Post by Michael J. Warren
Yesterday I was very pleased to receive these in the post:
It’s been too long since I last wrote something for this site, so I think the advent of my book’s publication is an appropriate excuse to offer a sneaky preview into one of its chapters. Here, then, is a little something based on a small part of chapter two, which is all about transforming trickster birds in the Exeter Book Riddles.
In recent years there has been a great deal of focus on birds’ remarkable vocal abilities as a particularly useful, fabulous and convincing example of the heterogeneous and sophisticated identities and cognitive capabilities of nonhuman species. In both academic and popular forums, birds’ songs and calls are well publicized and studied for the purposes of illuminating nonhuman brilliance and, importantly, downplaying human exceptionalism, which for too long has enjoyed a monopoly on all paradigms for thinking about ecological relations: humans are rational and have sophisticated language, making us axiomatically, unquestionably superior and entitled. This year, as it happens, is the ‘Year of the Bird‘ for the National Geographic. Their range of articles has sought to celebrate the colourful diversity of bird life. One focuses specifically on birds’ cognitive abilities, exploring how ingenious, imaginative and calculating some species can be.
Not surprisingly, corvids feature pretty heavily in the article. It’s well-known that corvids–as far as we know anyway–top the smart bird charts because of their comparatively large forebrains with densely packed neurons (a raven’s forebrain is a whopping 80% of its whole brain mass). In the article, an eight-year-old girl named Gabi has befriended American crows visiting her garden who habitually bring her gifts. Corvid species, more than any other genus of bird, have demonstrated all sorts of remarkable functions (see here, here and here–for a bit of fun!) that parallel the ‘unique’ capabilities that supposedly set humans above other creatures.
Recognition and understanding of corvid genius is by no means new, of course. It’s just that scientific studies now are proving the hunches or proverbial lore that has surrounded these species for millennia. As for the Middle Ages, there’s plenty of evidence that people knew about and marvelled at corvid capabilities. There’s Chaucer’s Manciple’s crow, of course, in a lugubrious tale of storytelling, deceit and language. The gift-giving crows in Morell’s article above might also remind readers of Cuthbert’s encounters with ravens, or Guthlac’s interactions with jackdaws.
If anything, though, it is the corvid propensity for mimicking that most struck medieval scholars and poets. In a way, the crow was a bird right at the centre of grammar debates on rational and irrational (articulata and inarticulata) voices, it’s characteristic call often depicted to illustrate a nonhuman sound that can be written down (‘cra cra’) but which is meaningless. Except, of course, a crow’s ‘cra cra’ can be written down and has discrete pitches, and thus is meaningful in some sense. Moreover, it can mimic, doubling its ability for producing discrete utterances (a fact grammarians were at pains to explain away). In short, corvid voices could do as much to trouble vocal boundaries established to shore up human superiority as they could to confirm them.
It’s this aspect of avian brilliance that particularly appealed to me about Exeter Book Riddle 24, which features as one of three riddles on which I focus in chapter two of Birds in Medieval English Poetry. The solution to Riddle 24 is definitely a corvid species, because the speaker tells us so: the runic code spells out higoræ (Old English for jay or magpie, though jay is most often given).
The Riddle focuses directly on the jay’s voice–the bird itself gives a virtuosic display of mimicking ability. The context of the riddle form itself, though, with its witty combination of revelation and obfuscation creates a marvellous platform for this bird to play havoc with the boundaries of species’ voices. Here’s the Riddle itself:
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund, hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos, hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge þone haswan earn,
guðfugles hleoþor, hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne, hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte. . ᚷ. mec nemnað,
swylce . ᚫ. ond . ᚱ. . ᚩ. fullesteð,
. ᚻ. ond . ᛁ . Nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas sweotule becnaþ.
[I am a wondrous creature. I vary my voice: sometimes bark like a dog, sometimes bleat like a goat, sometimes honk like a goose, sometimes yell like a hawk, sometimes I mimic the ashy eagle—cry of the warbird—sometimes the kite’s voice I speak with my mouth, sometimes the gull’s song, where I sit gladly. G they name me, also Æ and R. O helps, H and I. Now I am called as these six letters clearly indicate.]
