Masters and Slaves:
Servants of Desire in the Old English Riddles
|MS Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 264, from the mid-fourteenth century, has on fol. 81v, at the foot of a page of the Romance of Alexander, an illustration by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise (from 1338-1344), close to the heart of those who enjoy the topsy turvy. A brace of hares walk around, mostly on their hind legs. One sports a mean-looking crossbow, which he appears to be cocking with help from his foot. Another has secured his kill: his game is carried over his shoulder on a stick – a man, neatly trussed with hands and feet tied together, drawn to scale just slightly smaller than the hare. My favorite is in the center. An unarmed smaller hare sits at the foot of a tree looking up at his cornered quarry: a human being caught at the top of the tree. The hare smiles with what looks like a smirk, apparently waiting for his compatriot with the crossbow to complete the day’s sport. The whole picture presents the world reimagined from the viewpoint of the hare (remember the Wife of Bath’s comment on point of view: "Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?"), except that the beasts have been anthropomorphized into the world of humans while retaining their animal characteristics.|
|In Old English, there are no such clearcut visual representations of the monde renvers¾ that I know of. Instead, though, we have verbal snapshots of just such a world in the Old English riddles. I want in this paper to investigate the pleasure of such reversal, particularly the reversal of social hierarchical relations, and then use these ideas as a launching point for an investigation of a particularly opaque riddle.|
Take Riddle 21 (Williamson’s 19).
Neb is min niþerweard (1a)
the object reveals, "My nose is downward," thus beginning an obsession with distended anatomy and nether parts that will run through the riddle. The object reveals that it goes prone along the ground, digging the earth in what sounds like back-breaking work:
ond hlaford min
woh færeð, weard æt steorte (3b-4)
and my lord
travels bent over, the guardian at the tail.
The lord, too, then travels woh, i.e. in a crooked manner (bent, but with a hint of depravity?). The hierarchical word hlaford establishes an expectation that the hard-working speaker is being oppressed by his social superior and so there is some pleasure in seeing that the hlaford is woh. The inversion of social hierarchy continues in the placing of the next lordship term: weard æt steorte. There is something faintly unseemly about the guardian being at the tail, an impression reinforced in the subsequent verbs, wegeð mec ond þyð,/ saweþ on swæð min, "he waggles and presses me,/ sows in my track." Of course, the fecund action being described is the sowing of a crop behind the plough and subsequent clues emphasize the nature of the object -- a manufactured wonder that leaves a clear track with a cunning dart hanging from beneath and another extending forward from the head. The object, anthropomorphicized to the extent of having a back, a head, and teeth, as well as a voice, articulates a paradox of control: he works effectively,
gif me teala þenaþ
hindeweardre þæt biþ hlaford min.
if he that is my lord
serves me well from behind.
Again there is that faintly undignified and mildly suggestive position for the lord to be occupying, hindeweardre. But also here the essential paradox is made explicit -- the hlaford "lord" þenaþ "serves" -- a paradox stressed all the more by the postposited periphrastic syntax: "me... þenaþ... þæt biþ hlaford min," "that one who is my lord... serves... me."
This is the pleasure I want to get at: the paradox of a social inferior who gets to articulate his master’s servitude to him -- a worker with an attitude, or an underling with lip. The inferior, conceived as servant or slave, recognizes the social hierarchy: there is no question but that the ploughman is the boss, duly called hlaford and weard. The pleasurable inversion is quite limited; it is simply that the servant gets to articulate that the one who gives him orders also has to be subservient to him. In the world of Old English literature, where the sympathetic position so often lies with the one who is enlightened about the (often doom-ridden) realities of power, even getting to articulate this paradox moves the down-trodden object to a heightened position. What of the ploughman? The implication is that he continues to see himself as lord, without realizing the paradox of his subservience. On the ground (so to speak) the plough goes on being subservient, but his knowledge of the realities of power in the world is the equivalent to the smirk on the hare’s face or the wisdom of a Gunnar who will still die in the snake-pit.
In the case of Riddle 21, the sexual overtones add to the cheek, of course. Such sexual overtones are quite secondary, but surely faintly present in the epithet woh and in the positioning of the lord. If the lord is implicitly receiving sexual pleasure, he is nevertheless behind and at the back and receives that pleasure only if he serves well. In other words, the paradox of a lord who thinks he is in control but actually is the servant of his desire operates equally well in the sexual arena. Indeed, the riddlers rarely deploy the motif without its sexual shadow.
