Riddles in the Light

Riddles in the Light

an Interrogation of Riddles by Stephen D. Winick

“When first I appear, I seem mysterious, but when I’m explained, I’m nothing serious.” So runs a Jamaican riddle, the solution to which is “riddle.”

Sadly, “nothing serious” more or less agrees with many people’s view of the riddle. For many, a riddle is just a joke phrased in the form of a question. Such a question calls for immediate surrender, so that the teller can get to the punchline:

“Why did the moron throw the clock out the window?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“He wanted to see time fly.”

This approach ignores much of the mystery and majesty of traditional riddles, and even some of their whimsy. A real riddle invites the answerer to puzzle it out, to work on it, to think. And whatever modern people may think of this venerable genre, riddles are very serious business, especially in the realms of mythic fantasy. They crop up at crucial moments of crisis, prophecy, and transition, marking a character’s transformation from child to adult, single to married, living to dead.

For evidence, one need look no further than the first meeting between a Hobbit and a Ring of Power. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, what is surely the most momentous occasion in Bilbo Baggins’s life is marked by a riddling session. In the crucial chapter “Riddles in the Dark,” Bilbo finds an ordinary-looking ring and puts it in his pocket. He then encounters the creature Gollum and agrees to a riddling contest. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of the network of caves he has stumbled into. If Bilbo loses, Gollum will kill him and eat him. The two match wits in riddles, until, in desperation, Bilbo asks a riddle that is not a riddle: “What have I got in my pocket?”

With this unanswerable question, Bilbo wins the contest. Indeed, he wins even though he is cheating, for both he and Gollum comment on the fact that the question is not, in Gollum’s words, “a fair question…not a riddle, precious, no.” Yet, as Tolkien’s narration also tells us, “the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it.”

What does all this mean? To whom is such a game sacred, and how ancient is it? And how does Gollum figure that Bilbo’s last question wasn’t a riddle?

To answer the last question first, a riddle is a tricky description whose referent must be guessed. Equally important, the referent must be guessable. This means that the answer must be retrievable from the text of the riddle itself, and the shared knowledge of the participants.

Let’s start with an example, one of Gollum’s riddles:

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

The answer, of course, is “fish.” Tolkien notes that it was easy for Gollum, who lived on a diet of fish and was therefore always thinking about them, but “it was a poser for poor Bilbo, who never had anything to do with the water if he could help it.”

Despite Gollum’s cultural advantage as a quasi-aquatic fish-eater, Bilbo is ultimately able to guess the answer. Imagine, though, if the question were asked of a person from another culture entirely, say a Bushman of the southern African desert, whose daily experience does not include fish (or, for that matter, shirts of mail). For him, this riddle would be unanswerable, and to ask it of him would be unfair.

We can now see why “what have I got in my pocket?” is not fair and not a riddle: it cannot be guessed based on the text of the riddle and a shared base of knowledge. In fact, no-one except Bilbo, who asks it, has the knowledge needed to guess it.

This kind of false or unfair riddle is an old motif in folklore and saga-literature. Tolkien’s sources for the riddle-contest include two from Norse mythology, the Vafþrúðnismál of the elder edda, and the Saga of King Heidrek the Wise. In each of these tales, Odin engages in a riddle contest while in disguise. To finish the contest, he asks, “What did Odin whisper in Baldr’s ear before Baldr was raised onto his funeral pyre and burned?” No one overheard Odin whispering in the ear of his dead son. So, like Bilbo asking about his own pocket, Odin himself is the only one who can possibly know the answer. In both tales, the answerer realizes at this point that his opponent is Odin himself; Vafþrúðnir concedes defeat, but Heidrek accuses Odin of cowardice and attacks him with his sword. Tolkien blends the two endings, making Gollum acquiesce at first, then physically attack Bilbo for his unfair riddle.

