Voice and Voicelessness
“Mimicry, Subjectivity, and the Embodied Voice in Old English Animal Riddles”
This paper reads tenth-century Old English animal riddles and their Latin analogues as moments in the development of aesthetic and institutional relationships between sound, voice, and performance, in the practical context of animal consciousness and human-animal interaction. The occluded status and role of both speaker and solution in riddlic texts creates a unique opportunity to interrogate the ontological, aesthetic, and rhetorical status of the speaking subject. While the riddle form “I saw/heard of a creature…name it” presumes an audible human questioner defying the reader to solve a puzzle (voice deployed consciously in a socialized game), the rival form “I am a creature who…,” ending with the injunction to “say what I am called,” fashions a conscious, self-describing animal narrator whose subjective status and agency coexist uneasily with its objectification and commodification in the oral and written economies of Old English poetry.
Like the “implement” riddles (key, bellows, plow, etc.), the animal riddles are mostly first-person, putting language into the mouths of normally speechless creatures and often interrogating the master/servant relationship. But when the animal speaks, vivid emotional language generates subjectivities that emerge not only from individual (often painful) experience, but also from finely observed social and economic relations with their human co-subjects. The fox in his hole/house cowers from predators, whom he must either flee or kill to protect his family; the barnacle goose grows out of underwater wood, in a utopian elimination of animal husbandry; alive, the ox breaks the land (plows), and, dead, binds the living (with his leather). In a handful of riddles, the animal calls attention to the very voice in which it speaks: the swan makes an ethereal sound when it flies, the nightingale modulates its voice like a priest-minstrel hybrid, the jay mimics other animals, both wild and domestic: in all these cases, the animal participates in a human(ized) institution and thereby recreates its own function as speaking subject.
In order to examine more precisely the ontological, social, and institutional statuses of the poetic animal subjects at hand, I will trace a path from Aristotelian and Stoic theories of voice to the late antique grammarians with whom the Anglo-Saxon riddlers were likely familiar. Opinions varied about the rational and significative status of animal voices, with some thinkers holding that only human speech was articulated and writeable (and hence, capable of signifying a rational idea) and others maintaining that animal sounds constituted speech insofar as they manifested an emotion or coherent idea (many likened animal speech to barbarian speech, which is articulated and rational, but not comprehensible to “civilized” ears). But a zone of slippage, originating with Aristotle, between sound as symbola (a rational function involving the institutional assignment of names) and sound as semeion (a natural sign or symptom of an affection of the soul, applicable to both human and animal voices), left ample room for the negotiation of rational and signifying functions of animal speakers. The Anglo-Saxon riddle tradition brought these communicative questions into an explicitly performative context, treating the conventionalized dimension of speech in specifically institutionalized roles: the hall-singer, the challenging riddler, the talking beast.