The Medieval Review 16.06.24

Juster, A. M., ed. Saint Aldhelm's Riddles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. pp. 173. $65.00 (hardback) $29.95 (paperback). ISBN: 978-1-4426-3742-9 (hardback) 978-1-4426-2892-2 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Nancy Stark Porter
San Jose State University

One of the occupational hazards of being a medievalist is spending years in the company of texts few other people have even heard of. Imagine my surprise to discover that someone outside the academy has stumbled upon the Riddles of Bishop Aldhelm, an Anglo-Saxon poet and saint. A.M. Juster is a formalist poet and he knows Latin; now he has translated one hundred Latin riddles from the 8th century into modern English verse. His stated goals for his translation of Aldhelm's Riddles are to give pleasure, explore their "wit, warmth and wonder" and find a wider audience (xix). Hope springs eternal. Not to be cynical or imply that I had lost hope entirely, but I am delighted to rekindle my youthful enthusiasm and hope that, with this new verse translation, these riddles may indeed find a wider audience.

A.M Juster's translations are metrical, retaining and preserving a serious continuity with the past and bringing into the present one of the most endearing features of this text. Aldhelm wrote his riddles in imitation of the poet Symphosius and probably to teach Latin verse to his Anglo-Saxon students. His riddles, in turn, helped to inspire the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book. In the Aldhelm manuscripts, each riddle is clearly demarcated from the preceding by a title; in the Exeter Book, however, there are no titles and only a few runic hints at solutions. Juster has removed the titles from the Latin riddles and placed them at the back of the text, thus allowing modern readers to have the pleasure of trying to guess the answers. His text becomes a sort of hybrid between the differing ways Old English and Latin riddles were presented to their original readers: either the naked Old English riddles of the Exeter Book or the titled Latin riddles of Aldhelm. You can try to guess, but you can also give up and find the answers in the back. All of this is duly noted in Juster's notes and apparatus.

Riddles may have been used for teaching, but any Latin text written by non-native speakers also has, as part of its reason for being, the passing on of the Roman past. Juster is well aware of this; he takes an Anglo-Latinist's perspective and spends time tracing Aldhelm's echoes of earlier poets. He has also read the recent scholarship on these questions. Several times, he places these poems in the context of Roman satire. Discussing the form of Aldhelm's double acrostic Preface to the Riddles, Juster says:

I suspect it is important that the addressee of the Epistola ad Acircium was Aldfrith, a learned British king and the son of an Irish princess, who would have understood the Praefatio as Aldhelm's satirical imitation of Irish literary style" (xvii).

I have long been interested in the question of how irony and satire travel across time, when their original context has been obscured and I wonder how this acrostic would differ if it were not a satire, but instead an encomium to the Irish style. Juster does say that the double-acrostic:

"appears to be a competitive, although gentle, response to Irish writers by one-upping them on their use of acrostics and similar wordplay. [Aldhelm] also seems to be one-upping the Irish with his content, since he satirizes a classical satire, a task beyond the reach of Irish writers of the time" (79).

How exactly one satirizes satire is not entirely clear to me, and it may be simpler just to place this Preface in the tradition of the exaggerated medieval examples of the modesty topos.

Juster is a very sensitive reader, as his copious notes make clear, and his suggestion that Aldhelm's final Riddle 100, De Creatura "replicates the feel of a classical satire in order to summarize and expand the messages of the preceding riddles" certainly made me reconsider Aldhelm's intentions and the reception of these texts by medieval readers (xix). Given his emphasis on Aldhelm's manifold satirical intentions, I am a bit puzzled that Juster chooses to call Aldhelm a Saint in his title. Is there anyone less inclined to be satirical than a saint? Well, maybe a bishop, so I suppose it would not really change anything to call the book Bishop Aldhelm's Riddles. There's nothing like two massive, hagiographic works in praise of virginity (Aldhelm's magna opera) to kill irony, satire, humor, realism, or social commentary. Of course, no one is a saint in his own lifetime, and most Anglo-Saxon saints have fallen into complete oblivion, so if this title helps attract more readers I have no objection. Aldhelm is reported to have sung Old English poetry and I am sure that he had the rhetorical skill to praise in one work and satirize in another. Yet, satire does imply commentary on the human world and Aldhelm's Riddles are primarily concerned with the physical world made to speak via prosopopoeia. There really is no way or need to satirize the world of nature.

The following examples will give the reader a sense of the elegance and wit of Juster's verse, as well as his use of alliteration and internal rhyme:

"Spawned without seed, produced in ways of wonder,
I load my sweetened breast with floral plunder;
Kings' honeyed fare grows gilded through my flair.
Sharp spears of fearsome war are what I bear,
And I beat--handless!--craftsmen's metalware" (13).

"My form is gleaming white and growing duller
As I am made with plumes of changing colour" (19).

"When bloody flooding killed the human race
And brand-new seas put mortals in their place" (37).

"Behold! My mother's womb begets my birth,
More gorgeous than gold amulets that glitter,
More gross than thorns, more vile than low-tide litter" (63).

These are drawn from the Riddles, but perhaps the most striking piece of poetry in the whole book is found in Juster's footnotes, where he translates Eucheria's Impossibilities, a sixth-century poem that contains similarities to Aldhelm's Riddle 55 on the Chrismal (120). I only wish Juster had provided the Latin text for this 32-line poem. A dedicated reader can find the text, but I am willing to give credit for the beauty of these lines as much to Juster's skills as a poet as to the original. Here is a small sample:

"I chat about a gemstone-studded Chinese coat
as if it were a garment made of goat…

The jaspers, cliffs, and boulders are the same it's said.
The moon now chooses darkness of the dead.