Folklore and literature provide many variations on the false-riddle theme. One traditional English version runs: “Love I sit, Love I stand, Love I wear on my right hand.” The solution is that the riddler once had a dog named Love. When Love died, the man made from his fur a cushion to sit on, a pair of slippers to stand in, and a glove for his right hand. Without knowing the convoluted backstory, who could hope to guess such a riddle? A similar American riddle-tale features a soldier captured in the Civil War who tells his captors, “Horn ate horn up a white oak tree, you solve this riddle and you can hang me.” The solution is that the man’s name is Mr. Horn, and the previous evening he killed and cooked a goat, then climbed an oak tree to eat it. Once again, to know the answer, you had to be there.

An older traditional example is Samson’s riddle from the Hebrew Bible: “out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14: 14). To solve the riddle, you’d have to know that once, while traveling all alone, Samson found a honeycomb inside the carcass of a lion! The false or cheating riddle of this type obviously has roots in some truly ancient traditions. It is called a “neck riddle” by folklorists, because it is most often used in stories to save the asker’s neck—a point to which we’ll return soon.

Fair Riddling

Since in a fair contest the answerer possesses the necessary cultural knowledge to guess the riddle, the questioner must often rely on other factors to make his riddles harder. Folklorists have referred to such elements as “blocks.” Gollum’s first riddle, for example, is:

What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?

The answer is “mountain.” But in what sense does a mountain “go” up? Only in our experience of it—it seems to rise up before us, but does not actually rise. So its “going” is metaphorical, and if we try to think of things that really travel upward, we will fail to guess the riddle. This is a common block in many riddles: it’s hard to tell what is literal and what metaphorical. The fish’s coldness is literal, for example, but its “mail” is a metaphorical description of its scales. When trying to guess this riddle, one has to go through each descriptive element and wonder if it is a literal description or a poetic metaphor.

A different kind of block can be seen in the modern riddle “black and white and read all over,” whose answer is “newspaper.” The block in that riddle is that “read” is a homophone of the color “red,” so the riddle seems to be asking for something that is black in some places, white in other places, and red in all places—an impossibility.

Still a third kind of block is introduced when the riddle has more than one possible answer. Some riddles have one answer that is obvious and sexually explicit, and more modest answers that are harder to find. An Anglo-Saxon riddle song of the 10th century runs:

Wrætlic hongað bi weres þeo,
frean under sceate. Foran is þyrel.
Bið stiþ ond heard, stede hafað godne;
þonne se esne his agen hrægl
ofer cneo hefeð, wile þæt cuþe hol
mid his hangellan heafde gretan
þæt he efenlang ær oft gefylde.

My own translation is:

A wonder hanging by the lord’s thigh
Under his waist. In its front is a hole.
It is stiff and hard, in proper position;
when the man lifts his garment
over his knee, he wants to greet that well-known hole
With this hanging thing’s head…
to its full depth he has often filled it.

Of course, a sexual solution occurs to most hearers first. “Clean” answers include “key and lock” or “knife and sheath,” since either a key or a knife could hang from the belt in the position described. Modern English has plenty of similar riddles. Consider this one: “What sticks out of your pajamas in the morning, so hard you can hang your hat on it?” (The answer, of course, is “your head,” which, come to think of it, preserves the ambiguity of the question!)

In a formal riddle-contest, either a dirty or a clean answer might be accepted for these riddles. But in social situations, this kind of riddle offers other possibilities. If anyone gives the sexual answer, the riddler can smirk, as if to say “you have a dirty mind,” and offer instead the clean one. On the other hand, if a clean answer is offered, the riddler can ask “haven’t you ever heard of sex?” Since most people know about sex, but don’t discuss it with strangers, these riddles and many others like them allow us to negotiate what counts as shared knowledge, which in turn establishes the level of intimacy we share with our riddling partners; we put into play not only what we know, but what we choose to admit knowing, and to whom.

