Exeter Riddle 77: The Oyster

Sae mec feede,    sundhelm þeahte,
Ond mec yþa wrugon   eorþan getenge,
feþelease;   oft ic flode ongean
muð ontynde. [1]

[ The sea fed me; the water-helm was over me, and waves covered me, [close to the ground]. I was footless. Often toward the sea I opened my mouth.][2]

The answer is going to be oyster. But that answer will arrive only when the oyster dies. Prior to that, we get a whole world. In imagining the oyster amid all this, sea and water and earth and mouth, the Anglo-Saxon riddle fulfills Stacy Alaimo’s demand, in her study of the deep sea, not to represent its denizens as isolated in a “clean aesthetic” against a featureless background, as they so often are in photobooks, but as enmeshed in a “dynamic liquid materiality” comprising a “soupy mix of particles and tiny creatures” in which no one single perspective predominates.[3] With the sea as its helmet, with the waves covering or hiding it, with the earth close against it (“getenge”), the shell or the boundary of the oyster is not its lonely enclosure, but its world, its caregiver, its outside, and interior self. They feed me, and they shelter me, the oyster says, with the object pronoun mec coming twice before the ic in the third line’s second half. But even this belated subject pronoun just marks an opening to the sea, an invitation to be filled again: “Often toward the sea I [ic] opened my mouth.” That is, the oyster speaks only enough of an I for there to be space for the ocean to flow into it, to give purchase to this flow of giving and feeding. For an oyster’s open mouth is its whole body opened. Luce Irigaray’s vaginal environmental writing here suggests itself, as in her Elemental Passions’ “there is nothing to create a wall. Leaves, and trees, and birds, and sky, and grass, all cross and brush each other continuously: a supple and mobile dwelling.”[4] So does, inevitably, Francis Ponge’s prose poem on the oyster, in whose interior one finds a whole world, sky, earth, and flowing sea. Then, almost halfway through, with the “muð ontynde,” the opened mouth, it is as if the riddle reaches back to its first line, “sae mec feede,” the sea fed me, closing the loop on the opening to circulate the sea again and again through the oyster’s cavernous body. In the loop we have distinction without antagonism, difference disentangled from the struggle for recognition. Then this happens:

 Nu wile monna sum
min flæsc fretan;    felles ne recceð
siþþan he me of sidan   seaxes orde
hyd arypeð,    […]ec hr[.] þe siþþan
iteð unsodene ea […..…..…..…….]d.

[Now will some man devour my flesh. He does not want my skin, when he rips off my hide with the point of a knife, and then quickly eats me uncooked….]

Ontological and temporal distinction from this sheltering and shared self comes only in the “nu,” the now, when a man snatches out the oyster to give it the cut of mortality. Note the strange presentation of its shell here: not the expected “scille,” shell – which admittedly would not fit the alliterative form – but fellen, a leathery word,[5] suggesting less rigidity, clear boundaries, or protection than a flexible, inadequate border, or a transformation of the oyster into just any other kind of animal, available for indifferent slaughter. Almost as soon as it arrives, this border is discarded, and what had been a sheltering flow becomes silence. The riddle — because it is a riddle, but especially because it is this riddle — thus offers itself up almost programmatically to what is by now the ecocritical mode that treats any conceptual isolation as a misapprehension, reification, or still worse. After all, we are invited to solve the riddle, and thereby fix the oyster as oyster, only after it disappears unboiled and unhappy down a human gullet to its final silence and death.[6] What had been “fretan,” which like the German freßen, distinguishes animal feeding from human, cultural eating, becomes “iteð” only in the last line, only at the point when the human can enwrap the oyster in its own preferred understand of its appetite. The oyster has been allowed to speak only long enough to witness to its own helplessness, witness to a human eater that swallows it thoughtlessly, and to hint back to the world where it once belonged, where it once had only enough form to be enwrapped and protected and fed. And then only enough to be available to being killed.

[1] Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the “Exeter Book” (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 1977), 110. The damage to the manuscript offers several possible reconstructions of the riddle’s final lines; compare Williamson to, for example, Frederick Tupper, ed., The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910), 52–53, “ iteð unsodene ea…” Recent extended treatments of the riddles as a whole include Dieter Bitterli, Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and Patrick J. Murphy, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011): neither has much to say about this particular poem. For a brief and lively treatment of the Exeter Book, and its medieval career, among other things, as a cutting board and occasional table, Craig Williamson, trans., The Complete Old English Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 299–302.

[2] Translation primarily from W. S. Mackie, ed. and trans., The Exeter Book, Part 2: Poems 9-32, Early English Texts Society, O. S. 194 (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), 215, modified with reference to Paull F. Baum, trans., Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1963), 27. Generally, critics have thought the oyster either ridiculous or have rescued into some sober human moral or historical meaning: see Mercedes Salvador, “The Oyster and the Crab: A Riddle Duo (Nos. 77 and 78) in the Exeter Book,” Modern Philology 101, no. 3 (2004): 400–419 (a critique of gluttony during a period of Benedictine dietary reform);  Brian McFadden, “Raiding, Reform, and Reaction: Wondrous Creatures in the Exeter Book Riddles,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 50, no. 4 (2008): 329–51 (brief reference amid a historicist interpretation on violence and anxiety);  Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, Dire Straits: The Perils of Writing the Early Modern English Coastline from Leland to Milton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 16 (the oyster is “comically buffeted”). The only treatment that considers the oyster as an oyster belongs to Heide Estes, Old English Literary Landscapes: Ecotheory and the Anglo-Saxon Environmental Imagination (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017).

[3] “Violet-Black,” in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ed., Prismatic Ecology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 241–42.

[4] Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions, trans. Joanne Collie and Judith Still (New York: Routledge, 1992), 69.

[5] See Megan Cavell, Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 87.

[6] Those seeking an origin of this ecological insight elsewhere than, in particular, Heidegger might look instead to Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 11, “In truth, all concepts, even the philosophical ones, refer to nonceptualities, because concepts on their part are moments of the reality that require their formation, primarily for the control of nature.” Irigaray is of course also relevant.