The plurality of a world of things described in the Exeter Book Riddles seems thwarted by metrical monotony. It is a serious problem that these poems are written using the same meter that appears in all the other written Old English poetry, from Beowulf to the Metres of Boethius. (1) But an important task of my translation is to break apart this sameness and discover ways that each distinct object or creature speaking in the Riddles could be given its own voice. I realize that this is not textual, but it is not entirely baseless either.
Let me explain.
Much like the great epic Beowulf (but in a much different way) (2), the Riddles celebrate a world of things, sometimes praising a God who made this diversity, but other times just letting these objects speak. The Riddles are a perfect text to translate (and you can see why The Word Exchange has such fun glorying in that task), because each riddle is a masterwork of translation in and of itself. I’m not saying that every riddle has a source that text that we do not have (though several do appear to be direct translations of Latin riddles, such as #35 & 40), but that for the material world to speak an act of translation must be involved. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said famously, “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him” (Philosophical Investigations). The material world is under no obligation to signify in any way that we can comprehend. The Riddles playfully imagine those unexpected statements, and we are surprised and misled by their shifts of register and reference. We find that these objects think they are doing completely different things than we perceive them, or —better yet—have no interest in us understanding them clearly. They are speaking from a position of “thing-power” to borrow the term from Jane Bennett, and thing-power becomes most apparent when objects fail to do what we expect them to do, when they thwart our designs through sheer material recalcitrance. These observations have their start in Bill Brown’s groundbreaking article:
We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: …when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. (3)
This observation adumbrates the implications of an Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) to come, calling for a “new materialism,” which in a few years did in fact become the “New Materialisms—a range of studies that try to think beyond the human subject in accounting for how material objects behave in the universe. Ian Bogost retraces Brown’s statement in expressing his dissatisfaction with the term “object,” which he states not only presumes a subject, but also sets its limit at mere materiality, at a sort of haecceity of apparent obversation. Instead, the practitioners of OOO engage objects not just as things in space, but as procedures, processes, interactions, results, among other things—not just the things, but everything they seem to do, how they appear to behave in space and time. (4)
The Exeter Book Riddles also play a role in this long history of New Materialisms: insisting not only on their visibility but also their agency in the created world. Serving humanity sometimes, but also expressing a desire to be more than just a “þeowa,” but to know sex, power, play, death, and the terms of living (think of the sword’s regret in Riddle #20 at its fated asexual bachelorhood). Their insistence on material agency, of the completeness and complexity of their livelihood (they are not just, as Heidegger implies of stones, “Welt-los” or “poor-in-world”) is a precocious pronunciation of Levi Bryant’s four theses of flat ontology, the first of which is this:
All objects are withdrawn, such that there are no objects characterized by full presence or actuality. Withdrawal is not an accidental feature of objects arising from our lack of direct access to them, but is a constitutive feature of all objects regardless of whether they relate to other objects. (5)
The Exeter Book Riddles are the multivocal testaments of a world in withdrawal at all points — they may seek relations with what surrounds them, but it ultimately does not matter if they achieve it. And they reveal that life in mutual withdrawal does not have be joyless — that momentary and accidental adjacencies give existence meaning and pleasure. Graham Harman often waxes rhapsodic about the “brutality” of Tool-Being (what he calls, after Heidegger, the realm of withdrawn objects), but I’m not sure the evidence supports this conclusion in any of its various connotations. First, the Riddles shows that this world is alive with voices—hardly “brute” at all. Second, they are engaged in a parade of material habitus (Bourdieu’s “conductorless orchestra”), a complex dance of relations without a caller to guide them. We don’t observe them just colliding and eroding, chipping and cracking, but at play — constant, neverending play.
Few of the things in the Riddles stop at being man-made, they often emphasize an unjustness of their apparent subordination (using the language of political hierarchy to do so), they cheerfully engage in polymorphously perverse relations with whatever touches them (think of Riddle #12’s oxhide kneaded by “wanton hands” or #61’s shirt imagining the passage of a head through its folds as something rapturous and exciting), they wonder aloud at a purpose beyond their design and usage, and at all times they sing fascinating songs of mutual estrangement — that the relations and orders of the household are not sufficient to communicate their actual experience. (6) Always excessive, always testing.
