The Husband’s Message has been and most likely will always remain a huge mystery to all who study it. Many scholars are in awe of the ambiguity of many parts of the poem. Due to two areas of the original manuscript's being severely damaged and to some unusual runes, there are sections where scholars can take only educated guesses as to what was written.
The Husband’s Message is no doubt about someone or something that has come from the south to bring a message to a specific woman. It is an entire monologue about a now powerful man who had been exiled from the land in which the woman is living. He has gone to the southern land where he is now and has become a very rich and well-respected man. The only thing that is missing from his life is this woman. He wants her to join him and fulfill the vows that they made to each other before he was exiled. It is interesting that scholars seem to care more about whom or what is delivering this message than about the person who sent it and the person receiving it.
The Husband’s Message is divided into three sections set off by elaborate capital letters beginning new paragraphs. The first section is the speaker validating himself as the man’s messenger. A few scholars, such as Robert Kaske, R. F. Leslie and Earl R. Anderson, seem to believe that the speaker delivering the message is indeed a human messenger for the man who was exiled. M ost scholars, including John D. Niles, Margaret E. Goldsmith, and myself, believe that it is not a human being at all, but a rune-staff. This controversy comes from the fact that the first seven lines of the poem are damaged. Parts of key words and phrases are missing. John D. Niles believes that “the speaker’s identity is half revealed and half hidden through the punning and word treocyn ‘type of tree’ in line 2” (200). The end of this noun is missing; therefore we cannot tell whether treocyn is the subject of the sentence or the direct object. Margaret E. Goldsmith believes that the rune-staff is telling how it grew from a seed as opposed to “discours[ing] about a tree” as a human would do (244).
Clearly, the identity of the speaker is relevant to the choices made in translation. Several passages in the introduction are presented in the first person and speak of the growth and eventual fate of the speaker. If the speaker is a person, lines referring to growing "from a tree" make little sense, and different translational choices must be made,or lines may have to be altered for clarification.
In addition, a human speaker would simply be a messenger, and we could recognize that as a normal narrative tradition. Through a translation by R. F. Leslie in which letters are added to the missing parts of the manuscript Earl R. Anderson believes that he can prove that this is indeed a human delivering the message (words altered by Leslie are in italics):
Nu ic onsundran be secgan wille
ymb byssum treocynne Ic tudre aweox,
in mec aeld[a] bearn aerende sceal...
Now I will tell you concerning this stave
From my childhood I grew up, the prince of men must place in my charge
the message to a foreign land
Anderson believes that through this translation by Leslie the speaker is clearly a human
speaking. He is telling about growing up from a child and now serving this great man who has sent the message to the woman.
Although this is a great argument for the human messenger theory, I believe that the rune-staff theory is better supported. This is the only translation that I found supporting the human speaker idea.
Furthermore, Goldsmith and all of the other rune-staff believers did not have to add any letters or words to the original text in order to translate what they thought to be an acceptable poem. I believe that when translating an Anglo Saxon poem, it should be translated as the manuscript is in its current state. Even if there are letters or words missing from the text, that is how the poem should be presented to the reader in the translation so as to get the feel for what is left of the culture itself.
In what is left of the text there is no human speaker talking. Nowhere in the remnants of the manuscript does it state that the speaker is human. What we know of the culture itself is what we have left in artifacts and in writing. We obviously do not have all of the artifacts that were left from this culture. Nor do we have all full texts. No one is taking Anglo Saxon pottery and fixing the cracks or sewing up holes in remnants of clothing. We do not need to try to fix up the remnants of the poetry either. We can learn from what is left of the pottery and the clothing and I feel that we can learn from what is left in an old destroyed manuscript. Moreover, if the speaker is a rune-stick, as suggested below, that adds a mystical element, which enhances our view of the poem by increasing its ambiguity and engaging our imaginations.
A related and rather interesting theory is that Riddle 60 is an introduction to The Husband’s Message. Alain Renoir explains that “the manuscript separation between The Husband’s Message and the immediately preceding Riddle 60 is of such nature as to make it impossible to determine where one poem ends and the other begins” (75). After reading Renoir's explanation and reading both Riddle 60 and The Husband's Message I am convinced that they are indeed meant to be together. The description given of the speaker in Riddle 60 and the job it intends to do in delivering the message to the woman in The Husband's Message follows through smoothly.
