Tuesday 20 April 2010

Riddles, Poems, Oracles

You remember, of course the riddle scene in ‘The Hobbit’, illustrated here by the amazing Alan Lee, where Bilbo Baggins pits his wits against hungry Gollum on the edge of the dark lake at the roots of the Misty Mountains? And how, after each has guessed a number of traditional riddles: ‘Thirty white horses on a red hill/First they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still[1] and a number of others which Tolkien obviously enjoyed writing himself: ‘Alive without breath/As cold as death/Never thirsting/Ever drinking/Clad in mail/Never clinking’[2], Bilbo finally foxes his adversary with the simple and thoughtless question, ‘What have I got in my pocket?’

Riddles have a long history, and probably a long prehistory too.  There are riddles in the Bible, such as the one Samson baffled the Philistines with: Out of the eater came something to eat/Out of the strong came something sweet’[3] (Judges 14,14) – still to be found, with its pictorial answer, on the green and gold tins of Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. And one of the earliest known riddles, strikingly similar in form to Samson’s, is written on a Babylonian tablet and reads: ‘Who becomes pregnant without conceiving? Who becomes fat without eating?’[4]

(Oh, by the way, all the answers will be found at the bottom of this post.  I’m certain you are going to try and guess them, so I’m not going to provide the answers straight up…)

Everyone remembers the riddle of the Sphinx, which Oedipus guessed; but did you know that Plato refers to children’s riddles in ‘The Republic’? (A man who was not a man threw a stone that was not a stone at a bird that was not a bird, on a twig that was not a twig’[5])’ Or that there are Sanskrit riddles in the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata?  And what about the Norse riddles of the Elder Edda, such as ‘The Words of the All-wise’ in which the dwarf Alvis (literally ‘All-wise’) – anxious to win the hand of Thor’s daughter – answers a number of questions which might be called riddles in reverse:

Thor:   What is heaven called, that all know
            In all the worlds there are?

Alvis:   Heaven by men, The Arch by gods,
            Wind-weaver by vanes,
            By giants High-earth, by elves Fair-roof,
            By dwarves The Dripping Hall.

Thor:   What is the moon called, that men see
            In all the worlds there are?

Alvis:   Moon by men, The Arch by gods,
            The Whirling Wheel in Hel,
            The Speeder by giants, The Bright One by dwarves,
            By elves Tally-of-Years.

For verse after verse, Alvis provides the kennings – the riddling poetic descriptions – for all the elemental, important things in the world such as fire, rain, the moon and sun, the sea, forests, night and day (and beer)… until at last dawn breaks and he turns to stone.

When I talk to schoolchildren I usually ask them some Norse or Anglo-Saxon riddles, which of course are also poems: and it seems to me one of the best and easiest ways to show children what poetry is and why it might be fun to read. “So,” I say, “in a poem about the sea a Viking wouldn’t say ‘the sea.’  He’d call it the ‘whale’s home’ or the ‘swan’s bath’, and his audience would know what he meant. If you wanted to make a poem in which a king rewards one of his men with gold, you wouldn’t say ‘The king gave gold to his warrior.’  That would be plain boring.  Instead you would have to say something like ‘The Land-Ruler gave Sif’s Hair to his Sword-Bearer.’

“For your listeners to understand it, they’d have to know the story of how the trickster god Loki cut off the goddess Sif’s beautiful hair. The other gods were so angry with him that he went to the dwarfs and got them to make Sif some beautiful new hair out of pure gold, which magically grew just like real hair.”
But there were plenty of other ‘kennings’ for gold.  For example, you could call it ‘Frodi’s flour.’ And to understand that, your audience would remember a completely different story, about a Danish king called Frodi who bought two giant slaves and set them to turn two huge magic millstones which would grind out whatever you told them to grind.  Instead of flour, King Frodi told them to grind out peace, prosperity and gold. (That’s why gold could be called ‘Frodi’s flour’.)  For a time, King Frodi’s people enjoyed a golden age.  Unfortunately, however, Frodi made the two giants work almost non-stop, not allowing them rest or sleep ‘for longer than it takes to hear a cuckoo call.’  In revenge, the two giants asked the millstones to grind out an army which attacked King Frodi and killed him.  And that was the end of his peaceful reign.

The Vikings thought more of a man if he could weave words: some of their most renowned warriors were also poets, like Egil Skallagrimsson, and Grettir the Strong. The murderous Harald Silkenhair in my book ‘Troll Blood’ is a warrior poet from this tradition, and keeps his men happy by asking them riddles (here are two I made up for him):

I know a stranger, a bright gold-giver
  He strides in splendour over the world’s walls.
            All day he hurries between two bonfires.
            No man knows where he builds his bedchamber.”[6]

            “I know another, high in the heavens
            Two horns he wears on his hallowed head
            A wandering wizard, a wild night-farer,
            Sometimes he feasts, sometimes he fasts.”[7]

Spells, words, similes, riddles… the very word spell itself in Old Norse simply means speech. To describe the world is to apprehend it, to understand it.  To this day we retain this double meaning. A magician may cast a spell, but children spell out words aloud, syllable by syllable. Words do not only give power, words are power.  Even in the Judaeo-Christian sense: God creates the world with the words ‘Let there be light,’ and St John describes Christ as the ‘Word of the Father’. 

