Jerome Denno
Department of English
University of Pennsylvania

Oppression and Voice in the Anglo-Saxon Riddles

    In the Introduction to The Work of Work, a collection of essays on medieval labor and servitude, Allen Frantzen observes that "slavery , servitude, and labor continue to be undervalued in our understanding of medieval life in part because they have long been undervalued in scholarship about the Middle Ages." In what follows, I want to begin framing my own small effort to redress this undervaluation by attempting to produce some resonant hint of the voices of the voiceless in early medieval texts. Riddles are by their nature congenial to my project, as I hope to show.
     My interest in oppression as a theme in the Exeter Book Riddles dates from a short graduate school essay I wrote some years ago, arguing that riddle #19 (Williamson's numbering; ASPR # 21 ) could be read most interestingly not just as the poet's imaginative quickening of a farm implement, but as the expression of a plowman's subjectivity. Read thus, the first person plow riddle becomes an unusual window onto this otherwise mute and marginal category of Anglo-Saxon society. Pleased with my own ingenuity, I realized only later that my teacher at the time, the late Ted Irving, was at the very time working on an essay that read the shield riddle (#) likewise as the expression of the consciousness of an embattled infantry soldier, universally by way of recognizable to anyone familiar with the ferocity of close combat. Duly reminded that most of my ideas were likely derivative, however unconsciously, I remained no less intrigued with the those first-person riddles solved as homely furniture of the riddle poet's world, especially as these typically short lyrics resound with suggestions of coercion, oppression, and claustrophobic lament.

      As a first instance, I take the first riddle (i.e. the first three ASPR riddles, usually
solved as three manifestations of storm or wind) as an especially poignant expression of this same oppressed consciousness. The subject, inspired with voice, first poses the question of "hwa mec on sið wræce"--that is, "he who presses me on a journey." The unknown entity, then, is that one who goads, presses the speaker; one who coerces the unwilling subject. A harrying oppressor torments the subject in the riddle's first part—representing subterranean wind. But the text seems clearly interested to evoke corresponding images, first of the harassed outlaw or exile, forced literally underground, and pursued there by his unrelenting lord; and, second, of this outlaw's Christian archetype, Satan, who is elsewhere figured as both oppressor and oppressed. The riddle's conflation of these correspondent figures projects the poetic discourse into realms of both the political and the metaphysical.
     Such images of coercion and impulsion are rife in Old English poetry, but the riddles seem more emphatically concerned with this motif, not least because the riddle genre inherently functions, as Northrop Frye has shown, as charm in reverse; that is, the subject of the riddle is magically entrapped within confines, both of its own created form and of its own textual mystery, the center of which is an unknown; the subject is unnamed and unable, in its constrained circumstance, to name itself.
The earthquake speaker ‘s self description appropriates language that unmistakably
evokes violent oppression:

Hwilum mec min frea     fæste genearwað,
Sendeð þonne     under salwonges
Bearm bradan,     ond on bid wriceð
þrafað on þystrum     þrymma sumne,
hæste on enge,    þær me heord siteð
hruse on hrycge.     
Nah ic hwyrtweges
of þam aglace,    ac ic eþelstol
hæleþa hrere
. (31-38a)

[At times my master confines me sharply, then sends {me} under the broad bosom of the plain, and corners me, restrains me {me} in darkness with a certain power forced into prison, where the earth sits hard on my back. I have no escape from these miseries, but I shake the royal city of men.]

The images seem generally animal, so that the subject imagines itself as a wild horse, perhaps a dragon, almost certainly Satanic. Phrases like "fæste genearwað," hæste on enge," þrafað on þystrum," and "on bid wriceð" strongly suggest a contemporary discourse of coercion and subjugation, beyond the poetic text, such that the subject becomes identifiable, in this instance, with a cultural category of feral creatures, animal, human, and divine.
Riddle #19 (ASPR # 21 ), solved as "plow," represents an analogous articulation of coercive constraint, in the process affording us, through the imaginative quickening of the plow into conscious voice, an unusually vivid interior tour of the plowman's straitened subjectivity. The poem may be read in three parts, consisting of 1) the plow in operation, tearing into the earth; 2) a retrospective account of the plow's origins and making; and 3) a return to the plow in process of digging, but with emphasis upon the narrowness of the plow's being. This sandwiching of an indeterminate past between two presents reinforces an already claustrophobic, earth-bound, bestialized sensibility in the poem:

[1st part] Neb is min niþerweard;     neol ic fere
ond be grunde græfe,     geonge swa me wisað
har holtes feond;     ond hlaford min
woh færeð weard     æt steorte,
wrigað on wonge,    wegeð mec ond þyð,     5
saweþ on swæð min.

[My beak is downward; deep down I go and along the ground I dig, move as the gray foe of the forest directs me; and my lord goes forth bent over, warden at my tail, presses forward on the plain, lifts me and urges, sows in my track.]

 The initial self-description stresses the subject's sense of being acted upon, as it digs its nose into the earth, driven from behind by the hoary enemy of the woods. Tthe imagery clearly suggests subjection and impulsion of the speaker by the "hlaford."The second phase of the riddle, shifting to retrospection, retains and enhances the language of coercion: 

[2nd part]               Ic sniþige forð,
brungen of bearwe,     bunden cræfte,
wegen on wægne--     hæbbe wundra fela.

[I sniff along, brought from the grove, bound with skill, carried on a wagon—I have many wonders.]

