Riddles

“People in Anglo-Saxon times, living uncomfortably close to the natural world, were well aware that though creation is inarticulate it is animate, and that every created thing, every wiht, had its own personality.  Though the forces of earth, air, and water were not regularly propitiated or invoked, an awareness of the old methods of sympathetic identification seems to have lingered on, by habit and instinct, in the arts, and certainly in the art of poetry, as is clearly shown by the few charms that remain, corrupt though their texts may be.

“The riddle is a sophisticated and harmless form of invocation by imitation: the essence of it is that the poet, by an act of imaginative identification which Vernon Lee gave the name ’empathy’, assumes the personality of some created thing- an animal, a plant, a natural force.  Some element of impersonation is involved in any creative act, but by performing this particular ventriloquism the poet extends and diversifies our understanding of- or at least our acquaintance with- the noumenous natural world, of whose life, or even existence, modern men are becoming progressively more unaware.  This operation is salutary, and may be said to have a religious value”

I encountered the preceding quote, from Michael Alexander’s ‘The Earliest English Poems’, the other night and thought immediately of this post on my friend Connor’s blog.  Consider the following riddle, translated by Alexander from The Exeter Book:

A curious and wonderful creature I saw,
– bright air-grail, brave artefact-
homing from a raid with its haul of silver
brimming precarious crescent horns.

To build itself a hideaway high up in the city,
a room in a tower, timbered with art,
was all it aimed at, if only it might.

Then over the wall rose a wonder familiar
to the earth-race, to everyone known.
It gathered to itself the hoard, and to its home drove off
that unhappy outcast.  Onward it coursed,
wandering westward with wasting heart.

Dust rose to the skies, dew fell to the earth,
night was no more.  No man knew
along what ways it wandered after.

Any guesses?  How about this one:

I am fire-fretted and I flirt with Wind
and my limbs are light-freighted and I am lapped in flame
and I am storm-stacked and I strain to fly
and I am a grove leaf-bearing and a glowing ember.

From hand to friend’s hand about the hall I go,
so much do lords and ladies love to kiss me.
When I hold myself high, and the whole company
bow quiet before me, their blessedness
shall flourish skyward beneath my fostering shade.

One way of approaching the many mysteries out there in the world is to consider them riddles.  Too often we city-dwellers dismiss the signals and signs sent back and forth across the face of the wood or the meadow as essentially meaningless, whether we cloak that estimation in the poetry of pastoralism, “beautiful birdsong,” “picturesque vistas,” or the poetry of science, in which ‘irrelevant’ data is dismissed as “noise”.  While hiking, we seem preoccupied with a thin, winding piece of earth, and pay little heed to the great swathes of soil, duff, and rock that spread out all around us, especially towards the end of a long day’s march across “the middle of nowhere” from there to here.

A riddle makes the strange familiar by presenting the superficially familiar in a new, strange way.  The mental gymnastics force us to pay closer attention to the subjects of our jest so that we might imitate them more convincingly.  Try playing ‘I-Spy’ with riddles as the clues.  In order to solve the old-fashioned ‘who-am-I’ riddles, you must imagine yourself in another’s shoes (or roots, or bedrocks, or whatever).  The recognition, some would say projection, of personhood in or onto another entity is often called anthropomorphism by those who think that only human beings are possessed of awareness and the ability to communicate intelligibly.  The assumption that the animate world is without animus can be disproved by simply paying close attention, regularly, without expectation.  Riddles, both old and freshly made, are good practice for Lee’s empathetic imagination, and only get better the more people there are to share in them.

Animal tracks and bird language immediately spring to mind as riddles communicated by an intending world, but other, subtler signs abound as well.  What do the designs that whirligig beetles write on the surface of a pond mean?  What is the sky telling you about what will happen in the next fifteen hours?  What sorts of clouds portend storms, hail, good fortune?  What are shallow holes scraped in the soil or dug into the sod of a field saying to you about the inhabitants of that place?  What about the plants themselves; what does a living tree have to say about the past, and a dead tree about the future of the place?  What can a lily tell you about fire?

It’s a good habit to get into, I think, asking the questions the way I’ve asked them.  It’s not, “what does the presence of blueberries indicate as far as the pH of the soil is concerned?” but “what are these blueberries telling me about this place?”  When you open up to the possibility that the world might have something to tell you, of its own accord, you’d be surprised to find how often it is that the world begins to consider that you might be able to listen.  Practice is the only way, and the best sort of practice is that which one thoroughly enjoys.

Lastly, and equally important to the rest of their fine qualities, riddles sustain a sense of mystery in our lives.  Some riddles have no discernible answer.  Why do caterpillars turn into moths, and what do they dream about in their cocoons as they melt into shape?  Whose feet stamped these badly decayed holes in the snow last week, where were they going, and why?  Of all the fertile furrows along this ridgeline, why is this tree growing here, out of solid rock, held to the side of a cliff by its exposed roots?  What is going through the mind of a person who builds a house with sixteen bathrooms?  There are some things you and I will simply never know.  That’s OK, other people know them.

“The effect of being asked a riddle by someone who lived eleven hundred years ago is already disconcerting; but not to know the answer is frankly embarrassing.”

I was in one hour an ashen crone
a fair-faced man, a fresh girl,
floated on foam, flew with birds,
under the wave dived, dead among fish
and walked upon land a living soul

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