In a piece published some years ago [The trick of the runes in The Husband’s Message’, Anglo-Saxon England, v. 32 (Dec 2003), pp 189-223], Prof. John D. Niles made a mighty attempt at elucidating the mysterious Old English poem ‘The Husband’s Message’.
The rune puzzle in lines 49 and 50 is part of a larger puzzle, requiring the reader to guess the identity of the speaker. Niles has brilliantly solved the larger puzzle, arguing that the speaker in the poem is the mast of a ship. He has also made an invaluable contribution to the solution of the inner puzzle. He correctly surmised that the solution will be a summary of the matter in the rest of the poem, raised the issue of how the poem is to be read aloud and identified the first two words of the solution.
However he has at times overcomplicated the problem and been led astray by several questionable decisions. These are:
- Not pursuing possible readings corresponding to D instead of M for the final rune;
- Rejecting the customary rune name ear although it is supported by multiple manuscripts and by runologists including R. I. Page;
- Twice using an overly wide procedure to read a rune as any word starting with the rune sound, leading to arbitrary selections;
- Including the word ond is his solution.
As Niles at time sees clearly, the puzzle is straightforward and works as follows: The poem is first to be read metrically by inserting the customary rune names in place of the runes, as part of the distracting frame of an oath formula. The reader is alerted by the rune letters and the incongruity of the names to the presence of a puzzle. Once the reader has solved the main puzzle and realizes that the runes are an inscription, the inner puzzle is solved by imagining the runes in isolation from the metre as they would stand side by side in a carved message. The two rare names sigil and ear are converted to their closest common phonetic equivalents, segl (‘sail’) and ær (‘before’). Segl is actually found as a variant spelling of sigil and ær is phonetically close to ear because the OE dipthong ‘ea’ was pronounced as ‘æ’ + ‘a’.
Niles agrees that a reading of .D. for the final rune is possible, but does not pursue it. It is in fact to be preferred to a reading of .M. because wynn man is meaningless as a closing sequence, while wynndæg is an attested compound, meaning ‘time of joy’.
An improved solution is accordingly:
seglrad ær wynndæg (‘sailride ere joyful time’)
Niles’ solution of
seglrad eadig wif ond man (‘sailride happy woman and man’)
is less felicitous for the following reasons:
- The process used to select the words eadig and wif is too arbitrary;
- The word ond is not part of the imagined inscription; and
- A reading of the final rune as .M. produces a meaningless sequence wynn man.
Some observations on the word game:
Prof. Niles’ ‘hermeneutic procedure’ [p. 213] as contained in his supporting argumentation for his interpretation can be considered as a step-by-step method for solving the word puzzle, which can be summarized as follows:
- Each rune marks a word. [p. 194] The word will either be (i) a word sounding similar to the phonetic value the rune is used to spell or (ii) beginning with that value. [p.213]
The meaning of the encoded phrase will be a summary of matters in the rest of the poem. [p. 209]
- The answer will consist of know words [p. 210] be semantically and grammatically correct [p. 206 n. 43] and without redundancies [p. 211]
- The words chosen must fit the alliteration and metrical pattern of the poem. [pp. 206 n.43, 210-211]
- Whether this set of criteria correct ones will be judged by whether it leads to a useful or felicitous result. [p.194, p. 211-2]
These rules can be usefully compared with the basis for another word-puzzle, the ‘charade’ word games used in cryptic crossword puzzles. There the answer is obtained by joining individually clued shorter words to make a larger word which is the answer. Structurally, the operation of finding the answer is governed by four constraints, one covering selection of components and the other three operating as selectors at the level of the whole answer.
In the rune puzzle, each rune represents a word. The various possible words derived from the runes must be used to construct a phrase which must be both semantically and grammatically correct and related to the matter in the poem. The words must fit within the metrical and alliterative scheme of the poem. Thus in this case we also have four constraints.
Comparing the two sets of constraints schematically, it is evident that they are remarkably similar:
Rune Puzzle Cryptic Crossword
Context: poem full grid
Clues: rune shapes charades and definition
Components: words smaller words or part-words
–selection rule: matches rune matches charade in clue
-context integration: by alliteration –
Answer: phrase word or phrase
-selection rule: matches story matches definition in clue
-semantic test: meaningful & correct meaningful & correct
-context integration: – intersecting letters match
Structurally there are only two differences, which are merely transpositions. The first is that for the crossword, the answer selection rule requires checking against part of the clue, whereas in the rune puzzle the answer is checked against the entire context. It might be noted that in cryptic crosswords, the whole word definition is not always present in the clue. There exists a genre where some or all clues contain no definitions of the whole answer but all answers relate to a common unstated theme. Here too the answer selection criterion is checked against the context, not the clue.
The second difference is that in the crossword the context integration criterion operates at the level of the whole answer, while in the rune puzzle, the metrical and alliteration requirements operate at the level of the component. Given that the two differences are merely transpositions of the same functions, we can say that the two word-games are structurally equivalent.
You can read the Old English text of the entire poem here: