Much ink has been spilled on the significance of the runes in Solomon and Saturn I. Unfortunately, in the confusion, it appears that a rather witty word-game has been overlooked.
In one of the MSS, the runes appear in the text together with their roman equivalents. It has long been recognised that the order of the runes/letters in the poem more or less follows the order of the first appearance of each letter in the Paternoster as it appears in the Latin mass. It is also quite clear that the runes stand for the equivalent roman letter – their names have no relevance, although their shapes might [see John D. Niles, ‘The trick of the runes in The Husband’s Message’, Anglo-Saxon England, v. 32 (Dec 2003), p. 195].
The order of the letters can be extracted from the Paternoster as follows (first occurrences in bold):
Pater noster, qui es in caelis,
sanctificetur nomen tuum.
Adveniat regnum tuum.
Fiat voluntas tua,
sicut in caelo, et in terra.
Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie,
et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
sed libera nos a malo.
Note that extracting the order of first occurrence of the letters is itself a mental challenge. Although one manuscript shows both a rune and a letter at the position of each letter, and the other shows only the roman letters, one wonders if they were both present in the original. Certainly the mental challenge would have been enhanced if only the runes had originally been present, making it harder to guess the letter without mentally rehearsing the text of the prayer. As the MSS stand, the challenge is to notice and account for deviations from the correct order.
For the sequence of the letters in the poem is not exactly the same as in the prayer (diffences in capitals):
Paternoster: paternosquiCLfmDGBh Solomon & Saturn: paternosquiLCfmGD-h
The differences are as follows:
PN S&S Deviation
CL LC Exchanged
DG GD Exchanged
B – Missing
Each of the apparent deviations can, however, be understood if the text of the relevant lines is read carefully.
Exchange of CL
In line 129, C is described as se yrra, which means both angry (as befits a warrior) and wayward (befitting its incorrect position)!
Exchange of DG
In lines 140-141, we are told that G (line 140) færeð æfter D (line 141), thus restoring the correct order!
Poem refers to a further third letter after the pair GD: Fyr bið se ðridda stæf stræte neah, stille bideð. (Here fyr means ‘further’, not ‘fire’.)
Daniel Anlezark, in the most recent edition of poem (The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, Cambridge, 2009) devotes considerable ingenuity to showing that ‘b’ could be regarded as the third letter of the alphabet. I don’t buy his argument, which is abstruse to the point of impossibility, for a minute. However, as has been proposed by another scholar (I can’t at the moment retrieve the source for this, probably a citation in Anlezark’s book), if ‘æ’ is treated as a separate letter from ‘a’, then ‘b’ is the third letter. But even this device, departing as it does from the Latin alphabetical order, is not particulary satisfying.
In any case, such calculations seem unnecessary. The missing letter is the third of a group in the poem, coming after G and D, which have been stated to ‘follow after’ one another. The letter, although not to be identified by its number, is doing a sort of Ninja invisibility trick, hiding in plain sight waiting to mug passing devils (stræte neah stille bideð). As it is hiding, there is no rune, but the letter is there in the words bið and bideð.
The Word Games
Naturally these word games are not present simply for amusement, although they are indeed rather amusing! The author is clearly challenging the (monastic) reader’s detailed recollection of the text of the prayer as an encouragement to meditation on its meaning.
Nevertheless, as wordplay goes, I find the pun on C se yrra to be quite delicious. But in our enthusiasm for the runes, we nearly missed the joke.