RIDDLE AND QUEST
According to Aristotle, metaphor begins with deception and ends with the recognition of a deeper truth. We doubt
the riddlic equation: How can a bagpipe be a bird, the shield a warrior, the moon a plunderer, mead a wrestler?
But the dream work draws us in. We wander a riddlic landscape dimly charted, haunted by unknown or shifting shapes,
full of disguised characters, until we reach a kenning,64 a metaphoric way of knowing that carries us beyond the
old categories of perception, beyond the dead world of literal truth. "We have even more obviously learned
something if things are the opposite of what we thought they were, and the mind seems to say to itself: `How true;
I was mistaken.' "65 Bound by our symbols we separate the world into categories: animate/inanimate, subject/object,
artifice/ artificer, light/dark. Here there is no room for a singing sword, an ox-skin that preaches the Gospel,
a quill that tracks culture, and a moth that wolfs songs. Here we do not see that darkness is the owl's light.
Like the bird we are blind to the inverse world and must count on metaphor to carry us across. A riddle, a metaphor
points to the "thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this."66 It liberates us from the prison of reified
perception and recalls the metamorphic flow. It offers us a transverse means of crossing the water, of moving to
and from what Whitman calls "the other side" of the universe.67
Riddles are common not only to medieval classrooms and modern playgrounds, but to primitive transition rites-courtship
contests, weddings, funerals, initiation rites.68 Often when a man's or a tribe's identity is to be transformed,
there are unknown creatures in riddlic guise. The strange world taunts, "Say what I mean," and the solver
must discover not only a newly charged world but a newly embodied self. A riddle is a miniature rite of passage,
a metaphoric meeting suspended in lyric time. The riddle solver is like a quester entering what Victor Turner calls
a liminal world where an old order is suspended and where "monsters startle neophytes into thinking about
objects, persons, relationships, and features of their environment they have hitherto taken for granted."69
The riddle solver moves through the traditional phases of the questing hero:
1. Departure from the dead world of reified categories.
2a. Confrontation with the metaphoric world of unknown monsters and shifting shapes.
2b. Recognition (con-naitre ---- being born with) of the Other and its relation to the Self.
3. Return to the old world with rejuvenative eyes.70
The hero's quest in narrative time is the riddle solver's task in the lyric moment-to penetrate the structure of
the surreal world, to recognize the uncanny and its relation to the self, to find a solution in the lush world
of imagery, and to bring back the metaphoric fruit to rejuvenate the dead world.
What sort of monsters inhabit the world of the Old English riddles? A man with one eye and twelve hundred heads,
a bird that sings through her dangling foot, a water-witch whose mother is its pregnant daughter, a cock like Christ,
and a circle of gold that preaches to men. We even meet an onion and a phallus muscling for attention like twins
under a strange riddlic cloak:
I am a wonderful help to women,
The hope of something to come.
I harm No citizen except my slayer.
Rooted I stand on a high bed. I am shaggy below.
Sometimes the beautiful Peasant's daughter, an eager-armed,
Proud woman grabs my body,
Rushes my red skin, holds me hard,
Claims my head. The curly-haired
Woman who catches me fast will feel
Our meeting. Her eye will be wet.
This double-entendre riddle (which may be part of a courting ritual or an attempt to catch the salacious out like
a primitive Rorschach test) plays on the notion of crossed categories. The helpmate is rooted like a plant, shaggy
like an animal, held like a tool, and stands like a man. Its bed may be covered with blankets or mulch. Its head
may be saucy in a strip or a stew. The crossing of categories forces the reader to play the ontological game of
venturing with various ideas of order (proposed and discarded solutions, literal and metaphoric truths) into the
riddlic world. It forces us to reexamine our perceptual categories and to accept our links with the nonhuman world
about us. The riddler not only describes (and jokes about) the phallic onion; he links human sexuality to the green
and mythic world of regenerative power. We move from a complacent, predictable way of knowing, through a stage
of suspended animation or unknowing, to a deeper, metaphorically embodied way of knowing both phallus and onion.
Perhaps we are seduced by the voice itself as it starts with a litany off personal power (the subject "I"
four times in five lines) and dissolves into a sensuous and surreal cacophony of parts as the warrior woman (cook
or seductress) comes to power. The point is not merely to solve the riddle but to ride the dream-horse home to
power. "The real answer to the question implied in a riddle is not a `thing' outside it, but that which is
both word and thing, and is both inside and outside the poem."71 This is the reader's rite of passage-separation
from the world of generally accepted ideas of order, transition through an unknown, metaphoric and mythic world
populated by weird creatures and strange ceremonies, and return to a newly transformed and embodied world. On the
quest we have encountered red, shaggy monsters who are curiously human (they like to help women and are quick to
avenge their honor), and humans slightly monstrous like the lady who ravages bodies and claims heads. We have charted
the natural world in sexual terms and embodied the sexual world with natural metaphors. We have accomplished what
Lucien Levy-Bruhl calls in primitive culture "participation mystique,"72 the interanimation of man and
nature, what Léopold Sédar Senghor calls "dancing the Other."73
If the riddle solver is a quester thrust into the moment of metaphor, the hero is a solver whose riddle spins out
before him in narrative time. He must leave home, confront the dream world of unreal shapes, recognize and be reconciled
with the uncanny or kill it, and come home a conqueror or seed-king of worlds. Like an unknown riddlic creature,
Grendel himself crosses categories, and the hero Beowulf must struggle to discover his meaning. As Nigel Barley
shrewdly points out:
The occurrence of such monster images (in riddles] is of great interest in view of the Anglo-Saxons' concern with
such anomalous creatures. The monster Grendel in Beowulf is little more than a totally individuated riddle image.
Throughout, he is described in terms of an Anglo-Saxon warrior. He has been exiled with all his kin because his
ancestor Cain murdered Abel. He refuses to pay compensation to the dwellers of Heorot. He has a hall. He fights
the champion of the Danes. On the other hand, he cannot use weapons, his armour is in the form of scales growing
on his body and his hall stands at the bottom of a lake in the wastelands. He is the embodiment of all categorical
contradictions-a riddle without an answer. Small wonder then that nineteenth century critics treated the poem as
a riddle to be solved and were outraged to find that many solutions fitted.74
Apart from the nightmare, can we say what Grendel represents in the daylight world of the hall? Perhaps not-as
Karsten Harries says of metaphoric shapes: "What metaphor names may transcend human understanding so that
our language cannot capture it."75 Perhaps Grendel's name means that something is grinding in the halls and
hearts of men. Beowulf seems implicitly to recognize this when he promises protection to the sons of Hrothgar and
when his report to Hygelac suddenly turns from monsters to the monstrous passions of the Heathobard (and by analogy
the Danish) court. Somehow the failed peace-weaving of Beowulf lends power to the monstrous dream. And Beowulf's
slaying of the hall-stalkers merely destroys the vehicle and liberates the tenor of feud-hall passion. Beowulf's
battles are no playful, riddlic encounters. The uncanny here has deadly power. There is no conscious raising of
the myth, no metaphysical play, no delight in the Other, except as a worthy antagonist. But Grendel as a crosser
of categories, a surreal shape, remains a riddle. He is the clawed warrior, the flesh-eater, the uninvited hall-thane.
He is music- and man-hater, son without father, the unraveler of peace. Speechless he seems to hiss in the dark
as he stalks the hall, "Say what I mean."