There were certainly classical models for talking corvids, and some of these must have been known to Anglo-Saxon writers. Martial’s remarks on the magpie (pica) were certainly known through Isidore of Seville’s depiction of the bird: ‘if you did not see me, you would deny that I am a bird’ (Etymologies., XII.vii.46). The point here, of course, is that the bird is such a good mimic that one needs to actually have the bird in sight to confirm that it is indeed a bird.
Sources like Isidore were almost certainly an influence upon the poet responsible for Riddle 24, but there is also no reason to doubt that Anglo-Saxon observers did come across real-life examples of mimicking corvids. The birds’ abilities are certainly no poetic exaggeration. Jays, for instance, have a repertoire that can encompass a wide range of other bird species, ‘and … motorbike horn, human voice, whistled songs, barking dog, and (probably) lawnmower’. (I think here of the well-known clip of the lyrebird mimicking man-made sounds on David Attenborough, and here is a jay calling like a buzzard, as in Riddle 24). Whatever the case, what sets the Riddle apart is its particularly clever and sensitive treatment of mimicry which seems to suggest an interest in nonhuman capabilities for both complicating and obscuring knowledge (and knowledge, after all, or the tantalizing acquisition of possible knowledge, is what the Riddles offer to readers, superficially anyway).
The jay in Riddle 24 redoubles and collapses metaphors to articulate a perpetual movement between likeness and difference that correlates riddling strategies with species classifications: in the same way that literal and metaphorical modes are blurred, so are the markers of species. A mimicking bird is the perfect subject to convey the slippery nuances involved in identifying species because it can convincingly incorporate the trademark voices of other creatures (even inanimate ‘species’–a lawnmower!) into its vocal range in a way that at least seems to transfer likeness towards something that is uncannily the same, even indistinguishable. Outright, the jay presents itself as swa ‘like’ other creatures, and the fact that it imitates birds and mammals can hardly be accidental—the correlations between species oscillate more closely between near-kind and not so near. The question of metaphor is right up front here: the jay’s voice is only like a goat’s, but at the same time this is not a human-imposed conceit. The jay does genuinely imitate the animal in the way only some birds can.
There is another valence to contend with, involving the onomatopoeic utterances of those creatures the jay mimics (beorce, blæte, græde, gielle). These words are, of course, contrived human signifiers, albeit ones that aim for authenticity. Despite the fact, then, that the human subject is not included in the jay’s repertoire, human vocalizations do appear in other forms, through onomatopoeic representations. The poem’s runes are the other obvious way. The jay has another trick, however, that turns our careful decoding back on itself so that human language is presented not as a simple superimposition that anthropomorphizes the bird, but as part of the jay’s own voice all along. Dieter Bitterli has noted before now that the runes ‘extend the catalogue of the jay’s mimicry to the realm of human language’. But the appropriation occurs even without these symbols. It is easy enough, particularly given the characteristic prosopopoeia of Anglo-Saxon riddles, to assume anthropomorphism. Once we remember that we are dealing with no ordinary bird here, though, but one that is renowned for mimicking even the human voice, the boundaries change again—the human speaker reciting the poem can very plausibly be one of the many voices adopted by the jay itself, thus craftily integrating the human voice that at first sight seems to be absent from the catalogue. The jay is not personified, but is actually speaking the poem. If we take this to be the case, then Isidore’s etymological association of the poet and the jay is fully realised: the riddler or performer and the jay consume each other’s voices.
The jay, with its human-like vocal abilities, is the most pointedly transformative of all birds in the collection because its own hide-and-seek game imitates riddling strategies. Both require us to revise continually what we think we know, or what we think we have safely defined.
 For a selection of other classical sources dealing with mimicking birds, see Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 143-9.
 Stanley Cramp, gen. ed., Birds of the Wester Palearctic, 9 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977-94), vol. 8, pp. 19-20.
 Dieter Bitterli, Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Tradition (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2009), p. 97.
 ‘The magpie (pica), as if the word were ‘poetic’ (poetica), because they pronounce words with a distinct articulation, like a human’; Etym., XII.vii.46.