The Old English riddles of the Exeter Book are currently enjoying a surge of scholarly interest. A number of noteworthy studies have recently appeared, including monographs by Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Dieter Bitterli, and Patrick J. Murphy. Corinne Dale’s ecologically attuned study of the riddles is a welcome addition to this recent scholarship. Given the riddle collection’s investment in the natural world (in it trees, beasts, and even storms are personified and made to ‘speak’), it is surprising that no study has yet been devoted to what these riddles reveal about Anglo-Saxon perceptions of nature. In taking up this subject, The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles illuminates a neglected aspect of the riddles and, in a deeply informed and yet accessible fashion, gives fresh insight into the riddles’ intricate construction of non-human voices. The book argues that the Old English riddles present a vision of the natural world that is not wholly reducible to human interests. Despite the thoroughgoing anthropomorphism of the collection, the riddles nevertheless ‘challenge human-centred ways of depicting the created world’ and evince ‘a programme of resistance to anthropocentrism’ (p. 2). Underpinning this approach are principles drawn from ecocriticism and ecotheology. As the author explains, ecocriticism focuses upon a text’s depiction of the natural environment, its inclusion of non-human perspectives, and its concern for humans’ accountability to the natural world. Similarly, ecotheology, drawn from religious studies, is grounded in an understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things, the mutual custodianship of humans and non-human creatures, and the intrinsic (as opposed to use-based) worth of creation. Employing these principles, Dale sets herself the task of uncovering the riddle collection’s ecological perspective against ‘a forbidding list of dominant anthropocentric readings of the texts by a range of authoritative scholars’ (p. 19). Particularly problematic for her are interpretations of the riddles that have emphasized the metaphorical and allegorical meanings at the expense of the literal. In essence this is the book’s project: to take the descriptive details of these texts literally, rather than treating the host of non-human speakers as mere mouthpieces for social or spiritual concerns. The book’s seven chapters apply these ecocritical and ecotheological principles to selected riddles, offering a series of close and comparative analyses that frequently draw upon patristic and biblical sources. Given the book’s preoccupation with the material and specific, it is fitting that the first chapter is devoted to the significance of physical location in the riddles. Arguing that ‘place in the riddles is often more than an incidental backdrop’ (p. 32), Dale examines the natural environment of speakers such as the ‘Runestaff’ (or ‘Reed-pen’) in Riddle 60, which tells of its early idyllic life as a plant growing beside the water before being uprooted and transformed by humans. For Dale riddles such as this challenge the notion that Anglo-Saxons viewed natural locations as devoid of meaning and saw value only in human-centric spaces such as the hall. Instead, in these riddles ‘the writers are attempting to imagine the world from a non-human perspective’, expressing longing for a lost Edenic world free from ‘suffering and servitude’ (pp. 50, 51). This approach is extended to animal life in the second and third chapters. These chapters consider riddles that describe the transformation of animals into products for human use, such as the well-known Riddle 23 (‘Bible’) and Riddle 72 (‘Ox’). Dale contends that, contrary to some scholars’ interpretations, the prosopopoeia in these riddles is more than a rhetorical device, and is designed to elicit a genuine sympathy for the animal speakers and their plight. By contrasting these texts to their Anglo-Latin riddle precursors written by Aldhelm, Tatwine, and Eusebius, Dale reveals just how deeply the Old English riddles enter into the animals’ perspectives and identity. She demonstrates forcefully that in the Exeter Book riddles, the material matters—it is significant in its own right, and not merely for its metaphorical or instrumental value. When the book turns, however, from animal life to plants and minerals in the subsequent chapters, the readings can sometimes feel strained. The claim, in Chapter 5, that ore taken from the earth in Riddle 83 ‘can be viewed as a victim of human actions’ and that ‘the removal of ore is itself violent and unjust’ (p. 127) when it is mined and minted into coins fails to convince. The same can be said of Dale’s contention that the overpowering intoxicating effects of alcoholic drink in Riddles 11 and 27 imply that ‘the earth has agency and can resist the wrongs caused it by humans’ (p. 165). This seems a fanciful reading considering that mead is the product of human culture, not nature, and there is no criticism in the riddle of the humans for taking the honey. More persuasive is the book’s final chapter, in which Dale considers the way Riddles 1–3 (the so-called ‘storm riddles’) challenge anthropocentric attitudes with their depiction of nature as a powerful, mysterious, and uncontrollable force. Here Dale argues cogently that this understanding of nature is rooted in the wisdom-literature tradition of Job. She points out the close connection between the biblical book of Job, which uses rhetorical questions to expose the limits of human understanding, and the storm riddles, which employ rhetorical questions in much the same manner. Following this chapter, the volume is neatly capped by a conclusion that outlines the riddles’ ‘ethics of human-nature interaction’. While this monograph will certainly enhance our understanding and appreciation of the Exeter Book riddles, it does suffer from several shortcomings. Some of these problematic elements are built into the book’s approach: How the riddles can be pervasively anthropomorphic without being anthropocentric, for example, is a difficulty the book addresses but never entirely surmounts. Likewise, the riddle selection and the distinction between human products and natural objects can also appear somewhat arbitrary; it is never sufficiently clear why the suffering of a tree, ox, or oyster should elicit our sympathy and solidarity, whereas the suffering of the battle-weary Shield in Riddle 5 (to pick one example) should not. (Dale does acknowledge this problem, admitting that in the riddles ‘the boundary between sentient and non-sentient beings is blurred’ .) Finally, it should be noted that there are a number of unfortunate typographical errors (pages 7, 62, 164, 180, as well as a mangled Old English passage on page 91). In spite of its shortcomings, this book is a valuable contribution to the field, not only for its thorough investigation of the natural world in these Old English texts but for its incisive analysis of the riddles’ most distinctive feature—the startling extent to which they invest the non-human world with voice. More so than any other recent monograph, this volume probes into how deeply and imaginatively the Old English riddles enter into the specificity of their subjects. It reveals in the riddles a concreteness and emotional identification that is unmatched in medieval—and perhaps all—literature. By its dogged insistence that the material matters, this book has rendered medieval scholarship a considerable service. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 24, 2018
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