Let us tend lilies now where mingled bramble grows;
May dreaded hemlock clutch the crimson rose.

So, piling on, let us now wish for garbage fish
While passing up a tasty seafood dish.

Let a toad love a bream, a bass his serpent too;
May trout and snail pursue their rendezvous" (120).

Juster claims that he wants to give pleasure to those who read his translation, and suggests that the text has been primarily the purview of philologists. Not to defend Dr. Dry-as-Dust, but philology does not necessarily preclude beauty, intrigue, interest or pleasure. In fact, Juster, like any good philologist, provides a lot of reading pleasure in his footnotes. In this respect, Juster is more like us scholars than perhaps he is aware of; his footnotes demonstrate a natural-born scholar's rapture of the deep in tracking down allusions, alternate manuscript readings and influences. He also provides thoughtful readings of various Latin phrases. There is room for pleasure in a number of things: verse and footnotes need not be enemies. Indeed, they may be like the twinned brothers of the bellows, each one necessary for drawing the air that gives life to these poems written in a language that, like it or not--and we cannot do anything about it anyway--no one speaks anymore. I say there is room for pleasure in both the verse and the footnotes and anyone who has had the patience to translate these one hundred poems into metrical verse without becoming demented in his heart (dementia cordis, 153) is a true scholar, as well as a lover of poetry in and for and of itself.

Modern translators, and I think particularly of Robert Fagles, have embraced a style that sometimes veers between very formal and very humble diction. For a modern reader, who does not know Latin (Juster's intended audience) this disjuncture is well captured in the first riddle by the phrase "bratty babes":

"I'm called the nurse of all that Earth must bear
(and rightly so, since bratty babes don't bite
their mothers' nipples with as much delight),
sprouting in heat then wasting in cold air" (5).

Phrases like this appear regularly throughout his translation and provide an occasional rhetorical jolt. Though not so much a problem with Latin verse, this choice of disparate levels of diction is a bit of jack-hammering that I find interesting because we are so unsure of the levels of connotation for so many Old English words. Which phrases in Old English poetry sound like "bratty babe" and which sound like "petulant infant"? As someone who struggles with this question every time I teach Beowulf, I like the way that Mr. Juster's modern English forces us to negotiate differing levels of style. We cannot know these things easily, just as we often do not know when someone is being ironic in a dead language. Were any of these poems hysterically funny to a monastic audience? What private jokes are forever lost to us? What turns of phrase used by jaded helpers who had to keep an altar clean or librarians impatient with everyone wanting the same book or scribes who had to sharpen another frigging quill are right there in front of us and yet silent across the centuries? Every once in a while we get a stab in the eye from something so real and vivid from the past that we feel a communion across the centuries (and mixed metaphors, too!). This is all captured well in Juster's verse.

Having spent many years teaching medieval vernacular literature and mythology, it has become second nature for me to see these texts less in the context of Latin literature and learning, and more in that of oral traditions, folklore and fantasy. I have always thought of the monsters and dragons of Beowulf as having exerted a stronger pull on the Anglo-Saxon literary imagination than Juvenalian satire. Could or would Aldhelm have ever thought of these works as satires (in any sense of the word)? Though learned, they are still enigmata and retain all of their enigmatic nature. Their very form reverses the normal expectations of asking questions: in a rhetorically non-complex question, the interlocutor simply desires an answer and does not intend to mislead the addressee. The pleasure of a riddle, though, on both sides, comes from the 'Aha!-experience.' This, I think, is lost, no matter how beautifully we translate Aldhelm's Riddles. The context is too long gone and while we may enjoy the poems, the answers remain hollow, like a shed snakeskin.

There is an "unofficial" modern rule that a riddle cannot use the name of its subject in the riddle itself. Juster violates this dictum in Riddle One, when he translates 'mundus' as Earth in a riddle whose answer is 'Terra' (see above). I suppose this bit of fudging is OK in the service of metrical verse and I am not really bothered by it. It's those riddles that break the rules that are often most memorable. Think of Bilbo's "What have I got in my pocket?"

Which brings me to the English language's most perfect riddle, as posed by Squirrel Nutkin:

"A hill full, a hole full, you cannot gather a bowl full."

Divinely simple, it also contains all the elements of formal verse. I will let the reader find in this short verse, if so inclined, rhyme, ballad meter, internal rhyme, assonance (Old Norse dróttkvætt assonance at that!), a dactyl, iambs, caesuras, and ambiguity over whether this poem contains one, two or four lines of verse. It has the economy of form of a haiku. It is probably impossible to have the brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit experience of the mist riddle in reading one hundred Latin riddles today. Yet there is still the Hopkinsonian achieve of the thing: Aldhelm wrote, and Juster has translated, one hundred riddles in a language they both had to learn from a book. Juster's translation connects us with a long-lost world where learned Anglo-Saxons struggled with a new language and religion and sought to remake the world into the strange, new, hybrid, even monstrous forms of medieval Christianity.

As a final note, I had the unusual experience of having my own misspelled name (Stark) absolutely leap out at me from page 78. Beyond that I only noticed two other typographical errors: 'though' for 'through' (7) and a superfluous 'that' (95).

This is a book to be valued for both its poetry and its scholarship. It is indeed a pleasure to welcome A.M. Juster to the ranks of medievalist poets.

Copyright (c) 2016 Nancy Stark Porter

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