Furthermore, Riddle 60 is a rune-staff describing all that his lord has done with him. He mentions how his lord gave him a message and he has traveled to this specific place to deliver this specific message alone. It makes complete sense to me that this rune-staff would introduce himself b efore giving his message so that the woman knows who he is and who sent him.
The fact that a rune-staff is speaking should not shock anyone who has read Anglo Saxon poetry before. Throughout the Exeter Book in the Riddles we read of objects speaking and writing about themselves. It is even less shocking that a piece of wood would be writing since it is wood that would be carved in or paper written on that would contain these writings.
Assuming then, that the speaker is a rune-staff, the poem unfolds in the following way. In the beginning of The Husband’s Message we see that the speaker is eager to deliver his message. Renoir explains that “the speaker of the concluding lines of Riddle 60 is determined that his message should be delivered before his interlocutor and himself only so that nobody may be able to repeat it” (76). Not only are these two poems connected through the speaker's mentioning that what is being said is only for it and the woman to hear, but they are also connected in that Riddle 60 and The Husband's Message are both narrated by a rune-staff.
The next five lines are also damaged, as I mentioned above. Even though there is significant damage we can still get a general idea of what is going on in the poem. Goldsmith agrees “it emerges plainly enough that the messenger has often voyaged in a boat across the seas” (248). It is evident that the speaker has been sent to many other regions before, but as a messenger or a part of the boat? The piece of wood can be described as a beam (agrof, 13). Granted a beam is larger than a rune-stick, but it is still a piece of wood that could be carved into. According to Goldsmith it is quite possible that the wood had been part of the lord’s ship, used as a mast. It could have then been carved into and broken off to deliver this important message. The beam would have been broken down and described as a rune-stick due to its now smaller size. Goldsmith goes on to explain that its service as a part of the ship is to take “voyages whenever the writings done at his lord's command are disseminated across the world. Now, as part of this service, he is passing on a message composed overseas to you, the resent reader" (248).
The second part of this poem is the messenger's actually delivering its message. This is where the title of the poem comes in. It is often referred to as The Lover’s Message because the woman is referred to as sinchroden which translates into “treasure-adorned.” She is never once referred to as the wife of the lord so far away. She is told to board the boat when the cuckoo is calling so that no one will try to stop her from running to this exiled man. She is told to recall the vows that they took before he left. It is up to the reader to either assume if these were wedding vows or just promises that they would one day be together again.
The third section of this poem is the second damaged section. All scholars that I know of have all agreed upon what is being read in this section of the manuscript, though. She is told of all that he has gained since being away. Though it is never mentioned how long he has been gone, I believe it is to be assumed a couple of years since he has acquired so much. All that he now needs is his lover to be with him again.
The woman now recalls the vows that were once taken. This is the other section where things get a little sticky. The vows are five runes with rather ambiguous meanings. This is the most interesting part of the poem in my opinion. It is really fascinating to see these five symbols and have so many people trying their best to determine what exactly they are. It seems as if it is easier for the scholars to figure out what words lost from the manuscript mean as opposed to these five runes that are virtually unharmed. I believe that these runes are not written on anything. I believe that we are indeed actually seeing what the woman is remembering. Lois Bragg explains, "there is no question of there being any reference to any object on which the runes are assumed to be written” (41). We are just seeing her thoughts as opposed to the words she was reading.
I agree with Peter Nicholson when he wrote that “the most reliable guide to the meanings of the runes within the poem must come from the poem itself” (315). Furthermore, I believe that not knowing what these runes mean is the best part of the poem. The speaker mentions the secret vows that the two lovers made to one another and the runes in and of themselves is the secret. That is why the vows are not written down. The ambiguity is meant to be there in the reader's mind. It makes the reader wonder what exactly it is that these two vowed on. I loved the image that Niles gives us when he wrote that the runes carved into the wood were “like a tree-trunk into which someone has carved his initials or, in this sentence, a set of enigmatic letters” (205).