The plow recalls its origins in terms of having been taken from some prior place of origin (in this case, from the bearwe (grove), of having been carried away and bound craftily, of having been, once again, acted upon by strange hands in a strange place, its many wonders not withstanding. Again, this sort of recollected origin occurs variously in Anglo-Saxon riddlic poetry, and seems congenial to the genre; that is, the riddle binds its subject, containing the central mystery of the thing's name; it seems, somehow appropriate, then, that the subject regards its own making as violent constraint.
     The plow riddle's third part returns to the present (in motion), and, again, depicts a straitened subjectivity, narrowly confined and limited in its consciousness and perception, once again inviting a comparison with the plowman in the text's periphery:

[3rd part] Me biþ gongendre     grene on healfe,
ond min swæð sweotol      sweart on oþre.
Me þurh hrycg wrecen,     hongaþ under
an orþoncpil;      oþer on heafde,
fæste ond forðweard.     
Fealleþ on sidan
þæt ic toþum tere,      gif me teala þenaþ
hindeweardre þæt biþ hlaford min.

[Going by me on the one side is green, and my track shows black on the other.
Driven through [my] back, one cunning dart hangs under; another on [my] head, firm and pointing forward. To the side falls what I tear with my teeth, if he who is my lord serves me rightly from behind.]

Like the plowman's, the plow's world is absolutely linear, one-dimensional, and governed, again, by the lord who "me þenaþ"; this more literal retrospection ironically recalls to us that same "hlaford's" correspondent subjugation. The one-dimensional subjectivity is the plowman's, and the riddle, functioning as charm, presents that consciousness as tantamount to fettering.
     But beyond identifying a discourse of oppression and coercion in these riddles, I want to call attention to the implications for the production of cultural silences inherent in first-person riddles' quickening of these otherwise mute, marginal figures. The subterranean wind of my first instance presents a subjectivity otherwise rarely, if ever, afforded us. The voice of the outlaw / exile is necessarily suppressed as subversive, but the riddle-maker's enterprise is always interested, first, in making the familiar strange, but, coincidentally, in making the strange familiar.

     Voice is more overtly at issue in riddle #51 (ASPR # 53), with the consensus solution battering ram, and in which a third-person speaker describes the object, like he plow, as having been forced into bondage, this time, in old age. Of course, the third-person riddles tend to reinforce their object's muteness, though, in this case, the alienated speaker implies a former state, prior to the enforced silence:

Ic seah on bearwe     beam hlifian,
Tanum torhtne;     þæt trow wæs on wynne,
wudu weaxende.     
Wæter hine ond eorþe
feddan fægre     oþþæt he frod dagum
on oþrum wearð     aglachade
deope gedolgod,     dumb in bendum,
wriþen ofer wunda,     wonnum hyrstum
foran gefrætwed. (1-8a)

[I saw a tree tower in the grove, bright with branches; the tree was joyous, a growing wood. Water and earth fed him well until he became, in other days, old, miserable, deeply wounded, dumb in bonds, fettered over wounds, adorned in front with dark trappings.]

The specific association of bondage with enforced silence (i.e. "dumb in bendum") only makes plain what seems implicit in a number of these riddles--namely, the equation of bondage with loss of voice. To be a created thing is to be removed from some prior state of vocal communion, and to be straitened, hammered, and bound into mute subservience.
     As a final suggestion of this association of oppression with voice coerced into silence, I want to cite another Anglo-Saxon poem in the riddle tradition, The Dream of the Rood, which takes the reader from third-person dream-visionary (ll. 1-27) to first-person, quickened rood (28-121). As the rood begins to address the dreamer, we recognize a familiar trope of violent coercion into bitter servitude:

Þæt wæs geara iu,    --ic þæt gyta geman--
þæt ic wæs aheawan     holtes on ende,
astyred of stefne minum.     
Genaman me ðær strange                     feondas,
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne,     heton me heora
                    wergas   hebban.               (28-31)
[That was years ago (I still remember it), that I was cut down at the edge of the wood, removed from my stem. Strong foes seized me there, then worked me into a spectacle for themselves, bid me raise up their criminals.]

Like the temporal structure of the plow and battering ram riddles, the rood speaks of a remembered past, of being wrested by force from some prior place of belonging, and of being forced to oblige at the hands of brutal captors. Like the subterranean wind, the plow, the battering ram, the victory tree assumes speech through the imaginative dislocation inherent in riddle. And the newly vocal tree uses that poetically conferred power to speak of its oppression, and, implicitly, to promise of an other-worldly release from that servitude

     Not coincidentally, the rood dreamer's vision occurs "to midre nihte, //syðþan reorberend reste wunedon" (1b-2), that is "toward midnight, when speech-bearers were in their beds." The speaking rood assumes voice only amid the general silence and solitude of the midnight world, and then only through dream; its enforced silence, a corollary of its servitude, may be broken surreptitiously, within the temporal displacement of the midnight dream—a dislocation not unlike that created through the imaginative estrangement effected by the riddles themselves.
     Thus, these homely furnishings of the Anglo-Saxons' quotidian lives are transformed through the riddle's power into speaking subjects whose most immediate business is to recall an existence prior to their current servitude. These quotidian furnishings of the Anglo-Saxon's lives are transformed through the riddle's power into speaking subjects whose most immediate business is to recall an existence prior to their current servitude. Curiously, it seems that the recollection of that former condition of integrity can only intensify the oppression by emplotting it as descent. Yet, in so doing, these riddle-poems permit us to hear what seems at least a faint echo of stifled voices from the lower margins of a rigidly stratified society.