Riddle, Charm and Lyric Dream

Riddle have traditionally been considered a minor genre by both folklorists and literary critics.48 But Aristotle's insight that "good metaphors can usually be made from successful riddles, for metaphors are a kind of riddle,"49 and his dictum that "we learn above all from metaphors,"50 constitute an implicit recognition of the importance of riddlic play to the progression of thought. Riddles are common to most primitive cultures.51 They make a game of probing the normally unconscious categories of perception. They call attention to the arbitrarily shaped and symbolized universe and offer other ways of seeing. The anthropologist Elli Kongas Maranda says that "riddles make a point of playing with the conceptual borderlines and crossing them for the intellectual pleasure of showing that things are not quite as stable as they appear,"52 and Ian Hamnett likewise notes that "the ability to construct categories and also to transcend them is central to adaptive learning, and riddles can be seen as a very simple paradigm of how this ability is attained."53 Recognizing the separate worlds of tenor and vehicle, real creature and assumed disguise, helps us to understand our conceptual categories. Crossing categories by means of riddles helps us to explore the dark corners of our symbolic systems and recharge the related outer arid inner landscapes with metaphoric light. What any culture calls monstrous may be simply an unrecognized riddle, an embodied taboo.54 We place the rake and the dog in separate categorical rooms, but both may be found in the dream-house of toothers, ground-snufflers, and wallskulkers. In each of us there is an unconscious recognition of other ways of shaping-and this dream-house of uncanny shapes55 unlocks its doors in our myths and songs, poems and stories. Riddles offer a lyric key to the house of dreams, transforming uncanny creatures into recognizable friends.

Northrop Frye argues that "in archetypal criticism the significant content [of poetry] is the conflict of desire and reality which has for its basis the work of the dream."56 Poetry may be drawn out in time into narrative romance or suspended in a lyric moment. The poles of poetry are what Aristotle calls melos (rhythm, movement, sound) and opsis (image, picture, spectacle).57 Frye argues that the root form of melos in lyric poetry is a charm; the root form of opsis is a riddle.58 Both draw the reader into the dream world: the charm is a magical incantation that captures and holds; the riddlic a kind of illuminated prison (like a manuscript drawing that catches the eye) which entraps till the key (the true solution) is found.59

In Old English poetry, riddles and charms combine elements of melos and opsis: both share a metaphoric world-both rely upon the yoke of images and reins of sound to draw man into that world. But the motive for metaphor, as Kenneth Burke might say,60 the strategy, remains distinct. A charm is a strategy for action in a sick or unfruitful world. It is man using metaphor like a knife. A riddle is a matching of wits, a game of disguisd. It is man playing with metaphor like a lens. A charmist fears and manipulates the Other. A riddler delights in and dances the Other. A charmist is an operator who wields uncanny shapes below the patient's perception. The riddler plays protagonist as he leads us in to the uncanny world and lends us light. The charmist battles unwilling flesh with the power of the word. He moves through the patient's mind. The riddler shows us our eyes altering, our minds manipulating, our words reshaping that Other world. We move singing through the mind of two. The charmist often chants directions ("Take fennel and boil it with paste and bathe it with egg, then put on the salve";61 or "Turn three times with the course of the sun, then stretch out and say the litany"62), but never challenges, "Say what I mean." His meaning is found in healed flesh, not in the probing and playful mind. He lends us power but leads us to none. In an Old English charm for wens or tumors, the charmist chants:

Wen, wen, chicken-wen,
Build no house to enter in,
No town to hold. Go north, wretch,
To the neighboring hill where your brother waits
With a leaf for your head. Under the wolf's paw,
Under eagle's wing, under eagle's claw,
May you shrivel like coal in the catch of fare,
Disappear like dirt on the wall, water in a bucket,
Tiny as linseed, smaller than a hand-worm's
Hip-bone, smaller than something that is not!63

Here there is magical repetition; here there is also metaphor. There is no riddlic projection (the universe is dangerous) but a "speaking to" the creature. Each metaphor is a kind of trap: the wen is caught in its chicken skin, its wanderer's cloak, its fire-flesh, linseed body, hand-worm's hip-bone. The ground is implicit; there is no gap. If the tenor is lost to the conscious mind, the word may win. When the creature disappears, we are left with disguises of our own making––over these we have power. How different is the celebration, the lifting to consciousness, the metaphysical greeting of the Other in riddlic play. The charmist uses uncanny shapes to restore the world to its right flesh. The riddler invites us to witness a lyric epiphany as we see the world of our own shaping and realize that flesh is spirit embodied; spirit, symbolizing flesh. Riddlic poetry brings us to this recognition-we shape the Other and in shaping, embody the Self. Without meeting the creature, we are locked in the prison of reified categories and recognized truth. To grow beyond the known we must enter the riddlic world of unrecognizable shapes and make them ours.