the emphasis these riddles place on a subject's natural beginnings" (121). Before its transformation into an object for man's use, the wounded tree of Riddle 53 is described in its previous natural state as "tanum torhtne" ["bright in its branches," l. 2], with "wudu weaxende" ["flourishing wood," l. 3] (106). The effect is to create "a feeling of empathy" whereby the reader can "see the non-human subject in more than simply instrumental terms" (121). Chapter 5 then shifts from animal perspectives to natural resources in an exploration of Riddle 83, typically solved as ore or precious metal, most likely molded into coins. Dale reads the riddle's narrative as a "case of post-lapsarian exploitation" (130), in which humanity, explicitly identified as "eorþan broþor" ["earth's brother," l. 5], is exposed as the violent, destructive force who "min fromcynn fruman agette / eall of earde" ["destroyed all my ancestry from its land," ll. 7-8]. The riddle thus becomes an urgent call for human accountability. Similarly, the drinking riddles at the core of the next chapter draw upon "the ecotheological principle of resistance, which claims that the earth has agency and can resist the wrongs caused it by humans" (165). In Riddle 27, for instance, harvested honey turned into mead is at first enslaved for man's use but soon establishes dominance, the drinkers of the mead "strengo bistolen" ["robbed of strength," 13] (154-155). The speaker's removal from its natural environment is described in detail, as it is "brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum, / of denum ond of dunum" ["brought from groves and from mountain slopes, valleys and hills," ll. 2-3]. Its subsequent mastery over humans thus becomes "an ecologically aware resistance narrative in which the natural resource gains mastery over humans" (156).

Finally, Chapter 7 concludes the series of close readings with an exploration of wisdom itself in Riddles 1, 2, 3, and 84. Dale asserts here that these riddles "challenge humanity's belief in the supremacy of its wisdom and endorse a more ecological view of wisdom and knowledge" (168). One of the chapter's more intriguing claims involves the opening lines of Riddle 1, the first of three riddles typically solved as "storm": "Hwylc is hæleþa þæs horsc ond þæs hygecræftig / þæt þæt mæge asecgan, hwa mec on sið wræce" ["What man is so daring and so thought-crafty that he can say who exiles me on my journey," ll. 1-2] (188). Based on parallels with the book of Job, Dale reads this question not as a typical riddle challenge, but as "a sarcastic address to question the knowledge of the reader" (182). In this interpretation, Riddle 1--along with Riddles 2 and 3 (Dale's analysis is unaffected by whether the storm comprises one riddle or three)--serves as "an engagement with the notion that humans cannot control or know everything about the created world" (182) and provides an illustration of "how the wisdom genre questions the dominant anthropocentric view of the world" (193).

While the volume's primary focus remains solidly on the riddles themselves, comparative analysis frequently leads to significant insight into genres outside the wisdom tradition as well. Chapter 1, for instance, discusses the "evocations of place" in the Exeter Book riddles as "the opposite of those we find in the more human-centric elegies" found in the same manuscript. Where the elegies typically "show a man or woman leaving the comfort of the human world to enter the natural world," the riddles that Dale discusses "show a non-human subject leaving the natural world to enter the human world" (45). Subsequent discussions involve Genesis A (Chapter 2) and Cynewulf (Chapter 3) as well as Dream of the Rood and The Phoenix (Chapter 4). The discussion of natural resources from the earth in Chapter 5 compares the perspective of Riddle 83 with the buried hoard in Beowulf (140-143). The description of the drinker in Fortunes of Men offers a useful counterpoint to Riddle 27 (mead) in Chapter 6, and passages from Christ I supplement comparisons between Job and the storm riddles in Chapter 7 (188-189).

Early in the book, Dale quite aptly describes the riddles as "part of a playful literary genre" (18) and echoes the majority of riddle scholars in observing that "[a] riddle's metaphorical layers, literal and allegorical […] can be useful in shedding light on each other's meaning" (22). Her reading of Riddle 53, for example, addresses two "attractive" solutions and invites readers to expand their imaginations to include even more possibilities: "instead of guiding us to one single solution, the riddle invites us to play the carpenter and choose what we turn the object into--a cross or gallows, or other objects of our imaginations" (115). However, in places the book seems to work against the inherent multivalence of the riddles, and Dale even risks undercutting some of her own most astute observations by framing her readings and those of past scholars as mutually exclusive, sometimes devoting a puzzling amount of space to articles published decades ago.

