• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Sometimes, curiously enough, textual words provide no nourishment whatsoever. We don’t expect that, of course, since the dominant ideology insists that handwritten or printed or pixel-imaged content is always and forever “there,” ever ready to be consumed and digested. All cultural expectation to the contrary, however, texts and their tWords can prove to be merely empty calories.

What riddles can do

Consider one such scenario from early medieval England, from a period on the cusp of OT and textual technology. Riddle 45, as it’s known, was probably composed and perhaps performed orally before being committed to the Exeter Book manuscript, the grand miscellany of Old English poetry compiled by Bishop Leofric before the end of the tenth century. There are about 90 of these enigmata in the collection, covering a wealth of subjects, and they’re much more than facile games or harmless amusement for children. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have used riddles as vehicles for storing and transmitting cultural observations and discovered truths, as well as for pondering such thorny matters as the interrelationship of Germanic paganism and Latin Christianity. To put it another way, riddles could serve as dynamic thinking spaces, as virtual arenas for reflecting on important cultural issues.

No exception to that rule, the six-line riddle translated below poses a puzzle for you to solve, a mysterious phenomenon that the speaker is asking you to step forward and explain. Just one hint before you begin: Anglo-Saxon riddles typically disguise an animal, object, or natural process in human garb, playing off its eccentric or even inexplicable behavior against everyday human traits. See whether you can come up with the answer, which – here’s a hint – involves both a creature and a process:

Riddle 45

A moth ate words—that seemed to me
a curious event when I learned about the wonder,
that the worm, the thief in darkness, completely swallowed
a certain man’s song-poem, his glory-bound speech
and the basis of his strength. But that thieving stranger
wasn’t a whit the wiser after he swallowed those words

Did you guess “bookworm eating a manuscript”? That’s the solution accepted by almost all scholar-solvers, understanding the “moth” and the “worm” as successive life-stages of one and the same animal. Of course, we’re hardly surprised about the riddle’s dénouement: no creature, bookworm or not, can literally digest words. Sheepskin and ink, yes; the wisdom they encode, no. Thus it is that swallowing words yields no educational boost for the hungry bookworm, who “wasn’t a whit the wiser” for his manuscript-munching.

Nor does our riddle’s commentary on communications technologies end there. Notice that the moth or worm was consuming tWords from a manuscript text, tWords that aspired to be – and ideologically were thought to represent – a great deal more than textual artifacts. They contained, as best they could, the oWords of “a certain man’s song-poem” (the Old English term is gied, which means an orally performed poem). They mirrored, once again as well as texts can mirror, his speech and his strength. So there was potentially a lot at stake here: the manuscript eaten by the bookworm seems to have been nothing less than a transcription of a performance from oral tradition. It amounted to the tangible, static, objective reflection of a living, engaging event – song, speech, and strength transported, however imperfectly, to sheepskin stained with tree-dye.

The fragility of texts

But the manuscript was also nothing more than that, and the bookworm shows us why. As precious as the text was, it also proved only too perishable. As carefully and artfully inscribed as its tWords were, they readily fell prey to a “thief in darkness.” After all of the enormous time and energy expended in a medieval scriptorium on creating this wondrous record, along came a lowly bookworm and by itself shut down transactions in the tAgora. Perhaps, as Riddle 45 appears to be telling us, texts aren’t as permanent as they may seem. Perhaps their treasured authoritativeness is more fragile than we thought. Perhaps they’re not quite the unshakable pillars that the dominant ideology pre-emptively insists they are.

Perhaps in the end texts don’t provide the last(ing) word.