Another form of knowledge is negotiated by the longstanding tradition of “wisdom questions” or “monk’s riddles”: these test specialized knowledge of the Bible and other subjects. Such riddles have been extensively used by fantasy authors also, notably Patricia McKillip in her classic series Riddle-Master. Here, the “riddles” are actually questions about great figures of the past, and to be a “riddle-master” entails amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of history. McKillip’s riddles, such as “who was Thanet Moss and why did he play a harp without strings?” are quite different from traditional folk riddles, and from Tolkien’s riddles, too. Still, they share a certain characteristic with folk riddles: they are answerable based on a body of knowledge to which both participants have access. Gollum and Bilbo are testing general cultural knowledge; they ask about fish and teeth and darkness and wind, things everyone in Middle-Earth knows about. The Riddle-Masters are asking for specialized historical knowledge that not everyone has, but they also provide an academy where one can learn it. So in both cases, the question is fair because the guesser has a fair chance to know the answer.

Riddle or Die!

Neck riddles, such as the false riddle in The Hobbit, and the “Love I sit” and “Horn ate horn” examples, are crucial elements in stories where the riddler faces death if he does not stump his opponent. The riddle-game in which the participant’s life is forfeit if he loses is indeed, as Tolkien says, “of immense antiquity,” going back to the beginnings of recorded mythology.

The most prominent example, surely, is the Greek myth of Oedipus, in which the hero must answer the Sphinx’s riddle or be killed. The riddle-contest, however, is only one incident in a long tale of woe for Oedipus, one of the most tragic figures in Greek drama. Since the riddles Oedipus solves relate to his story, it is worthwhile to summarize the tale, with reference to the most famous version, by Sophocles (ca. 496-406 BCE).

Oedipus is born to Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. Before his birth, it is prophesied that he will murder his father. To escape the prophecy, Jocasta gives the child to a shepherd, who is ordered to kill him. Laius had already bound the infant’s feet together, piercing them with a stake through the ankles, presumably as a prelude to the shepherd leaving him to die of exposure.  Instead, the herdsman has a change of heart, and gives the baby away to another shepherd, who comes from far away and who says he will take the baby back home with him. The second shepherd does indeed take the baby far away, all the way to Corinth, where he gives the child as a gift to Polybus and Merope, the king and queen, who have been unable to have children of their own.

Years later, Oedipus hears rumors of his own parentage and visits the Oracle at Delphi to see if he can clear them up.  He learns that he is destined not only to kill his father, but to marry his own mother.  He flees to avoid this horrible fate, still thinking Polybus and Merope are his parents. On his way to Thebes, Oedipus encounters a stranger with a small retinue.  They have a dispute over right-of-way, and the arrogant stranger strikes Oedipus with his whip.  Oedipus strikes back, and in the resulting fight, kills the stranger's entire party. Continuing to Thebes, he encounters a monster called the Sphinx (Greek for “strangler”), who has recently arrived, and has been forcing all travelers to answer a riddle, killing them when they fail to solve it. Oedipus solves the riddle, and the Sphinx kills herself, prompting the Thebans to appoint Oedipus king. Oedipus is also given the widow of the previous king as his wife.

Again, years pass. With his new queen, Oedipus has four children. Finally, a plague comes to Thebes, and the oracles tell Oedipus that to cure it he must solve the murder of Laius, the previous king. Thinking about the stranger he killed on the road, and his similarities to Jocasta’s description of Laius, Oedipus is filled with foreboding. Nevertheless, he is determined to solve the mystery. When a messenger arrives with news of Polybus’s death, Oedipus finds out from the messenger (who years ago was the second shepherd) that Polybus was not his biological father. The second shepherd leads him to the first shepherd, who reveals that Oedipus was the child of Laius and Jocasta. In a flash, he realizes that the stranger he killed must have been Laius after all, and that he has thus not only killed his father but married and had children with his mother. Jocasta, when this is revealed, commits suicide. Oedipus blinds himself and leaves the city.

