Metaphor and Riddle

[pages 25-27]

A riddle mediates between man and the Other–its voice is sometimes the bard's, sometimes the birds. We contrive to know the riddler's meaning, the creatures's world. Through other eyees we see our own symbolic systems. With reason we separate day from night, man from monster, plant from penis–only to discover in riddles a nightmare of resemblances and crossed categories. Can the fox be a great mother, the moon a night-bandit, the sword a celibate and serving thane? Can the dead ox revive to carry man (shoes) or sin through its skin the word of God (Bible)? Can a bird be a poet, a bagpipe a bird? This is the power the word confers--especially in the shape of metaphor.36

Disguise and disclosure are the twin movements of metaphor and riddle. Aristotle discovered the poles of the dance. In discussing riddles and metaphors in The Poetics and Rhetoric, he says:

Good metaphors can usually be made from successful riddles, for metaphors are a kind of riddle. (Rhetoric 1405b)
The essence of a riddle is to express facts by combining them in an impossible way; this cannot be done by the mere arrangement of words but requires the use of metaphor.(Poetics 1458)
Most felicitous sayings rely on metaphor and on a capacity to deceive beforehand. 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." . . . Good riddles delight us for the same reason, for we learn something from them, and they are in the form of metaphors.39

Riddles and metaphors disguise one creature in the garb of another.

The bird is a poet, the blade is a warrior, the rake is a dog.

The real creature is what I. A. Richards calls the tenor, the disguise is the vehicle; the common ground is what makes the comparison, the disguise possible.40

The nightingale and poet sing and celebrate beauty,
the blade and warrior serve and slay,
The rake and dog scruff along the ground.

In addition to Richards's triad of terms, there is also what I call the gap, those characteristics which separate the true tenor from the vehicle, the real creature from the assumed disguise.41

By calling the nightingale "bright singer of beauty,"
we highlight the connection between bard and bird (the ground).

By calling the bird a "winged, penless poet," we highlight the distinction (the gap). Ground words reinforce the metaphoric equation; gap words recall the separate worlds of tenor and vehicle.

The ground extends a metaphor; the gap produces paradox.


An extended image often contains both ground and gap. For example:

the rake as dog might be "a one-legged ground-scruffer,"
the blade as warrior, "a gray battle-thane,"
or gold as a tyrant, "a bright-cloaked, hammered king."

The gap and ground produce the clash and confirmation of metaphor, the collision and collusion of worlds.42

In pages 27-29 Williamson analyzes the metaphorical structure of
Riddles in Richardson's terms: tenor, vehicle, ground and adds another term "gap". To proceed click on Tenor. To return to the main menu click on Feast. To leap to the next two topics in Williamson's analysis of the form and structure of the riddles click on Kenning or Gnomic verse.


2. Riddles: Tenor, Vehicle, Ground and Gap

How does this work in practice in the Old English riddles? The lyre (tenor) is disguised as a lady singer (vehicle):

She shapes for her listeners a haunting sound
Who sings through her sides. Her neck is round
And delicately shaped; on her shoulders draped,
Beautiful jewels.

The tenor is hidden,
the vehicle highlighted.
The ground is plain–
may make music for their audiences,
may have shoulders decked with beautiful jewels.

The gap gives pause–this lady sings through her sides
(and the roundness of neck
may point more to shape and artisan's craft
than statuesque beauty).

The metaphor is spun out into a lyrical conceit. The ground gives good reason for the spinning; the gap produces a paradox and gives us a clue.


Sometimes the gap seems like a chasm from which reality will never be retrieved, as in Riddle 7:

I was an orphan before I was born
Cast without breath by both parents
Into a world of brittle death, I found
The comfort of kin in a mother not mine.

Our sense of logical possibility is constantly assaulted.
An orphan is a child.
A child must have been born.
The sign of a successful birthing is breath.

The world of welcome is not that of the dead but the living.
The mother of comfort who bears the child must be kin.

But the child is a bird, in this case a cuckoo.
is born breathless in an egg,
deposited in animated death into the nest of the host mother
where it hatches and is nurtured by its foster–mother
at some expense to her own brood).

The metaphoric leap predisposes us to a human perception of the riddlic terms.

But the bird is and is not one of us.


Sometimes a clashing of metaphors creates the gap, as in the case of the riddlic moon:

I saw a wonderful creature carrying
Light plunder between its horns.
Curved lamp of the air, cunningly formed,
It fetched home its booty from the day's raid
And plotted to build in its castle if it could
A night-chamber brightly adorned.

The moon begins as a horned marauder,
perhaps a horn-helmeted Viking or a beast on the hoof.
We expect either to plunder, but not to plunder light
Then the moon turns metaphorically into a curved lamp.
Paradoxically it produces what it steals-light.43
It carries a treasure and is treasure.
In each metaphor a gap provides a clue

to the context of the creature and points to the solution:
the marauder's treasure is light;
the lamp is a rider of the air.

The clash of metaphors also produces a gap.
How can a horned creature
also be an air-rider and bright lamp?
Then the lamp turns plotter and bedroom builder
as the metaphoric mode becomes increasingly anthropomorphic.

This conceit is spun out
as the warrior sun arrives to reclaim its rightful light
and drive the plundering plotter off into morning.

[The next two topics of Williamson's "Introduction" explores the riddlic character of the kenning and gnomic verses.]