Even though I believe the runes should remain ambiguous I must mention ideas that scholars have written about. Peter Nicholson explains "the five runes stand for s, r, ea, w, and m” (317). Among the controversy of these runes is the s-rune: does it mean ‘sun’ or ‘sail?’ Both are accepted, but one must choose which best fits into his translation. The r-rune is the only one that can be deciphered with certainty in meaning: ‘path.’ Lois Bragg writes "the ea-rune, rare in both epigraphy and manuscript usage, was one of several vowel runes added to the fuþorc by the Anglo-Saxons to handle English sound shift. Its name, ear or eor, is a word whose only recorded meaning in ordinary Old English is ‘sea’” (34). The w-rune is believed to stand for ‘joy.’ Finally the m-rune is known as mann, translating into ‘man.’ With the best of their abilities scholars have been spending hundreds of years trying to decipher these runes using English rune lists they have tried to compile. Nicholson explains "the most widely quoted is that of E. A. Kock, who used the names from the English rune lists to read sigel-rad, “the sun’s road,” meaning “heaven”; ear-wynn, “earth’s joy,” which he took to mean “the lovely earth”; and man; understanding the passage as a whole as an oath sworn by “Heaven, Earth and Man” (317).
No one will ever fully understand the runes because as Nicholson has stated “the only key, both necessary and entirely sufficient, that will unlock the meaning of the runes is the woman’s own memory of the man’s departure and of the promises they exchanged before he left” (319). No one will ever know what the vow was because no one is supposed to know. This is why I have chosen to keep the runes themselves in my translation as opposed to the educated guesses of the scholars.
I hope that through the knowledge that I have gained from my readings I can incorporate a unique way of presenting this poem. I chose to present this poem to the undergraduate public because I believe that the public deserves a quality translation of a quality poem. After reading all of this research on The Husband’s Message, my goal is now to create a translation that one can enjoy rather than feel he lost precious minutes of his life while reading it.
I want my audience to use its imagination when reading my translations. I don’t intend to make my readers believe anything is realistic in my versions of Riddle 60 and The Husband's Message. This is why I have decided to include Riddle 60 as an introduction to my translation. I want my audience to believe that no human could ever present a message like this. Having Riddle 60 precede The Husband's Message will also create the idea of a rune-staff speaking before the reader gets confused when reading The Husband's Message. I want the reader to focus upon what is being said in the poem as opposed to trying to figure out who is talking.
I believe that a reader of Anglo Saxon Poetry should be able to clearly imagine the actions taking place and not be distracted by details. I want to be as descriptive as possible so as to make it easy for the reader to picture what the monk and I are writing about. Though I do plan on using words and phrases that a modern audience can understand, I want to use ones that would create images of a much later time.
While translating and making the piece my own, however, I do not intend on straying from the original text. As I stated earlier I do plan on leaving the destroyed parts blank and the runes as they are written in the original text so as to give the feel of what is left of this culture. Through leaving these important parts as they are and translating the rest in a way that is interesting and descriptive, I believe that my translations of Riddle 60 and The Husband's Message are important in helping portray the importance of Anglo Saxon poetry today.
This poem shows the separation of a couple due to circumstance and the ways people deal with such separation. After a man has been driven away from his wife/lover by war, he has to try to get her back, and she has to decide how much loyalty she still feels to his memory. These issues affect us even today. Soldiers are sent away to battle, and they and their loved ones have to decide how to respond to the prolonged absence and accompanying stress. And even without a war’s getting in the way, there are other obstacles to relationships, whether they're distances or other barriers, and our loyalty and priorities are constantly tested. I feel that by looking at the people involved in this poem and trying to put ourselves in their places, we can learn more about ourselves and how we respond to conflict.
The I believe that Bradley did not do this poem justice. There are so many beautifully mystical aspects to this poem that I think he just breezed by in his translation. I believe that he needs to do less with the runes: "I conjure S (sun) together with R (road) (sun-road, heaven) and EA (earth) and W (joy) and M (man) to declare on oath that he would fulfil, by his living self, the pledge and the covenant of friendship which in former days you two often voiced" (400). He wrote out the modern English version of what the rune would be and giving a direct translation. I think that if the runes are written in their original way and there is no sign of translation, there is a definite mystical and mysterious feel to the poem. The reader will understand that these runes are the vows taken and it is none of our business what these two lovers said to each other. It was meant to be a secret.only translation of this poem that I could find was in our Anglo-Saxon Poetry book by S. A. J. Bradley.
