‘The riddles are three, but Death is one’, Princess Turandot warns her suitor Calaf in Puccini’s famous opera Turandot. Undaunted, Prince Calaf answers all three riddles correctly:
What is born each night and dies each dawn? (Hope)
What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire? (Blood)
What is like ice, but burns like fire? (Turandot!)
Riddling games, or wisdom-contests, are no longer a matter of life and death. Indeed, riddles have been reduced to children’s games, more often than not. This is a pity. Riddles are part of the oral tradition and folklore of just about every nation on earth. Even Aristotle thought them important enough to merit inclusion in his Rhetoric. A good riddle is about more than sharpness of wit; it can help you see the world in a different way.
But try asking anyone a riddle now. They’ll look at you as if you’ve taken leave of your senses. Who has the time to pause and think these days? Who even talks face to face? Gamers have their consoles and rest of us have our tweets and our txts.
Happily, riddling games of the more lethal sort remain popular in fantasy literature.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry must answer the Sphinx’s riddle to be able to pass her and reach the Triwizard Cup:
‘First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.
Next, tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard,
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?’
The answer, of course, is a spider. (Eww!)
One of the most entertaining riddling contests in fiction is between Blaine the Mono and Roland’s ka-tet in Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass. Blaine is a homicidal artificial intelligence residing in the computer systems of an ancient, abandoned city. He answers every riddle correctly until Eddie – ever the joker of the ka-tet – starts asking him tasteless ‘nonsense’ riddles, which cause his systems to crash. (Why did the dead baby cross the road? Answer: Because he was stapled to the chicken). Poor Blaine.
And of course, Tolkien loved riddles. He was an expert in language and poetry and used riddles to great effect in The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins, lost in the dark goblin tunnels, meets the slimy Gollum who wants to eat him but is afraid of his weapon. Gollum challenges Bilbo to a riddle competition: if Gollum asks a riddle Bilbo cannot answer, he will have to allow himself to be eaten. However, if Bilbo asks a riddle Gollum cannot answer, he must show the hobbit the way out of the tunnels. Bilbo wins, more by accident than design, when he wonders aloud what he has in his pocket (Gollum’s ‘precious’ ring).
My favorite riddle from The Hobbit:
‘Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail, never clinking.’
And if you don’t know the answer to that, you’ll have to guess it. 🙂
I end with a riddle from Riddle-De-Dum, a book within a book (The Waste Lands)
“With no wings, I fly. With no eyes, I see. With no arms, I climb. More frightening than any beast, stronger than any foe. I am cunning, ruthless, and tall; in the end, I rule all. What am I?”
Answer: The imagination.
What are your favorite riddles?
Rati – I completely agree with you on this one! As a fantasy writer, riddles hold a special place in my heart. My kids love them too (and are actually much better than me at figuring them out).
Same here. In fact, the kids are the only ones who’ll play riddling games with me!
I loved ‘Waste Lands’ best in King’s Gunslinger series specifically because of Blaine the Mono! Our family are riddlers too. My grandfather used to lie in bed (after his stroke) and make them up. 🙂 My kids and DH now listen to the ‘Coast Conundrum’ every morning. Great post!
Thanks Debbie. Wastelands is my favorite Dark Tower Book too.