Although Oedipus’s story continues for a while, we’ll leave it there, and talk about his riddles. Although it’s not in Sophocles’s version, tradition holds that the riddle asked by the Sphinx was “what creature goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?” The answer Oedipus gives is “man,” for man crawls on all fours when an infant, walks on two legs as an adult, and leans on a staff in old age. The connection to Oedipus seems to be that he is—or once was—physically challenged; his feet and ankles are deformed due to the injuries inflicted by his parents. Indeed, the name Oedipus means “swollen-foot.” Like Gollum with the fish riddle, Oedipus has an easy time with this one because he has to think about walking more than most of us!

The riddle may also, of course, refer to more psychological aspects of Oedipus’s character. Although the ancient Greeks did not have words for the unconscious, or for the Oedipus complex itself, Jocasta’s own observation in Sophocles’s play that men often lie with their mothers in their dreams, and that this is not necessarily evil, suggests that they did have a sympathetic understanding of the unconscious desire a man may have for his mother. Since this riddle is about growing up and then growing old, could it be a warning to Oedipus not to get stuck in a juvenile developmental stage, that of unresolved Oedipal desire?

Although the best-known texts of the Oedipus myth include only this one riddle, ancient fragmentary versions, and more recent folktale tellings, suggest that the Sphinx originally posed three stumpers, each of which had some relevance to Oedipus’s own story. The riddle of the three stages of man, it seems, was the third and final riddle. The ancient, fragmentary play by Theodectes (ca. 380 to 340 BCE), contains what appears to have been the second riddle: “two siblings, light and dark. The first begets the second, the second begets the first.” The answer, as Oedipus guesses, is “day and night.” Like the Anglo-Saxon key riddle, however, this one has an alternative, dirty solution. After all, the only way a person can beget his own sibling is through sex with his own mother, and Oedipus will do just that, begetting four of his own siblings.

It is not a stretch to imagine that ancient Greeks would have seen this second solution, for riddles whose answers refer to incestuous relationships are quite common, even outside the Oedipus myth. (One such riddle, for example, sets in motion Shakespeare’s play Pericles.) Teiresias tells Oedipus that the murderer of Laius “will turn out to be the brother of the children in his house—their father, too.”  Oedipus himself, furthermore, points out that his is an “incestuous blood family of fathers, brothers, children, brides, wives and mothers.” Thus, both Oedipus and observers within his story are consciously aware that he has begotten his own siblings.

Oral folktale versions of the Oedipus myth supply several alternatives for the first riddle, one of which is particularly interesting: “What is the thing that consumes what it bears? It bears children and then consumes them again?” The answer the hero gives is “the sea,” which sends forth waves and then absorbs them again. This image of bearing children and then receiving them again into the maternal body, once again, carries undertones of incest.

Seen in this light, the riddles of the Sphinx combine to form a larger riddle, the riddle of Oedipus’s identity. If you fully articulated this larger riddle, it might be: “what has an incestuous mother, begets its own siblings, and needs to develop and move past its Oedipal desires?” (Or, perhaps, “what has an incestuous mother, begets its own siblings, and walks funny?”)

Tragically, it is this final riddle that takes Oedipus a lifetime to solve.

Riddling and Courtship

The Oedipus myth, folklorists say, may have arisen through the combination of two separate folktales. The first included the prophecy of parricide and incest and its eventual fulfillment. The second involved a hero who must accomplish difficult tasks, such as answering riddles and slaying dragons, in order to marry a princess. Dragonslayer stories, of course, are a dime a dozen in European lore, but tales in which brides are won by riddling are also quite common; a Persian example became the basis of Puccini’s opera Turandot. The element common to both the parricide story and the hero story is a marriage, and this may be what brought the two tales together: the thorny plot point of how Oedipus was going to meet and marry his mother was solved by some clever storyteller, who put him in the traditional role of riddle-master and dragonslayer, and rewarded him in the traditional way: with marriage to a princess…or, in this case, a dowager queen.

