On Riddles

Class Description:  Riddle me this!
Riddles have been popular for thousands of years, and particularly in period. Learn what makes a great riddle, and try your hand at creating one.
— Master Owen Alun

What is a Riddle?

This class won’t attempt to define what a riddle is.
Riddles are fish.  Pretty, slippery, right in front of you, and yet elusive to catch. It is a metaphor that exists in stasis waiting for explanation, it is understanding striving to be born.
Riddle is a mask.
Riddle is play, is pretend.
Riddle can be parable
Riddle can be evasion.

Riddle is a game, and almost as old as that, it is the deadly serious game that is played for very high stakes.  The SphinxSamsonHeidrek, and of course Bilbo and Sméagol.

Riddle is a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.  Riddle sits at the point of connection between  drama and tragedy.    It is the confluence of disjoint things, and the irresistable force that drives action.

Riddle places the mind in wonder, changes the way we think, and in doing so may change the world around us.  Riddles reflect commonplaces between us and bring us together.

Riddle engages.

And then vanishes.

Rather than trying to define the what of riddle, let us look at the how.

A riddle brings together two things (which can be variously physical objects, monsters or mythic beings, present past or future actions, or anything whatsoever that the mind may ken), and finds commonplaces between them that allow one to hide in the shadow or reflected light of the other.

The Ancient Greeks had the riddle of the Sphinx, and had collections (now lost) such as

One example from Symphosius:

Virgo modesta nimis legem bene seruo pudoris;
Ore procax non sum, nec sum temeraria linguae;
ultro nolo loqui, sed do responsa loquenti.

A modest maid, too well I observe the law of modesty;
I am not pert in speech nor rash of tongue;
of my own accord I will not speak, but I answer him who speaks.

Riddles present us with the unexpected, there is often some humor in a riddle, though it may not be the predominant motif.  Riddles can be quite serious, even when they show humor, especially in concert with the Riddle game.

Cicero, in On the Orator (ch. 63), says that “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.”

Jesus spoke in parables.  The church fathers were aware of the power of parables, but were also concerned with the explication of the mysteries that they represented.  Augustine in the depth of his disillusionment in the Confessions said:  “I became a great riddle to myself”.  In his Expositions on the Psalms he said: ” The Lord Himself is at one time termed a lion, at another a lamb”   (Expositions, 11) and that at different times the allegories meant different things.  There was a significant concern that people could become confused and misunderstand things without guidance.

Practical considerations:

The semantic component of a riddle is structured by taking two “things” in the broad sense indicated above, and identifying similarities between them that can allow the one to hide in proximity to the other.

The aesthetic component of the riddle is constellated by creating syntactic and rhetorical flourishes that direct the audience to focus on the semantic properties of the structure.  Careful word choice is key with the avoidance of terms related to the hidden referent in favor of terms that describe the mask.

I have often said that in riddles the nouns lie and the adjectives tell the truth.  That’s not strictly true, but it’s been a useful starting point for some.

As far as presenting a riddle, it is important to realize that in creating a new riddle, there will be times when someone comes up with an alternate answer.  It is incumbent on the riddler to give credit to the guesser if they have kenned an alternate solution, lest you have to give up your own answer.  It is permissible in this place to say “that wasn’t the answer I was thinking of, but it serves” — then go off and refine your riddle to make it work more precisely for the intended hidden referent.

Riddles exist in suspension.  The moment that they are guessed, they transform into something else, a commonplace.  This transformation only happens once for each person who hears a riddle, so protecting the suspension is important to allow the riddle to work for new audiences.  Once someone has heard a riddle, their perception of it is as one who is “in the know”

In this regard, Riddles are a lot like legerdemain and slight of hand, except that in the end the secret of the riddle is guessed.  A good magician can do a trick more than once before their secret is divined.

The Riddle Game

The most common form of playing at riddles is the Riddle Game, where first one person then another take turns asking Riddles of each other, often then dropping out when there is a riddle that they cannot guess.

There is a literary trope of the Riddle Game as a method par excellence for determining fate.  This comes from the sense that solving riddles is itself an inspirational activity, and the one who can guess the Riddles the best must be favored either through cunning or direct benefice by the (G/g)od(s).  This gets particularly interesting when one of the protagonists is of divine origin.    In Folktake-Morphological terms, this most commonly happens at the barrier to go into the land of adventure, or as the final step to be able to leave (or live).  The resonance here is that the Riddle game in the story is represented as the same game that is played amongst friends, so being the one who can guess the riddles positions the guesser as heroic, challenging the unknown in the quest for wisdom.

The person asking the riddles is therefore in ways that aren’t true in most other performing arts, taking on a persona of the anti-hero, out to thwart the intentions of the guesser-hero.

This is one of the reasons why the Riddle Game is almost always played in turns.

A,  Analysis of some Riddles

“A box without hinges key or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid”

(from The Hobbit)

The riddle double compares two sets of things, “a box” and “a thing that holds ‘treasure'”  — the discordance here is that the box is “not a treasure chest” and the “treasure” is implicitly “not something like gold coins”

A box  that contains a treasure that is not a treasure but that is golden in color.  The box is probably not a standard box, because it has no lid, no key, and no hinge.

The solution here is to see that the treasure is actually at the center of the riddle, if we know the nature of the treasure, we can then discern the nature of the box.

What is golden in color, hidden inside of something (and desireable), where the something is difficult to open?

To construct a similar riddle, we would think of a part for the whole relationship:  For example:

I was born on the back of a birds wing, though I fly not, I have one tiny foot yet my tracks may be quite large, my children are born of the air and at times return to it, I am the careful observer of deeds great and small, though delicate ’tis said I conquer all.

Who am I?

“The children” are the center of this riddle.

What things (children) are born of the air and can return to it and how are related to (part of) (something bird or bird-like)  (but is clearly not “a bird”)  that observes deeds and is (mighty/enduring/strong)?

B. Practicum

As an exercise, take two things and list three properties of each that are like the other thing.   No determine which way you want to go, and describe one of the things as if it was the other thing (letting the referent hide behind the description of the masking thing).

When presenting this as a class: 

We will then work in groups to generate one or two riddles as examples, working first through the semantic aspects and then looking at the asthetic aspects of phrasing.


 Riddle sources and commentaries:

For further reading:

Twisty Maze of Passages all Philosophical: