Hello, checking to re-up this classic post on the Shield riddle from the Exeter Book Riddles

So, I have been thinking about different ways to re-contextualize OE poetry to think through its poetics & functions, & so I produced this short video adaptation, resetting the riddle into a hiphop style, music & all. Here’s the video:

[Taken down for revision, but it’ll be back soon] [The older post is attached below:]

Ic eom anhaga      iserne wund,

bille gebennad,      beadoweorca sæd,

ecgum werig.      Oft ic wig seo,

frecne feohtan.      Frofre ne wene,

þæt mec geoc cyme      guðgewinnes,

ær ic mid ældum      eal forwurðe,

ac mec hnossiað      homera lafe,

heardecg heoroscearp,      hondweorc smiþa,

bitað in burgum;      ic abidan sceal

laþran gemotes.      Næfre læcecynn

on folcstede      findan meahte,

þara þe mid wyrtum      wunde gehælde,

ac me ecga dolg      eacen weorðað

þurh deaðslege      dagum ond nihtum.


[An S-rune (sigel) follows the poem]


[my translation]


Lone-dweller I am, injured with iron,

battered by the blade—I’ve had my fill of battle-works—

exhausted by the edges. I have seen warfare

often, perilous fighting. Hopeless of comfort, I —

respite from the struggle of battle shall not come,


before I should be eaten up entirely among men,

the heritage of the hammer should beat upon me,

hard-edged, slicingly sharp, handiwork of smiths—

they bite me upon the battlements.


I must endure these loathsome moots,

never able to locate a healing tribe

who might in the houses of men

wind my wounds with herbs —


but the gashes become greater

through fatal blows by day and by night.


One does not have to look too carefully at the poem we know as Riddle #5 to see that its generic affinities with the other Exeter Book Riddles perhaps are strained. Yes, a usually speechless thing speaks about itself, that is very much like the others. And it does indeed engage in creative, metaphorical misdirection, substituting the shield of its tenor for the warrior of its vehicle. But it does not use other common riddling tricks of play: it does not enumerate its paradoxes with the common “hwilum” [sometimes] anaphora, demanding a reader answer “How can all these contradictions be equally true?” (Riddles #4, 6, and 7 all do this, among many others). It never asks a direct question about its identity (though many Riddles do not), nor does it refer to an agent of its identification (for example, in Riddle #1’s opening: “Hwylc is hæleþa þæs horsc ond þæs hygecræftig / þæt þæt mæge asecgan…” [Which of you heroes is so sharp-witted and so mind-crafty, / who can speak aloud…] or even the final line of Riddle #4: “þær wiht wite, ond wordum min / on sped mæge spel gesecgan” [if someone knows me—how wordfully / my message in its meaning can be mouthed] [11-12]). These absences are allusive, but they alone do not satisfy the question: how much of a riddle is #5?

This may seem a quibble, but metaphorical misdirection does not really move far enough to be truly perplexing in Riddle #5. Though both are instances of figurative language, metonymy rather than metaphor motivate this poem, since shields and warriors are commonly identified with each other. Given the ample presence of military kennings that use scyld– or bord– as their first element, this metonymy may even be as strong as a synecdoche, a part for the whole. So the movement of Riddle #5 from shield to warrior is not intentionally misleading, and by preserving the military register, the poet seems to be doggedly and perhaps perversely remaining close to the subject that they are really interested in discussing.

Garbed in the integument of the unexpected, Riddle #5 wonders instead about the true cost of war on its warriors, imagining their lament of secret trauma by giving mouth to the mute object that knows nothing else but combat. By invoking its material status, the speaker imagines themselves as just another object, an instrument of battle and nothing more. A similar game is played in Riddle #20, usually solved as a sword, who mournfully acknowledges there is no time for sex in its life of killing:


                            Ic wiþ bryde ne mot

hæmed habban,      ac me þæs hyhtplegan

geno wyrneð,      se mec geara on

bende legde


I am not allowed to make

fucking with any woman,

but he still denies me

that hopeful sort of sport,

who laid me long ago in fetters.


Both sword and shield are given to a hard fate, locked in conflict, bound to suffer hardship in battle. While #20’s sword is resigned to a perpetual, irresolvable feud, kept apart from the loving-kindness that could break up troubled times, hated by lovers, the shield of #5 emphasizes instead the mental and emotional costs of war. It is “iserne wund, / bille gebennad, beadoweorca sæd, / ecgum werig” (wounded with iron weapons, / injured by swords, weary of battle-deeds / tired out by blades). The important term here is “sæd,” cognate to our “sad” but having an older sense of being filled to the brim, stated in apposition to “werig.” There must have been a point in the development of English where “sad” meant “replete with any strong emotion” and therefore weary of the drink, maybe even drunk on it. The speaker is a vessel, an instrument filled up with “beado-weorca” (deeds of battle) — sick and tired of this existence. The connotation of repletion is much in effect here, since the genitive plural of “beadoweorca” can also indicate the contents of a vessel. There is a minor warping here in imagery, since the mostly flat shield is now holding liquid, becoming another sort of tool. The veteran warrior confesses the psychological costs of his profession, feeling like his injuries only increase rather than heal as time goes on. The speaking shield, through riddlic play, snaps into focus a stark realization of the pain of warfare, the secret trauma of soldiers, the flip side to the glory of epic battle verses. The warrior is reduced to a thing of battle, and like any thing lying around, one does not expect it to start confessing its sorrow. A story that no one is there to listen to or understands in the telling.

The synecdoche of shield to warrior brings out this painful truth, the proximity of tool to its user, part to whole. It reminds us that the language of militarization often reduces its players to pawns, even in celebrating them through poetic compounds, the warrior becomes nothing more than an instrument of another person’s glory. Once a shield-brother, now just a shield, the warrior has given up his best attributes and feelings to a life of the campaign, a tool to protect the body of a general or king. The riddle breaks down in this uncomfortable conceptual proximity — through earnest play battlefield trauma becomes legible, but the truth lurking behind the glorious songs can never be escaped once recognized. The shield is the reminder of old wounds that never heal, its restoring læccecyn a leatherworker, just another doctor working in skin that fails to regenerate the person that once was there. And the impenetrable figure finds the raw emotion remaining within him has filled up his hollow spaces — and they cannot be drained. The secret is the poison that Wob will not hold for too long, just as deadly to others (Riddle #23). Like in the case of the sword in Riddle #20, the lyric form stands in poignant counterpoint to the march of epic and its martial celebration. The prosopopoeia of riddling gives voice to mute realization, tragic confession that cannot find the right words, the pain that endures without recourse, a poem without a proper genre.

Is Riddle #5 truly a riddle? Yes and no. If pain and raw emotions are objects in their own right, then certainly. If figurative misdirection is the key to a dramatically renewed experience of the world, then definitely so. If truth can only be articulated through riddlic playing, then perhaps what we consider the task of the riddle is inadequate. Perhaps the uncomfortable sense of generic torsion beclouds the horizon of expectation, and we must see that riddles can be more than games, but cries for acknowledgment, for recognition, for name — and most of all for an identification that brings cure and solace.

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