Those who have been in my classes across several semesters know that I am fond of using riddles as a teaching device. As I remark in "About Riddles," I find them useful for aiding students in developing skills in critical thinking and interpretation of evidence. That they function so admirably in such a context is a result of the nature of riddles themselves, for a riddle is a verbal puzzle which relies upon tricks of language such as puns and figurative language to frustrate achieving easy solutions to it. Among the more notable examples of riddles accessible to speakers of the English language are translations of the Oedipal Sphinx riddle; any of the riddles from the Exeter Book, such as Riddle 43; and the riddles in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
The riddle of the Sphinx faced by Oedipus as he made his way to mythological Thebes is firmly ensconced in the literary history of Western Europe and the cultures that have sprung from it. As Edith Hamilton relates the story, the Sphinx was "a creature shaped like a winged lion, but with the face and breast of a woman" that "lay in wait for the wayfarers along the roads to [Thebes] and whomever she seized she put a riddle to, telling him if he could answer it, she would let him go. No one could, and the horrible creature devoured man after man until the city was in a state of siege" (269). The riddle that so stumped the people of mythological Greece, was simply to ask the name of that creature which goes four-legged in the morning, two-legged at noon, and three-legged in the evening; the answer is an average human person, who crawls on all fours in infancy, walks upon two legs in full adulthood, and leans on support such as a cane in old age (269). Despite the sexist and ableist phrasing in the original and in Hamilton's rendition of it, the riddle is one of the best-known to speakers and readers of English, and it works against it audiences.
The riddle engages both puns and metaphorical language to frustrate those to whom it is posed. The puns come in the loose interpretation of the term "leg." It can be applied to the arms of a crawling infant only tangentially, for while there are broad similarities in bone and muscle structure between the arm and the leg, but they are substantially unalike--except when the term "leg" is used as a descriptor for a means of transport. A similar zeugma comes into play in applying the term "leg" to the cane or walking stick used by an elderly person to aid in walking, although that is not the only one; "leg" can also be used to refer to the supporting post of an inanimate object such as a table or chair, so that for the three-legged elder, the "leg" is both locomotive and a prop. The metaphor is much more straightforward, situating human life as the course of a day. The comparison is apt in at least two ways. The light of the sun is diminished at dawn and dusk and brightest in midday, much as human capacities tend to be less at the beginning and end of "natural" life than in the midst of it. Too, human life is notoriously brief, and daylight does not last long. The combination of the appropriate metaphor and the multivalent pun, both verbal devices, serve to occlude the name of the creature being described, making the Sphinx's utterance prototypical of a riddle.
That of the Sphinx is not the only long-established major example of a riddle. The Exeter Book, one of the most important collections of Anglo-Saxon verse, contains a number of riddles, as well. One of them, labeled by editors and commentators fairly unimaginatively as Riddle 43 (the Exeter Book itself does not give titles or numbers to them), has commanded a fair bit of attention, not least because its referential language lends itself to interpretation as an obscenity. The piece, although sexist and heteronormative due in large part to the social standards of the time it was composed, does engage in a fair bit of verbal trickiness to lead its audience away from the actual solution; it reads:
I heard of something rising in a corner,The answer to the riddle is "dough," but it is hidden in layers of sexually-charged language which depends on heteronormative sexism for its effect. For the Anglo-Saxons, the kitchen--which is where work with dough would be carried out--was typically the domain of the wife, with higher-ranking women not exempted from labor within it. As those who have themselves worked with dough, or who have seen others work with dough, know, it rises or swells when left at room temperature or heated slightly, and it is often covered with cloth to keep things from getting into it that would be undesirable to have in baked goods. Too, dough is a boneless substance, so that the description of it in the riddle is accurate. But that description also has heavy sexual connotations which do rely on heteronormative ideas. It is true that certain parts of the body composed of erectile tissue do raise pieces of cloth which cover them, and it is also true that, in a heteronormative society, a bride would be inclined to grab at one such organ, while a prince's daughter, presumably more refined and discreet given her familial position, would be like to preserve modesty by covering "that swelling thing." So while the answer to the riddle is not itself inherently sexual, the riddle does prey upon the attention people willingly and frequently pay to sexuality to lead them away from its innocuous solution.
Swelling and standing up, lifting its cover.
The proud-hearted bride grabbed at that boneless
Wonder with her hands; the prince's daughter
Covered that swelling thing with a swirl of cloth. (Williamson)
Old English riddles such as Riddle 43 inform those in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit; Tolkien was in his academic life a scholar of older Germanic languages, and among his duties as such a scholar was teaching Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University (Dougham). The circumstances in which Tolkien's riddles are posed echoes those surrounding the riddle of the Sphinx; one of the participants in the game is subject to death for failure to respond adequately (73). And like both Riddle 43 and the riddle of the Sphinx, the riddles posed in The Hobbit employ figurative language. One notable example is the last posed by Gollum to Bilbo:
This thing all things devours:Most notable of its figurative constructions is its couplet structure. Although it lacks a firm meter, it is simply and plainly rhymed. Such patterns as rhyme serve to unify elements across lines and to aid the ability to recall the piece. The yoking together of devouring flowers, steel meal, and a town coming down (which words are the rhymed pairs) creates disturbing images that are likely to distract the audience from arriving at the solution. Similarly, the references to eating--"devours," "gnaws," "bites," and "meal"--serve to remind the in-milieu audience of the riddle that he is in very real danger of being consumed by the figure posing the riddle, and one can hardly blame Bilbo for having trouble thinking when he fears being eaten in short order. They also serve to put the audience in mind of teeth, and while it can be argued that the answer, "time," has teeth, it is only in a metaphorical--not a literal--fashion. Pointing up the toothiness of the solution forces the audience to consider physicality, and since time does not have an existence within the three dimensions of the commonly understood physical, imposing a physical description serves to lead the audience away from the solution--as befits a riddle.
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down. (77)
In all three cases, as in the many others, riddles display a playfulness with language and a willingness to deceive the audience without actually being untruthful; at no point do the riddles actually say things that are not accurate, although their careful manipulation of connotations through figurative language hides what would otherwise be obvious answers. Having such a definition of riddles that accounts for their core activities, rather than the surface trappings of any one riddle, allows for the broadening of understanding of riddles and the application of the kind of analysis performed on riddles to other works that display similar features--and that will help develop knowledge of verbal cultures.
~Dougham, David. "Who Was Tolkien?" Tolkiensociety.org. Tolkien Society, 2002. Web. 20 October 2012.
~Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About Riddles." Geoffrey B. Elliott's Teaching Blog. Blogger.com, 11 October 2012. Web. 19 October 2012.
~Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Warner Books, 1999. Print.
~Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.
~Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. "Riddle 43." "Exeter Book Riddles." Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 1: The Medieval Period. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada; Broadview P, 2007. Print. 31.