More generally, there is a strong association between riddling and courtship in myths and fantasy stories, including many that I have already mentioned. The riddle of Samson occurs in the context of his wedding-feast; he stumps his wife’s countrymen, and, in a foreshadowing of his later betrayal by Delilah, she wheedles the solution from him and tells it to his opponents. Both Turandot and Pericles present their riddles in the context of courtship. To give a few more far-flung examples, the queen of Sheba tests Solomon with riddles, and then becomes his lover. Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Irish saga, swaps riddles with his future wife, Emer, during their courtship. Alvíss, a dwarf in the elder edda, courts Freya by answering a series of wisdom riddles.

Courtship and riddling are linked not only in fantasy, but in real life as well: traditions of riddling during courtship and marriage are widespread, from medieval France to nineteenth-century Russia to the modern Philippines. Why should courtship, marriage, and riddles be linked? For one thing, it’s important to find out if a prospective spouse is ready for marriage. Brides and grooms, and their parents and communities, often want to know whether the suitor is smart enough, has wisdom enough, understands the culture well enough, and is respectful enough in interactions, to be a suitable mate. Much of this can be discovered through riddle contests.

In both reality and fantasy, then, riddles can test the depth of a person’s understanding of the principles necessary for a good marriage. Sometimes, this can be as simple as the birds and the bees. For example, the traditional ballad of “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship” presents a series of riddles asked back and forth by potential mates. As the great Irish singer Willie Clancy sang it, it contained the following riddles, among others:

“You must get me for my breakfast a cherry without a stone,
You must get me for my dinner a bird without a bone.”

Although these demands are posed as tasks (get for me…), they are answered as riddles; the suitor does not bring a cherry or a bird to the table, but instead answers how the seemingly impossible cherry or bird can exist:

“Now the cherry when in blossom, it surely has no stone,
The chicken when it's in the egg, it surely has no bone.”

So far, so good: the riddling has shown that the participants understand biology. Note, however, how many of the key words in these riddles are also sexual double-entendres: “cherry” and “stone” are slang for “hymen” and “testicle”; the stone within the fruit is a well-known metaphor for pregnancy; “bird” and “chick” have long been slang terms for a pretty girl; “flower” or “blossom” a frequent metaphor for female genitalia; and “bone” likewise for an erection. “Egg,” meanwhile, doesn’t even need a second meaning to be sexual! Throughout the rest of this ballad, too, items that have sexual connotations (tall trees, horns, dew) crop up in the riddles.

Some riddles that have straight answers in the ballad are found separately in tradition with sexual answers. “What is deeper than the sea?” is answered in the ballad with “Hell.” Folklorist Barre Toelken found this riddle in North Carolina with the answer, “Vagina—it can’t be fathomed!”

This flurry of sexual innuendo disguised as innocent wordplay culminates in:

“You must get for me some winter fruit that in December grew,
You must get for me a mantle that weft nor warp went through.”

The ballad’s answer to this seemingly impenetrable riddle is equally mystifying:

“Now my father has some winter fruit that in December grew,
My mother has a mantle that weft nor warp went through.”

Toelken found that both of these riddles were present in North Carolina tradition; the “fruit” which can grow even in winter is the penis (or sometimes, semen which can “grow” a baby), while the unwoven mantle is a woman’s pubic hair. This explains why the former belongs to a father, or mature male, and the latter to a mother, or mature female. Underneath many courtship-riddles, then, we find the general riddle tradition’s familiar sexual double-entendres, this time functioning not as the riddle’s block but as another part of the test: whether the couple can negotiate riddles about sex is taken as a sign of whether they can negotiate the riddle of sex itself.

Marriage is not all about sex, however, and riddles can also test other principles that are important to successful couplehood. The story of the marriage of Sir Gawain, told in a medieval romance, a minstrel ballad, and one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a prime example of this. It connects Gawain’s marriage to his successful solution for the riddle “what does a woman want?” The answer, in some versions, is “to have her will.” The block here seems to be that the riddle is a tautology; since “her will” literally means “what she wants,” the answer simply boils down to “she wants to get what she wants.”

