The Representation of Gold and Good Kingship
The Exeter Book contains one of largest collection of old English literature and Anglo-Saxon poetry written in the Middle Ages consisting of mainly poems, elegies and riddles; a popular genre in the early Middle and Medieval Ages (Coley 1). Poems found in the book of Exeter include The Wanderer and The wife’s Lament (Greenblatt and Abrams). Along with many untold brainteasers, the riddles are ambiguous and have possible solutions to them in addition to their double entenders, making it more difficult to pinpoint one answer or reference. An example of this is Riddle #91.
Because of the poem’s obscurity, it invokes a figure of supremacy or primary to the possible solution simply “gold” or “golden crown” by using phrases like “I am noble”, “Wealth of cities”, “humble and high born.”, and “shines signifying power”, indicating kingship or authority who use such gems.
In this essay, I will argue for the possible solution “gold” and what it represents by close reading the riddle itself, finally propose a kingship-religious interpretation to it given how the Exeter collection also included elegies like The Wanderer which ended with a question to whether it promises redemption or salvation, a critical time for the Anglo-Saxons because of Christian conversions and the Crusades (Coley 2).
Using Craig Williamson’s “A feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs” version to examine Riddle #91, the poem starts off with “I am noble” which suggests high status and patrician, a requirement of many kings and lord, or at least aristocracy. To obtain gem and own gold, a precious metal is presumably not cheap and easily obtainable (unless of high social class). More specifically, the king’s golden crown or jewels is noble. The next two lines “known to rest in the quiet/Keeping of many men/ humble and high born.” suggests that gold (or the king at this point) rests in the royal residence away from peasants or others.
The second phrase could be read as the kingship protecting people, securing places and people, (a requirement of a good leader) or the crown jewels being kept away from normal habitants. “humble and high born.” is what makes a good and a real aristocratic king. Not born “humble”, modest rulers are generous, and thus giving (specially gold or gifts) is seen as Nobel and king-like behaviour. “High born” is the prestigious lineage that is needed to rule or wear the royal crown. “The plunderers’ joy/hauled far from friends” alludes to the antagonist, anyone who wishes to take over the golden crown and ruling. Plunderer implies force, thus taken away and looted jewels in times of war; “hauled far from friends” also refers to gold (or kingship) being stripped away in wartime or hostage.
“Rides richly on me, shines signifying power” – the crown fits and probably his more space on the royal’s head given the word “rides richly”, meaning more space or margin and not necessarily tight. Gold “shines” and literally “signifies” “power”; One who hold gold shows power. The next few phrases also suggest authority and power as well as protection, a kingly conduct – “Whether I proclaim the grandeur of halls, the wealth of cities, or the glory of god.”; The first line refers to the lord protecting of mead halls, and as well as the usage of gold (and kingship) as a portrayal of country’s wealth. For example, using golden keys and gates to protect the city halls or their lair shows a rich, well off king. “Glory of god” denotes a religious attribute, thus kingsmen, most “glorious” of people protecting the nether class, or on the other hand the king as the face of Christianity.
By analogy, Lines 6 and 7 offer a different understanding to the solution but given by the kingship. “Now wise men love most my strange way/Of offering wisdom to many without voice.” Through his powers and “strange ways” of passing laws, royals offer generosity and help to those of with (courtiers/“wise men”) and without voices (peasants). To give voices to those who don’t have any alludes to writing because it offers a different medium, in this case the golden crown gives hope and wisdom to those without. Also creating form of structure or hierarchy in the poem given how wisdom is being offered to those without any voices (power given to the lower class); the quality of wisdom denotes a kingship or similar expected character of a noble.
“Though the children of earth eagerly seek/ To trace my trail, sometimes my tracks are dim” explains how hard it is to seek or “trace” (mine) for gold, but also how tough it is to detach or become a crowned king. If looked at in a different scope, the last phrase can also be a sarcastic commentary on monarchies in general given how kings are put by lineages or how ridiculous it seems to seek gold or power.
The double entendre behind gold and kingship in the poem suggests not only an authorial position like crowned head but also religious elements, meaning the crown is an allegory to god or the lord himself. Using phrases like “children of earth” and “glory of god” suggests spiritual qualities. Kingship, an important component of a good leader and provider of the city can also be looked as a religious figure, or in other words as a savior or protector like god himself.
Again, if looked at in a different point of view, the theme of the poem can be religious in the sense that not kings, but god offer protection to the people, denoted through his richness of gold (“wealth”) and (“power”) wisdom. As discussed in class, the lord-thane association is a well-known narrative, celebrating the relationship between both, the lord and his people, thus the culture signifying the importance of a generous king such as the case of many other kingly attributes like Beowulf or Arthur (giving voices to those who do not have any), the riddle alludes with the spiritual or a higher entity, making the king interlace in the riddle a protector figure. If looked at in a different scope, the religious pattern is not very significant or apparent, alluding to the whole culture itself not fully conversed into Christianity, nevertheless mentioning “glory of god” implies a religious if not supernatural element.
The middle ages have seen much of conversions and creation of religions such as Christianity and Islam. If not passed down orally, the poem suggests a culture in which it believes in generosity or at least kingly wisdom and protection. The difference between the high and low, or the hierarchy shown in the poem by denoting phrases like “children of earth”, “god”, “offering wisdom to many without voices” and “noble” shows a system or ranking in which something is being offered, whether its protection by the crown or religious salvation as the case in the ambiguous last two lines of the poem The Wanderer (Coley 2).
Coley, David. “Anglo-Saxon Riddles.” English 201 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 21 Sept. 2016. Seminar
Coley, David. “Riddles & The Wanderer.” English 201 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 26 Sept. 2016. Seminar
Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982) 154.
Greenblatt, Stephen and M. H Abrams. The Norton Anthology Of English Literature : The Middle Ages. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Pp.117-121.