One of the most pronounced examples of this tendency lies in the repeated efforts to discredit Stephen Mitchell's 1982 proposal of "army" as a solution to Riddle 1. [2] The Natural World takes particular issue with Mitchell's description of this proposed solution as having "nothing whatever to do with nature" (Mitchell 41) and holds this same "lamentable" passage up as an example of problematic anthropocentric readings not just once but five times across four separate chapters (20, 125, 182, 194, and 196). A close reading of Mitchell's article, however, shows that the two interpretations are not necessarily as much at odds as Dale's book would suggest. In fact, Mitchell opens his article with the premise that "a broad range of acceptable solutions may exist for every riddle" (39), and the quote above applies only to a single proposed solution, not the riddle as a whole. Drawing from approaches in folklore studies, especially the work of Dan Ben-Amos, Mitchell even suggests that "for every member of a given culture, a set of innumerable correct answers exists for each riddle" (39). Accordingly, his solution "army" is added to other more widely accepted solutions, most notably the nature-related "storm," as but "one of the members of the set of possible solutions a citizen of the Anglo-Saxon world would accept as appropriately solving the puzzle of Riddle 1" (41). Perhaps even more importantly, Mitchell's proposed solution developed from meticulous research based on comparative evidence found in Germanic traditions, especially Old Norse, a tradition that seems to be largely untreated in The Natural World. (I was able to locate only a single passing reference to the Poetic Edda on p. 103.)

Marie Nelson's statement from 1974 that in Riddle 83 the subject's "humanity is more discernible than its identity" also draws repeated criticism in The Natural World (123, 125, 143, 196). [3] Like Mitchell, Nelson states explicitly that that "the riddles were not performed for just one audience with one frame of reference" (421). Nelson's work provides context from Classical rhetoric as yet one additional frame of reference to be used alongside many others, and Nelson's claim about Riddle 83 in particular is actually part of a larger discussion on prosopopoeia. While Dale's lack of attention to Old Norse literature or Classical rhetoric should not be seen as a shortcoming in itself--as her own focus on biblical and patristic influences is laid out clearly from the outset (e.g., 8)--it does perhaps seem unnecessarily limiting to view ecocritical and ecotheological readings in quite such direct opposition with interpretations developing out of other valid approaches.

My only other wish might be for a more comprehensive index, simply because the book's deeply interdisciplinary topics are likely to draw readers eager to locate connections among diverse subjects of study. The volume's particular focus on "the ecology of the Exeter Book riddles from a largely theological perspective" does indeed lead frequently to innovative and convincing readings of numerous individual riddles. Just as significantly, The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles provides a generative and productive model for future work. The list of "ecological principles" outlined in the volume's conclusion (196-197) should be particularly helpful for further applications.

In sum, Dale argues compellingly that the riddles offer an enlightening "ethics of human-nature interaction" (197), and her commitment to understanding how medieval texts convey "human use and abuse of the created world from nature's point of view" (198) has produced a sound methodology for investigating the varied voices of nature as they present themselves not only in the Exeter Book riddles but also in medieval literature more widely. Dale thus concludes with what I hope will be read as an invitation to continue the important work that this book has so promisingly begun: "Green studies in Old English literature has a future, and it is my hope that this present study, with its list of ecological principles, will provide a useful contribution to this growing field--and beyond" (198).

-------- Notes:

1. A prefatory note (viii) explains that citations follow Craig Williamson's The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), while the numbers follow the now conventional numbering system of Krapp and Dobbie's Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edition.

2. Stephen A. Mitchell, "Ambiguity and Germanic Imagery in OE Riddle 1: 'Army,'" Studia Neophilologica 54 (1982): 39-52.

3. Marie Nelson, "The Rhetoric of the Exeter Book Riddles," Speculum 49 (1974): 421-440.