Gawain, however, demonstrates not only that he knows the answer but that he understands it. After he has solved the riddle and married the lady, she explains that she is under a spell and must be either hideous by day and beautiful by night (so that he will have a happy private life but be pitied and ridiculed in public), or ravishing by day and ugly by night (so that he will be admired by his friends, but unhappy in private). He must choose which option to live with. Gawain puts his money where his mouth is, answering the riddle in deed as well as word: he allows her to make the choice. Because he has understood his charge, the spell is broken, and she can be beautiful all the time. Thus, through this great positive reinforcement of riddle, action, and reward, Gawain learns one of the great lessons of a happy marriage: “whatever you say, dear!”

Can these observations on riddles and courtship have any bearing on Bilbo’s riddle-contest with Gollum? Not in a purely literal sense, of course; Bilbo and Gollum do not run off and get married when it’s over. But in a deeper sense, there is a connection. The riddle contest ends with Bilbo accepting Gollum’s ring, after all, and like a wedding-ring, the One Ring binds them together as part of one another’s lives until death does them part. Emotionally, Gollum awakens Bilbo’s more tender sentiments, pity and mercy (even if he swears for his part to hate Bilbo forever).

Bilbo’s successor, Frodo, also wears Gollum’s ring. He ends up in something close to a love-triangle with Gollum, and Tolkien described it as such, remarking in one of his letters that Gollum’s “dawning love of Frodo was too easily withered by the jealousy of Sam.” This jealousy is awakened by the fact that, as another ringbearer, Gollum understands Frodo in a way Sam cannot. In the end, the power of the ring binding Gollum and Frodo causes Gollum to unwittingly supplant Sam as Frodo’s helpmeet and other half, when he sacrifices himself in the fires of Mount Doom, and brings “his precious” along. “But for him,” Frodo tells Sam, “I could not have destroyed the Ring.” Remember, too, that neither Frodo nor Bilbo ever takes a wife; accepting the One Ring apparently precludes them from accepting others. In all these ways, the One Ring acts as a wedding ring, and the riddling of Gollum and Bilbo becomes a strange kind of courtship, which binds not only Bilbo but his successor as ringbearer.

Riddling and Prophecy

In David Eddings’s Malloreon, the ancient wizard Beldin exclaims “I hate riddles! They’re the entertainment of the preliterate!” Oddly, though, what’s gotten him steamed at that point in the story is not an entertaining riddle, but a fateful prophecy.

Throughout fantasy literature, and indeed in real life, prophecy is often spoken not in straightforward terms, but in riddling speech. Beldin is far from the first character to express disgust at this tendency; in Sophocles’s play, Oedipus becomes angry at the blind seer Teiresias’s obscure prophecies, and accuses him of speaking in riddles. Teiresias retorts that Oedipus should not complain, since he is, after all, supposed to be a riddle expert.

Folklorist Tom Mould has pointed out that both prophecy and riddle consist of “implicit question and perplexing description.” Nostradamus, for example, wrote that “that which lives but has no senses will cause its own death through artifice.” His readers may be forgiven for wondering just what is being predicted. Generally, of course, one cannot solve such prophetic riddles…until after the prophecy has come true.

Sometimes in prophecy a seemingly impossible situation is described. The hearer takes it to mean the given eventuality will never happen. But, of course, the prophecy is really a riddle, and there IS a solution. So, for example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches prophesy that Macbeth can be harmed by “no man born of woman.” He believes this prophecy makes him safe from all men, but in fact he is killed by Macduff, who was born by Caesarian section. (This “prophecy” follows the conventions of riddles, in which a person or animal said to be “unborn” is often revealed to have been torn from the womb; the same solution occurs in folkloric versions of the riddle ballad "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship.")