One place where the paradox occurs almost free of sexual overtones is in Riddle 50 (Williamson 48). After some initial clues about how a warrior, useful to people, a bright one, is wondrously born from two dumb things, from an enemy against an enemy, more paradoxes are outlined about the object:
wif hine wrið. He him wel hereð,
þeowaþ him geþwære, gif him þegniað
mægeð ond mæcgas mid gemete ryhte,
fedað hine fægre; he him fremum stepeð
life on lissum. Leanað grimme
þam þe hine wloncne weorþan læteð.
A woman often covers him,
although he is very strong. He obeys them well,
the gentle one serves them, if women and men
serve him rightly in due measure,
feed him well; he exults them in benefits
in joys in life. He rewards grimly
those who let him become proud.
Here there is more reciprocity in the paradox of the server served. On the one hand, this object does seem to be subservient -- both because it is of utility to people and because a woman can cover it despite its strength; on the other hand, the object’s service comes on certain conditions -- it serves them well, þeowaþ him geþwære, if men and women serve it rightly, gif him þegniað/ mægeð ond mæcgas... ryhte. Playing with fire is not, it seems, a good idea, but fire will be subservient if the human beings in control serve it. This object does not speak from the same downtrodden position as the plough, but it does parade the same central paradox of the dominant having to serve it. And while the description of a woman covering the male object, the emphasis on men and women, the reference to the joys of life, and the adjective wlonc, "proud," all set up the possibilities for sexual connotations here, such sexual hints form only the very faintest background, not resolving, it seems to me, into any full-blown double entendre.
The same motif also plays out in the context of straightforward double entendre, as in Riddle 54 (Williamson 52), the churn riddle. Here the young man is never presented as a social superior -- rather he is hyse, "a boy", hror hægstealdmon, "a lusty bachelor," þegn, "a servant," and tillic esne, "a good man." Rather than establishing his social dominance, the riddler clearly establishes his sexual dominance: he is heavily marked as male, as in three of those terms just listed, and he seems to be taking the initiative throughout the riddle. He is the active agent of the series of verbs: he came, advanced, raised his garment, thrust, worked his will, and hastened. The reversal of this riddle comes when this apparently dominant young man tires ær þonne hio (9b) "sooner than her." The churn as insatiable lover reverses a world of male dominance: the young man is a servant to the woman because her desire lasts longer than his and so his actions are ultimately for her pleasure. The riddle therefore revolves around a hint of inverted gender power. Any inversion is brought up short, though, in the startling final half line:
That thing began to grow
under her girdle that good people often
love in their heart and buy with money.
That final image reestablishes the innocent sense of the riddle, of course: the butter that results from the act of churning is a commodity to be bought with money. But the double entendre is so firmly established that the final line inevitably operates in the sexual arena, too, suggesting that the fruit of sexual liaisons are often loved in the heart -- a rare moment of explicit tenderness about children -- and often bought with money -- a reminder that this is a world that included slavery in which the realities of social hierarchy might brutally trump those of a briefly overturned sexual hierarchy.
Another version of the motif occurs in Riddle 37 (Williamson 35), in which the action is narrated from an external viewpoint rather than by the object. First the narrator sees an object with a greatly swolen womb behind.
mægenrofa man, ond micel hæfde gefered
þær þæt hit felde fleah þurh his eage.
A servant followed/ served it,
a very strong man, and had accomplished much
where what filled it fled through its eye.
The dominance of the one following is established through his strength and his human status (mægenrofa man), and yet this human is made to serve the object, a bellows, in an obviously suggestive way. The rest of the riddle centers on the outcome of the coupling and the fruit that results is explicitly called a son. A variant of this riddle reccurs in the second group in the Exeter Book as number 87 (Williamson 83). Here the text begins almost identically, but with variants that make the motif more interesting. The servant to the object is built up yet more:
mægenstrong ond mundrof; micel me þuhte
godlic gumrinc (line 2b-4a)
A servant followed/served it,
very strong and strong of hand; the goodly warrior
seemed to me great.
The compound mægenrofa is matched by a pair of compounds, stressing strength and strength of hand, mægenstrong ond mundrof, while the narrator further testifies to the man’s apparent strength. The steamy nature of the meeting is suggested in this version in that the object boncade (or borcade) and wancode (obscure hapax legomena about which any British speaker might be tempted to speculate) in desires (willum), at which point the text gives out to an unfortunate manuscript lacuna. In both riddles, the idea of the social superior serving the inferior is present in the male human’s servitude to the inanimate but insatiable female bellows. In both riddles, the blacksmith’s forge sounds like a steamy place in more senses than one.
