This puzzle elicited strong emotions, and following a little arm twisting, here are some remarks from the setter’s perspective. In context, recent Sabre puzzles (4115 Invisible Ink II; 4082 Pangrams; 4058 Whirly-Birly, etc.) have received numerous comments such as “What has happened to Sabre’s sting?”, “Disappointingly easy for this setter”, “Not the Sabre of yore”. The current puzzle was in some sense a reaction: I wanted to construct a testing puzzle, yet not an unfair puzzle. It is the easiest thing in the world to construct an impossible crossword, but to achieve a high level of difficulty while maintaining fairness is a very delicate balance, which I constantly struggle to get right.
Some agree that 4140 achieved this, and some would disagree. Knight’s moves provide an easy way of achieving the difficulty. I toyed with the idea of a 5 × 5 central square in a 13 × 13 grid in which cell entries had to be “knighted”, making a less fraught endgame. But as a general tenet, I dislike the 13-grid over the 12-grid if the theme doesn’t mandate the larger size. There should be some thematic words appearing from the jumbles, and as 6 × 6 took precedence in my thoughts, I immediately saw what the title of the puzzle should be, with its potential for a mischievous trap (I prefer “mischievous” to “mean”). Thus KNIG· · · · ·ANT was fixed, and the two knights GAWAIN and MODRED duly noted. Construction began with my determination to use both SOUTHERNWOOD (a smooth anagram), and BLOODIED with the misdirection of being able to use BOODIED=moped, which I hoped would raise a smile. (Jim Evans was my first Listener editor, whose comments were always tremendously helpful. One I recall is his criticism that my clues were “sterile and dry – get solvers to smile!”) Several other pre-planned words were worked in, and after more sheets of paper were thrown away than I care to number, the diagram was complete. Clueing was the usual pleasure, and after more revisions and rewrites than I can recall, the puzzle was submitted to the Listener vetters.
You forget about these things until your inbox registers a communication from listenercrossword.com, and with beating heart you open the e-mail… Rejection! Slowly it sinks in. The puzzle is essentially unsolvable. And of course, the criticisms of the editors are spot on. In this version of the puzzle, the “disaster zones” (vetters’ phrase) of grid bottom and grid right contained unchecked entries (at least, checked only by knight’s move answers); further, the only answers starting within the 6 × 6 square were on the perimeter of the square. With one or two clues unsolved the endgame was truly impossible (the fact that the vetters between them solved the puzzle is mightily impressive in retrospect!).
A correspondence ensued about whether I could save the puzzle, and how to achieve this. The upshot was to try and rework the “disaster zones” so as to make every answer checked in at least two letters; and to add in several more answers that started within the central 6 × 6 square, thereby reducing the multitude of possibilities for the endgame. This turned out not to be so easy: answers were not allowed to start on the diagonal because this would have upset my KNIGHT ERRANT trap; and it was surprisingly difficult to find words of length and quality using knight’s moves when I hadn’t planned for this. To cut a long story short, minor tweaking turned into major surgery, and only about 20% of the original grid survived. I was determined to keep SOUTHERNWOOD and BLOODIED, and also HOSTRY that had fortuitously presented itself during the initial composition. It was important too to include some less common letters: a solver might reasonably assume that two Xs share the same cell, softening the endgame. I tried for Js and Qs but could only manage W,X,Y. MODRED, poor fellow, had to change his direction, but eventually all came together. This time listenercrossword.com brought good news, and June 4 saw the puzzle’s appearance in the Times.
With hindsight, if I had the opportunity to make any changes, I would change the clue to CAPAS at 5D which caused much confusion with its alternative CAPES. I had simply not noticed this. The clue should have used wordplay for CA-PAS or CAP-AS etc, to eliminate the CAPES answer. I wonder about the clue for DINOTHERE, which many solvers said was the last to be solved, in many cases working backwards from a filled grid. Originally I had the clue as “Fossil elephant – tips of decayed ivory not present”, much easier than “Fossil elephant – tips of decayed ivory missing”. But then those jabs about Sabre’s sting kicked in. My apologies to those who found this a frustrating exercise, particularly to those who gave up; my thanks to those who relished the challenge and were generous with their compliments.
Finally, here is the logical argument submitited with the puzzle that demonstrates uniqueness of the placement of knight’s letters, independent of foreknowledge of GAWAIN and MODRED. After solving all clues (!), the grid is as follows:
We number the cells of the central 6 × 6 square by Cartesian coordinates with bottom left cell as (1, 1). We also think of this cell as black, with squares alternating in colour as on a chessboard. This allows parity considerations: in particular, that the W of SOUTHERNWOOD must fall on a white square. The first E of BORDEREAUX, the X of IXTLE, and the first L of HALLIAN are forced; followed by the R of OBTURATION, the A of RACINOS, and the I of NIRLY. We have the following grid:
If the second R of SURREYND falls in cell (5, 5), then the whole of SURREYND is determined, and there is no white square available for the W of SOUTHERNWOOD, with its corresponding sequence -HERNWO. Thus the second R of SURREYND falls in (1, 5). The Y of SURREYND must fall on a black square. If (5, 5), then -YND cannot be found; if (2, 2), then -YN cannot be found; and (2, 6) is unreachable. Thus the Y of SURREYND falls in (4, 2). Of the six possibilities (using parity) for the W of SOUTHERNWOOD, the following five are immediately ruled out: (2, 5), (4, 5), (6, 1), (6, 5) (for which no -HERNWO possible), and (2, 1) (which fully determines SOUTHERNWOOD, leaving no possibility for the H of SLOETHORN). Thus the W falls in (3, 4), which now determines the H of SLOETHORN. The grid is now:
The A of OBTURATION, the first E and O of REWORDED, are now forced, then the T of PERITRICHA, and second L of MANMILLINER. Finally, the N of HALLIAN and the U of BORDEREAUX complete the square.