This is a long way to respond to the initial issue: that of metrical monotony. I wanted in my translation to see beyond the music to the actual voice, the color of the words recorded on the page. I wanted to emphasize the plurality of the Riddles, that they form a “democracy of objects,” to borrow Bryant’s phrase. The Riddles include a plethora of testimonies, myriad ways to respond to the universe. Voice was undoubtedly fascinating to Old English poets — it was both the palette and the canvas of narrative and lyrical pleasure, what released memory and history. Most of the romantic adventures of saints and heroes are rhetorical struggles. St. Andrew exults in a long, catechetical conversation with a sea captain Christ. Guthlac wages a “leofran lace” [a dearer sort of play] (A, 307a) against the demonic hordes assembled against him, using his voice to fight rather than the swords of his previous life. The benediction of the natural world’s favor towards him is also vocal, friendly birds attend him with “meaglum reordum” [literally earnest voices, but “insistent chirping” in my translation] (A, 734b). The cross speaks in a holy dream, wooden object and spiritual tacen united in doctrinal voice. Beowulf wields words even better than he wages war: his excellence as a thegn and hero is located in his tact and eloquence. The wisdom of the “Poems of Contemplation” emanates from the ironic paradoxes of speaking truly. “Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan” [I can relate a truth-song about myself] the speaker of The Seafarer announces at its start (a first thought echoed by the speaker of The Wife’s Lament), while the eardstapa of The Wanderer acknowledges an old truth, that:
Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille. (11-14)
I know as truth that it is a noble custom
for a man to bind fast his spirit’s close,
to hold his hoarded coffer, think what he will.
To speak or be silent is a choice of living, resisting, surviving. Having a voice in a world of oral poetics is the possession of the tools of agency, and one must choose how and when to use it. The Exeter Book Riddles show a slightly different approach to a world of the “reord-berend,” in that vocal agency is scattered among all possible things, and these things chatter on in their own way, speaking their own “soðgied,” telling how their realities appear to them, maybe even stretching the truth a little bit in good fun. Therefore, I think it works to approximate this plenum by giving each poem its own sort of form, breaking them into smaller chunks, redistributing the thoughts into new patterns, giving each translation a slightly different music. As I said above, this panoply is not extant in the manuscript, and so I am surely exceeding what some scholars would feel comfortable doing here. But it is a risk I am willing to take to tell a better story — the story of these objects and their diversity echoing across the millennium.
1) I am currently working on a project that contemplates this strange fact, and wonders if it is not a product of literary repression of voice and the diversity inherent in those voices, of a monastic regularization of poetic variety.
2) For my argument on this poem’s material celebrations, please see my “Disruptive Things in Beowulf” in New Medieval Literatures 16 (2017): 34-61.
3) Bill Brown, “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001), 4.
4) Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s Like to be a Thing (Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2012), 23. This work tends to crow about its theoretical innovation, sometimes a bit obnoxiously, but as Andrew Cole sagely indicates, locating the agency of objects goes way back, even to the roots of the Western philosophical tradition (see Andrew Cole’s ‘The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies,’ Minnesota Review 80 : 106–18 for his discussion of the “new” materialisms of German idealist philosopher Johannes Fichte and medieval mystical writer Meister Eckhardt).
5) Levi R. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 31.
6) These orders are always under threat, no matter how they are organized. See for instance later medieval books of vocabulary, such as Alexander Neckam’s De Utensilibus (ca. 1190) or Walter of Bibbesworth’s Le Tretiz (mid-13th cent.), which seem always to be overflowing a mere catalogue of related terms. Even Anglo-Latin linguistic and grammatical exercises like The Colloquy of Ælfric nearly collapses into the politics of the division of labor.