OR GNOMIC POEMS
This analysis of riddle structure gives us an insight into the relationship between Old English riddles and the
maxims or gnomic poems. The maxims which occur in two separate collections46 are a series of statements about the
appropriate context, action, or condition of a variety of creatures. The poet of the Cotton maxims ("Maxims
II") says, for example:
The wild hawk shall dwell on the glove,
The outcast wolf alone in the grove,
The boar in the wood, tusk-strong.
A good man seeks glory in his homeland.
A dagger dwells in the hand, gold-stained.
A gem rides the ring, broad and tall.
The stream is wave-bound to mix with the flood.
The mast stands on a boat, the sail-yard;
The sword on a breast, ancient iron.
The dragon dwells in the cave of jewels,
Old and proud. The fish spawns its kind
In the water. The king deals rings in the hall.47
Each creature has its context-a proper place or action. The dragon dwells in the cave, the boar in the wood. A
good man seeks homeland glory; a king gives gold rings in the hall. Each contextual pairing constitutes half a
kenning. We may complete the kenning by linking two gnomes in a metaphoric equation where the ground makes this
appropriate. If the boar in its wood is like the dragon in its cave, then the boar is a wood-dragon and the dragon
a cave-boar. Sometimes the linkage is less explicit. The good man may seek glory in his homeland with a dagger
as the boar seeks power with his tusks in the wood. A mast may ride on the boat's breast as the sword stands on
the breast-deck. And a king's giving of gold rings may be a peculiar form of spawning peace in the hall. The most
carefully hidden comparisons (with both ground and gap) make the best kennings, the best miniature riddles. The
glove is obviously the hawk's home. But the cave is also the dragon's glove. And the hall is perhaps the king's
lair. The wolf is the grove's outlaw; the hawk is a gloved wolf. The dragon is a cave-sword, the sword a hand-dragon-both
are ancient and fierce, but one hoards what the other is (treasure). This begins to be a riddle. Sometimes the
implicit gnomic connections create their own tensions. For example, the king in his treatment of gold cannot be
both cave-dragon and fertile fish. Each gnomic connection charts a metaphoric world at war with the other--the
implied kennings clashing like swords
king/hall X dragon/cave
The dragon is a cave-king.
The Hall is the king's cave
The cave is the dragon's hall.
King/gold X fish/spawn
The king is a gold-spawning fish.
The fish is a spawn-king.
Gold is a king's spawn.
Spawn is a fish's gold..
Each of these wolds is a separate perception—kingship as nightmare(the Heremod of Beowulf and wish fulfillment
(Beowulf himself, a generous king). Each individual gnomic statement puts a creature in a proper predictable place.
We can all agree that a mast stands in a boat and that a good man should at least seek glory. But the placement
of gnomes one against another—colluding, colliding—raises the question of perception. It subjectifies reality.
It sparks surreal possibilities so that the wooden gnomes begin to alight with riddlic fire. All's right with the
world, the gnomes want to say. But the wrapped riddles cry that the world is filled with unknown shapes. The tension
between gnome and riddle, day-reason and nightmare, seems to fire much of Old English poetry. Certainly it is
the tension between the sententious Hrothgar and the surreal Grendel which Beowulf is called upon to resolve.
And that leads to the question of whether the hero is not a riddle solver spun out in narrative time.