Looming Danger and Dangerous Looms: Violence and Weaving in Exeter Book Riddle 56
By Megan Cavell
Leeds Studies in English, Vol.42 (2011)
The Loom Riddle: I was inside there where I saw a wooden object wounding a certain struggling creature, the wood turning; it received battle-wounds, deep gashes. Darts were woeful to that creature, and the wood skillfully bound fast. One of its feet was held fixed, the other endured affliction, leapt into the air, sometimes near the land. A tree, hung about by leaves, was near tot that bright thing [which] stood there, I saw the leavings of those arrows, carried out onto the floor to my lord, where the warriors drank.
Introduction: Violence in the Exeter Book riddles is not a new topic. Many discussions of these fascinating texts focus on the way in which commonplace objects are personified and then attacked, bound, mutilated and/or killed. This violence, which is both carried out by humans and at the same time frequently punctuated by expressions of human empathy for the wounded objects, has been explained as acceptable because it occurs in the safe, playful and inverted world of the riddle. Indeed, Ruth Wehlau notes that, as with the saints’ lives, “part of the the pleasure in reading the riddles comes from the idea of violence as spectacle, combined with our knowledge that the violence is confined to the words.” The loom riddle, which is Riddle 56 according to the numbering in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, is one of these texts, and the violent imagery here is particularly problematic because it characterizes the construction of an object that was beneficial to humans – that is, cloth. From the perspective of textiles research, this violence is off-putting – cloth usually plays a positive role because it it essential to human culture and since ‘its constituent fibers can evoke ideas of connectedness or tying’, it is frequently employed as a metaphor for society. However, such an approach of construction-through-destruction is wholly appropriate to the world of riddles, which show how the raw material in nature is turned into the ‘cooked’ objects of culture.