The Husband's Message
Nu ic onsundran
...... treocyn ic tudre aweox;
in mec æld... sceal ellor londes
settan ...... sealte streamas
5 ...sse. Ful oft ic on bates
þær mec mondryhten min ......
ofer heah hofu; eom nu her cumen
on ceolþele, ond nu cunnan scealt 10 hu þu ymb modlufan mines frean
on hyge hycge. Ic gehatan dear
þæt þu þær tirfæste treowe findest.
Hwæt, þec þonne biddan het se þisne beam agrof
þæt þu sinchroden sylf gemunde
15 on gewitlocan wordbeotunga,
þe git on ærdagum oft gespræcon,
þenden git moston on meoduburgum
eard weardigan, an lond bugan,
freondscype fremman. Hine fæhþo adraf
20 of sigeþeode; heht nu sylfa þe
lustum læran, þæt þu lagu drefde,
siþþan þu gehyrde on hliþes oran
galan geomorne geac on bearwe.
Ne læt þu þec siþþan siþes getwæfan,
25 lade gelettan lifgendne monn.
Ongin mere secan, mæwes eþel,
onsite sænacan, þæt þu suð heonan
ofer merelade monnan findest,
þær se þeoden is þin on wenum.
30 Ne mæg him worulde willa gelimpan
mara on gemyndum, þæs þe he me sægde,
þonne inc geunne alwaldend god
...... ætsomne siþþan motan
secgum ond gesiþum s...
35 næglede beagas; he genoh hafað
...d elþeode eþel healde,
...ra hæleþa, þeah þe her min wine...
40 nyde gebæded, nacan ut aþrong,
ond on yþa geong ...... sceolde
faran on flotweg, forðsiþes georn,
mengan merestreamas. Nu se mon hafað
wean oferwunnen; nis him wilna gad,
45 ne meara ne maðma ne meododreama,
ænges ofer eorþan eorlgestreona,
þeodnes dohtor, gif he þin beneah
ofer eald gebeot incer twega.
Gecy re ic ætsomne
Anderson, Earl R. “The Husband’s Message: Persuasion and the Problem of Genre.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 56 (1975) 289-94.
Bragg, Lois. “Runes and Readers: In and around The Husband’s Message.” Studia Neophilologica: A Journal of Germanic and Romance Languages and Literature 71 (1999) 34-50.
Goldsmith, Margaret E. “The Enigma of The Husband’s Message.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGuillard. ed. Nicholson, Lewis E., Dolores Warwick Frese, and John C Gerber. University of Notre Dame Press, 1975. 242-63.
Nicholson, Peter. “The Old English Rune for s.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 81 (1982 July) 313-19.
Niles, John D. “The Trick of the Runes in The Husband’s Message.” Anglo-Saxon England 32
Renoir, Alain. “The Least Elegaic of the Elegies: A Contextual Glance at The Husband’s Message.” Studia Neophilologica: A Journal of Germanic and Romance Languagesand Literature 53.1 (1981) 69-76.
Anderson, Earl R. “Voices in The Husband’s Message.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Societe Neophililogique / Bulletin of the Modern Language Society 74 (1973): 238-46.
Bradley, S.A.J., ed. And trans. “The Husband’s Message” and “Riddle 60 (Reed-pen? Rune-stick? Gospel-book?).” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Rutland, Vermont: J. M. Dent, 1998. 397-400.
Ericksen, Janet Schrunk. “Runesticks and Reading The Husband’s Message.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Societe Neophilologique / Bulletin of the Modern Language Society 99 (1998) 31-37.
Kaske, R.E. “A Poem of the Cross in Exeter Book: Riddle 60 and The Husband’s Message.” Traditio: Studies in Ancient and Medieval History, Thought, and Religion 23 (1967) 41-71.
Orton, Peter. “The Speaker in The Husband’s Message.” Leeds Studies in English 12 (1981) 43-56.
Thundyil, Zacharias. “The Sanskrit Meghaduta and the Old English Husband’s Message.” Michigan Academician: Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 8 (1976) 457-67.