Friday, 1 October 2010

What is broader than the way?

What is louder than an horn,
And what is sharper than a thorn?

Thunder is louder than an horn,
And hunger is sharper than a thorn.

What is broader than the way,
And what is deeper than the sea?

Love is broader than the way,
And hell is deeper than the sea.

These are the four questions asked by the Riddling Knight in the medieval ballad of the same name. At least, in my source – Poets of the English Language, vol. 1 (edited by W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson), which is currently disguised as A Guide to Pigeon Fancying by Humphrey Johnston (it was a prop in the preview of The Fever Chart for the Warwick Arts Festival) – the knight asks these four questions and each is answered immediately by the maid. This is slightly baffling, considering that he proposes to ask her three questions ('And if you can answer questions three, / O then, fair maid, I will marry with thee'). Other versions of the ballad, such as the one appropriated by brilliantly named sixties folk band The 3Ds on their Poetry Album, has the knight propose to ask three but actually ask six questions (in their version the maid answers all six together, after he’s finished asking). Considering the six questions fit into three two-part questions, this makes a little more sense – though it’s still strange; also, the language in their version is quite different, making the meaning shift a bit. Particularly relevant for what I’m talking about here is the final question, which in this other version is given as

What is longer than the way,
And what is deeper than the sea?

[...]

The wind is longer than the way,
And love is deeper than the sea.

In this version, the poem is more obviously leading towards love: a love deeper than the sea. This feels a little more clich├ęd than a love ‘broader than the way’: it lacks the connotations of generosity and variety that broadness implies, giving a more convention idea of love having ‘depth.’ In other words, The 3Ds’ version talks about emotion in terms of volume (depth), which is likely to feel familiar, while Auden’s version talks about emotion in terms of scope (breadth), which is more complex.

For the sake of this discussion, I’ll put the two final riddles next to each other:

What is broader than the way, What is longer than the way,
And what is deeper than the sea? And what is deeper than the sea?
[...]
Love is broader than the way, The wind is longer than the way,
And hell is deeper than the sea. And love is deeper than the sea.

There is only one constant between the two versions: the sea, agreed to be symbolic of depth. In both cases, it can only be exceed by a transcendent idea – that is, one that is both physical and metaphysical: love, or hell. These are both understandable on their own terms: the ocean gives earthly depth, love has an emotional or spiritual depth, hell is both subterranean and a place of ‘lowness’ – cunning, evil, sin, selfishness etc. But then there’s ‘the way.’ What is the way? It’s a bit like love, and it’s a bit like the wind. It provides an archetype for both length and breadth, equal to the sea’s archetypal physical depth.

Along with Dave Devanny, I’m hoping to come to an understanding of what ‘the way’ is, how and why it comes up in so many different places, at so many different times; whether it can be perceived and controlled; whether it is a means of perception or control; or whether, as I somewhat hope, it is a subversion-through-excess of all notions of restriction, of set paths or goals, of limitations.

I’m calling my end of this project Roadmap, for the time being.

1 comment:

  1. the answer is 'wave'.

    a wave is deeper than the sea (if you look at it upside down)
    a wave is longer than the way (if you spell it 'wayve')

    I see the ocean as having depth because of the urban myth about scientists knowing more about the surface of Jupiter than the bottom of the ocean. Like love, it's all around us, but scientists can't understand what lies beneath it.

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