Solving Saxon riddles with
Tim Severin, explorer, author, film-maker and lecturer has retraced the storied journeys of Sindbad the Sailor, Jason and the Argonauts, Ulysses, Genghis Khan and Robinson Crusoe. His books about these expeditions are classics of exploration and travel.
The Pope's Assassin
, the third book in his thrilling historical adventure series set in Saxon times, is out now. Tim spoke to us about historical research, tracking mythical beasts and solving Saxon riddles.
An unknown monk, writing in Anglo Saxon, invites his reader to solve this guessing riddle:
I war oft against wave and fight against wind,
do battle with both when I reach to the ground
covered by the waters. The land is strange to me.
I am strong in the strife, I stay at rest,
if I fail at that, they are stronger than I,
and forthwith they wrench me and put me to rout.
They would carry away what I ought to defend.
I withstand them then if my tail endures
and the stones hold me fast . . . Ask what my name is.*
The answer, of course, is 'Anchor'.
It's a glimpse of a more light-hearted side to the Saxon mindset than one gets from ploughing through the annals, and this makes the Codex Exoniensis
or 'Exeter Book' my first-choice primer for reading up on the Saxons.
It contains another ninety five riddles. Some answers are homely and domestic, others require a knowledge of runes. Several re-work riddles known to the Romans; others are so opaque that scholars still cannot decide what is the right answer. The cheekily vulgar riddles offer double entendres
that invite sexual conclusions, only to bring the reader back to the ground with a bump with a plain, workaday solution. Thus:
A lovely woman, a lady, often locked me
in a chest; at times she took me out
with her fingers, and gave me to her lord
and loyal master, just as he asked.
Then he poked his head inside me,
Pushed it up and fitted tightly.
I, adorned, was bound to be filled
with something rough if the loyal lord
could keep it up. Guess what I mean.**
The answer, other than the smutty one, has variously been suggested as a helmet or an embroidered shirt. Whichever is correct: the riddler was having a chuckle, and few things say more about someone – and the world they live in - than their sense of humour.
The Book of Dreams,
the first volume in my Saxon
series, opens with King Offa of Mercia making its hero, Sigwulf, winelas guma,
a 'friendless man'. He exiles Sigwulf to the court of Charlemagne, and from that moment onward Sigwulf is a wanderer. His adventures will take him to foreign lands: Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, even as far as the Caliphate of Baghdad.
Travellers from the Charlemagne's court did reach these places, but their reports did little to change the world view of Sigwulf's scholarly contemporaries. So when Sigwulf sets out on his journeys, he is equipped only with the geographical knowledge that he would have found in the Etymologia
, the encyclopedia of his time. It was the work of Isidore of Seville, a 6th
century bishop who winnowed the classical Latin texts, plus a few Greek ones, to extract his data. A master of 'cut and paste', Isidore lifted classical quotations wholesale and arranged them to fit his theory that the key to all knowledge is to know how anything received its name. Thus, Sigwulf would have been pleased to learn from the Etymologia
that 'the tribe of Saxons dwelling on the shores of the Ocean and among pathless marshes (Isidore means the mainland European Saxons) are brave and active. And from this they get their name, because they are a hardy and very strong race of men, and one that surpasses other tribes in piracy.'
Less flattering is Isidore's view of the Britons. He writes that 'certain suspect that the Britons were so-called according to the Latin because they are stupid (bruti), a people situated in the middle of the Ocean, separated by the sea, as it were, beyond the circle of lands.'
Sigwulf meets wild animals at every turn. He deals with polar bears, elephants, lions, hyenas, gyrfalcons, aurochs, and many more. He's unsuccessful in tracking down a unicorn but obtains a spiralling narwhal's tooth that is claimed to be the unicorn's spike. He lives in hope of meeting a gryphon. The animal world was a constant source of fascination to Sigwulf's contemporaries, and as a running theme of Saxon
it is keeping with the age. The research for the varied and colourful menagerie in Saxon
was as enjoyable as it was easy. The website bestiary.ca
brings together the illustrations and descriptions found in every major medieval bestiary book, as well as in the Etymologia
and earlier treatises that go back to Greek and Roman originals. The patron saint of the internet would have approved.
The Pope's Assassin, the third book in Tim Severin's Saxon series, is out now.
Start reading here
*Translation by Paull Franklin Baum
** Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland