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Riddle-making is a lost art—but not an irretrievable one.

A. M. Juster's translation of Saint Aldhelm's Riddles has received praise from many outlets. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, John Wilson discusses the genesis of the work:

Aldhelm was a prominent churchman in Anglo-Saxon England. Born between 635 and 645, he died in 709. Although Latin was not his native tongue, he wrote poetry in that language, including a sequence of 100 riddles called Aenigmata, which Juster has translated (in verse).
Why undertake such a project? Three passions animate Juster's work for this volume. The first is a love for riddles, which even now many children take delight in, though except for folklorists, semioticians and such, adults generally don't. (Juster remarks that “contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre.”) I share this delight. So as not to deprive readers who want to try to solve the riddles, Juster omits the titles and heads the poems by number only.

The other passions of Juster's that Wilson goes on to cite are his pleasure in the tricky translation of 7th-century English, and his love for God. Micah Mattix, writing in the Washington Free Beacon, picks up this theme as well:

Sadly, modern and contemporary poets have mostly ignored riddles and epigrams (J. V. Cunningham is a notable exception) in their turn away from general readers over the last century, but riddles were once a popular verse form that could be both entertaining (occasionally risqué) and instructive. For Saint Aldhelm, they were also a means of indirectly teaching church doctrines. Many of his riddles are, most immediately, about animals or inanimate objects (stones, salt, the moon), but they also tell us something about the created order and the God who, in Aldhelm’s view, rules it.


Juster’s commentary on the poems provides something like a short course on the classical and medieval world. He discusses, among many other things, the medieval view of the relationship between the lunar cycle and bleeding, the goddess of rainbows, the meaning of wind, and the symbolic significance of bees. Self-deprecating and occasionally funny, it is some of most thoroughly enjoyable textual commentary you are ever likely to read.

Want to try on a riddle for size? See if you can puzzle this one out (the answer is below my byline, so be careful scrolling down):

I share now with the surf one destiny
In rolling cycles when each month repeats.
As beauty in my brilliant form retreats,
So too the surges fade in cresting sea.

If you live in the New York area, why don't you join us in the First Things office this Thursday, when A. M. Juster will be giving a book talk and signing copies of Saint Aldhelm's Riddles? You can RSVP for the event here. It'll be starting at 6:00 PM. Hope to see you there!

Until then, may all your riddle contests be fun—and may none involve murderous cave-dwelling creatures or sinister rings.

Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.

Answer Key: Luna/Moon

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