Another case of an object giving its lord lip, this time again in the first person, seems to occur in one of the riddles whose answer is described by Williamson as "uncertain," Riddle 4 (Williamson’s Riddle 2; "This riddle is in many respects the most puzzling riddle in the Exeter Book," Williamson adds in his commentary, "it has perplexed and will probably continue to perplex the proudest of solvers").
Ic sceal þragbysig þegne minum,
hringan hæfted, hyran georne,
min bed brecan, breahtme cyþan
þæt me halswriþan hlaford sealde.
Oft mec slæpwerigne secg oðþe meowle
gretan eode; ic him gromheortum
winterceald oncweþe. Wearm lim
gebundenne bæg hwilum bersteð,
seþeah biþ on þonce þegne minum,
medwisum men, me þæt sylfe,
þær wiht wite ond wordum min
on sped mæge spel gesecgan.
I, busy a time, bound by a ring,
must eagerly obey my servant,
break my bed, make known through noise
that my lord gave me a neckring.
Often a man or maiden went to greet
sleep-weary me; I, wintercold, answer
fierce-hearted them. A warm limb
sometimes bursts the bound ring,
nevertheless it is pleasing to my servant,
to that foolish fellow, likewise to myself,
if I may know anything and may tell of me
a story successfully with words.
The opening paradox established in this riddle is that the riddle-subject must eagerly be obedient to ("sceal... hyran georne") its servant ("þegne minum"). The paradox is the larger if, as seems likely, the servant of line 1a is also the lord ("hlaford") of line 4, who gave the object a halswriþan ("neck-ring?"). That servant/lord engages the object in some action which, despite the effort, is nevertheless pleasing ("seþeah biþ on þonce") to both the servant and the object. That servant (who is also the lord?) is, by line 10a, explicitly patronized by the riddle-subject as "a foolish person" ("medwisum men"). The riddle-subject, then, is another subservient object articulating the paradox that its human lord is yet its servant -- and a foolish one at that.
Various more or less convincing solutions have been offered for this riddle. Among the less convincing I would include flail (why all those rings?); a specific story of necromancy, in which a spirit in chains and a magic collar returns to provide revelation (too specific a legend, too unattested a tradition); pen (not enough rings, why the man or maiden?); and the latest to see print, watchdog, an answer based upon a doggedly literal reading of the neck-ring as a collar, which nevertheless fails to use most of the clues (why is the master the dog’s servant? why so many rings? why the labored ending formula?). More likely but still problematic are a series of suggested implements: hand-mill, bell, or well-bucket. The solution hand-mill understands the rings as the mill-parts containing the querns and sees the serving master as the human who has to crank the mill. Remaining problems, it seems to me, are the lack of gender differentiation at line 5b, which is unlikely for the act of milling, and the breaking at line 8b, which becomes an arbitrary element. Bell appealingly accounts for the aural element perhaps implied in breahtme (3b), but has trouble with the bursting of the bound ring (8). The "bucket on a chain or rope in a cistern or well" provides an appropriately hooped structure operating within a ringed context, but still requires an element of arbitrary story-telling: the water must be fetched in the early morning in winter so that the bucket can noisily break its bed of ice formed in the water of the well. All these solutions have some merit as possibilities, although none convincingly accounts for all of the clues with satisfying simplicity and without recourse to somewhat arbitrary elements of story-telling. To this extent they are less satisfying than the solutions plough or fire or churn or bellows for the riddles discussed so far.
In case you think I’m working inexorably to the perfect solution, I should ’fess up now that I don’t have an elegant answer either. I can suggest, though, a reason for the opacity of the riddle and a possible secondary answer. As we have seen, the majority of cases of an object lording it over its own lord occur with sexual overtones. One implication of Riddles 21 and 54, and possibly of 37 and 87 as well, is that the lord and master loses the control that is normal for him when he gives over to willum, desires, and starts to follow, and become the servant of, his sexual member. Even though commentators have been reluctant to engage the sexual possibilities of Riddle 4, with such a pattern in mind it is possible to see a fairly consistent double entendre running through this riddle.
Embedded in the first sentence are a series of clues in addition to the paradox of the lord serving his servant outlined already. The object is þragbysig, a clue perhaps signalling that the object is busy only at specific times; it is hringan hæfted, "bounded by rings," to which I will return, with the plural here perhaps suggesting the reiteration of the action; the object claims ic sceal… min bed brecan, "I must …break my bed," presumably by rising up from a generally flat plain, just as the sexualized onion of Riddle 25 says stonde ic on bedde (4b), with the bed serving as a secondary clue to key the listener to the right arena for action; and the speaker says I must breahtme cyþan, "make known with a noise" or, as Williamson suggests in a note, possibly "make known in a flash, instantly," that my lord gave to me a halswriþan, a hapax legomenon presumably meaning "neck-ring," conceivably a specific instance of the generalized hringan of 2a. Great emphasis, then, is here placed on the object entering these various rings. In medieval art, a ring often suggests the obviously associated part of a woman’s anatomy. Within the riddles, rings occur in an implicitly steamy context as part of a description of a key or keyhole in Riddle 91:
Oft ic begine t ³ t me ongean stica½ ,
t onne ic hnitan sceal hringum gyrded,
hearde wi½ heardum, hindan t yrel—
for½ ascufan t ³ t mines frean
modwynn freot a½ middelnihtum.
Often I swallow what thrusts against me,
when I, encircled by rings, must push
hard against the hard thing, the hole from behind—
shove forward what protects
the treasure of my lord in the middle of the night.
Whether solved as key or keyhole, all those verbs of thrusting, the pleasure of the lord, and the setting of nighttime clearly point to at least a localized double entendre.
The half-line hringum gyrded in this riddle closely parallels hringan hæfted, "bounded by rings" of Riddle 4.
In the next sentence the object is slæpwerigne, "weary for lack of sleep?", as Williamson suggests a presumable consequence of breaking one’s bed, and in the sexual reading a statement of braggadocio in harmony with the Oft, "often." The recurring action is for secg oðþe meowle to begin to greet or approach the riddle-subject (gretan eode). The verb is the same as the action of the heavily sexualized key of Riddle 44 ("wile þæt cuþe hol/ mid his hangellan heafde gretan" 5b-6). Presumably the action is only begun (gretan eode, "went to greet/approach") because the object rises halfway to continue the greeting or approach. Line 5b must, in this reading, be an obfuscatory joke. The object’s braggadocio might encourage it to boast of a certain sexual omnivorousness -- and both women and men are the object of desire for penis-subjects throughout the riddle collection -- so the two sexes may not be a total surprise, but the woman cannot be literally a meowle, in the usual sense of "maid, virgin" in this reiterative context. The sexually enthusiastic partners are appropriately gromheortum, "fierce-spirited," while the riddle-subject is presumably winterceald because slæpwerigne in contrast with such enthusiasm. Is it then the riddle-subject who, on rising to the occasion, is the Wearm lim, "warm limb," of line 7b (so metrically odd as to encourage the suspicion that something is missing) who sometimes gebundenne bæg ... bersteð, "bursts the bound ring," an action which nevertheless pleases both the object and its servant? Or is the limb that of the approaching man or maid, warm in contrast to the wintercold, sleep-weary riddle-subject, which causes the bounded circular object to burst forth, to the paradoxical pleasure of riddle-subject and servant?
The final formula of the riddle is unusually involved:
þær wiht wite ond wordum min
on sped mæge spel gesecgan.
While this might be a standard taunting formula, meaning something like "where a creature may know and may say successfully the story of me in words," it might also be a final first-person statement:
if I may know anything and may tell of me
a story successfully [or perhaps tell of my success] in words.
Such an elaborate closing is appropriate in either form for a sexual reading. If the end is a taunt it follows because the challenge of the riddle is the stronger in that such repeated liaisons with secg oðþe meowle are precisely a story not to be passed on in words (wordum…spel gesecgan) but rather enacted in secrecy. If instead the ending is a final act of braggadocio, it is appropriate for this particularly boasting riddle-subject, which might remind a reader of the Middle English lyric "I have a gentil cok":
I have a gentil cok,
Croweth me day;
He doth me risen erly,
My matins for to say.
Here the rooster is described in all his avian glory until the final turn plays on the pun of the name:
And every night he percheth him
In min ladyes chaumber.
The sexual reading of Riddle 4 proposed here works as a background element alongside any of the more respectable solutions suggested for the riddle so far (and would, indeed, work alongside any better solution yet to be suggested). The double entendre is partial and suggestive rather than being fully controlling as in the sexualized key of Riddle 44. Riddle 4 provides the same pleasure of inversion as the other riddles in which a worker gets to articulate his paradoxical power over his so-called master, even if the paradox here hints at an additional critique of a man led by his genital member, a moment that is graphically illustrated at least once in late Anglo-Saxon England (perhaps also with implicit critique?) in the lower margin of the Bayeux tapestry.