The witches also prophesy that Macbeth will not be vanquished until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth thinks this too is impossible, so he believes he can never be vanquished. Again, the prophecy turns out to be a riddle, and again Macduff solves it. The wood moves when Macduff’s army, using limbs from Birnam as camouflage, marches to the hill.

These riddles were enshrined in epic fantasy when Tolkien, dissatisfied with their solutions in Macbeth, recast them in The Lord of the Rings. The Witch-King, Tolkien tells us, can be killed by no man. Naturally, he thinks he is safe when battling an armored knight. But the knight is Eowyn—a woman in a man’s armor. So a riddle disguised as a prophecy is solved by a woman disguised as a man, and the Witch-King pays the price for failing to recognize either of them. (As for Birnam Wood, that riddle was the inspiration for the march of the ents.)

There is one more famous riddle-prophecy that has an important place in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The text runs as follows:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

The first four lines are a true riddle, whose solution, of course, is “Aragorn.” Each line is a riddling description of the future king: he looks like a poor vagabond, yet is immensely valuable (he is gold but does not glitter); he seems to wander aimlessly but in fact watches for signs of Sauron’s return; the ancient blood of Númenór has not lost its strength, and his roots have not been frozen or forgotten. The next four lines are more prophetic, predicting his ascendancy: his emergence from exile, the re-forging of his sword, and the reclaiming of his kingdom. Within Tolkien’s world, the author of this poem was the riddle-master himself, Bilbo Baggins, and its original title was “The Riddle of Strider.”

A more recent example of riddling prophecy foretells the struggle between Voldemort and Harry Potter in J. K. Rowling’s bestselling series. During the dark days of Voldemort’s first ascendancy, the divination expert Sibyll Trelawney falls into a trance and declaims:

“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches... born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies... and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal….”

As in many riddles, this one has a “block.” Its descriptors fit two different boys from prominent wizarding families: Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom. As is often the case with prophecy, it is the attempt to escape it that makes it come true: Voldemort, in attempting to kill Harry and avoid the prophecy, indicates that he sees Harry as more dangerous than Neville, thus “marking him as his equal.” In doing this, he actually makes Harry the subject of the prophecy and opens the door for Harry to destroy him. In this way, Voldemort solves a riddle that for him was best left unsolved. It’s interesting to note, too, that Voldemort’s original name is as solidly English as Harry’s: his birth name is Tom Riddle.

Riddle Round Again

We have answered two of the questions we began with: “why was Bilbo’s question not a riddle?” and “how ancient is the riddle-game, really?” The third question was “to whom is riddling sacred?” The answer turns out to be, “everyone.” As we have seen, riddles are associated with myths, prophecies, and rituals of maturing, marrying, mating and dying. During these classic rites of passage, anthropologists tell us, people go through ordeals that remove them from previous cultural categories, and allow them to re-enter their cultures as members of new categories. As Victor Turner states, during these rites, “monsters startle neophytes into thinking about objects, persons, relationships and features of their environment that they have hitherto taken for granted.”

The riddle, Craig Williamson points out, is a verbal version of this journey. Something as ordinary as a fish becomes a mail-clad, death-cold, breathless drinker. A man becomes a nameless beast that starts with four legs, loses two, and then grows one back. These are monsters indeed, as monstrous as the Sphinx herself, and being startled by them sends riddle-solvers on a quest through the metaphorical system, during which they must ponder their own cultures’ systems of thought.

It has been argued that the rite of passage is the heroic deed writ small. Like Prometheus returning with fire, or Hanuman returning with the Dronagiri Mountain, the initiate leaves his culture of established and reified categories and comes back with new and startling truths. And riddling, as we have seen, is the rite of passage writ small, a microcosm of a microcosm where the central questions of life and death are worked out in word and metaphor. In mythic fantasy stories, we see riddling restored to its true meaning: a moment of crucial importance, of power and prophecy, love and sex, life and death.



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