Ursula K Le Guin made wonderful use of this in her Earthsea books, in which the language of wizards is literally the language of ‘the Making’:  once you know the true name of a thing, you can summon it or reveal it: “the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world…We call the foam on the sea sukien: that word is made from two words of the Old Speech, suk, feather, and inien, the sea.  Feather of the sea, is foam.  But you cannot charm the foam calling it sukien; you must use its own true name in the Old Speech, which is essa.

‘Feather of the sea’:  a kenning, a knowing – which is what ‘kenning’ means.  Describing the foam is one way of knowing it better, of exploring its essence.

It seems to me that riddles may always have had dual purpose. They amuse us, but they do so in a different way from puns and jokes. If I ask you a riddle – even a simple child’s riddle like ‘What’s green and goes up and down?’[8] – and you can’t guess it, I score a point over you. More than that: I retain knowledge which I may or may not choose to tell you. I have the power to reveal or conceal. The riddle game is a contest which may once – as with Bilbo and Gollum, Thor and Alvis, Oedipus and the Sphinx – have had serious consequences.

The Delphic Oracle was traditionally delivered in obscure, riddling form. Today we may suspect that oracular utterances were made deliberately vague so as to be applicable to any variety of future events – but that seems to me false to the ancient way of thinking.  Much more likely, the sibyl or seer regarded riddling, poetic speech as sacred: the authentic voice of God. Just as with poetry today, whoever heard it had to find their own meaning in what was uttered, follow the clue through the maze to the centre of themselves. Riddling speech, like poetry, may have been thought of as the truest, the most revelatory way of communicating.
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths...

See how the floor of heaven's thick inlaid
With patines of bright gold...

Oh look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond dells, the elves' eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quick-gold lies!”

To describe the night sky in this way is to use riddles as riddles were meant to be used. Can you still feel the shiver of power? 

[1] Teeth
[2] Fish
[3] A bee’s nest full of honey in the ribcage of a dead lion
[4] Clouds
[5] A eunuch throwing a piece of pumice at a bat on a reed.  (Yes.  Really.)
[6] The sun (and the two bonfires are sunrise and sunset)
[7] The moon
[8] A frog on a trampoline


  1. Another very interesting post, Katherine! I have two of your troll books on order and am thrilled you included a warrior poet (and some of his riddling games) since I find them the most interesting of the warriors. Rather like Odysseus. More than merely violent men.
    Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls has great poet/warrior characters as well.
    I always loved how LeGuin explained wizardry and learning the true names of things. It was magical and at the same time rational and scientific.
    And using them to introduce children to poetry- brilliant! What child doesn't enjoy a good brain teaser?- hearing them and making up their own.

  2. That is a fascinating thought - that riddles reveal as much as they conceal, and that 'riddling' or poetic language is sometimes a way to get closer to the truth.

    I seem to remember there is something philosophers call 'qualia' - which is that which cannot be described accurately to others, the subjectivity of our own experience. Surely poetic writing (of which riddles are a kind) is the best way of capturing these ungraspable things.

  3. Jo, I'm excited (and touched) you've ordered a couple of my books. I hope they won't disappoint. (The third, 'Troll Blood', is the most Viking-y and the most 'grown up'.)

    I know the Nancy Farmer books - Sea of Troll came out just after Troll Fell, and I avoided reading it until I'd finished the trilogy - I actually like some of her earlier books better, but she's a really great writer.

    Nick, I've only ever vaguely heard of 'qualia'. Has it anything to do with 'quality'? The taste or flavour of our own experiences? Poetry - all art - I suppose is an attempt to communicate, or to share or blend into, the otherness of the world.

  4. How lovely! I did a radio programme on Riddles once, complete with riddle songs from all over - you can hear it here:
    Just go down the Alphabetical List to RIDDLE ME THIS!

    We used to have links to a site that taught you how to make your own complex riddles - but they've trimmed it all down, alas....

  5. Wonderful, Ellen! And - like oral storytelling - riddles are so democratic - if you start telling them to children, the kids join in with their own. And not always the easy ones either - I did a talk once at the Polka Dot Theatre in London and we started on riddles, and a little Chinese girl put up her hand and repeated:
    "Two legs sat upon three legs with one leg on his lap. Up came four legs, ran away with one leg. Up jumped two legs, picked up three legs, flung him after fourlegs and made him bring one leg back."

  6. An absolutely brilliant post!
    Thank you Katherine :)
    I always took the bible's "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was god" to mean just that.. words and language have power and wonder and spelling is indeed spelling, as you say :)
    I am very intrigued by your writing and will be hunting out your books!
    Best wishes from Dartmoor

  7. Thank you Rima - if you do, I hope you'll enjoy them. And I love your website and drawings!

  8. Kath- House of the Scorpion and A girl named Disaster are her best in my opinion but I love trolls and viking myth so I was happy to find her, and now you. I have Troll Blood on order now as well.

  9. Yes, those are both brilliant - and 'The Ear, The Eye and The Arm', too.

  10. I thought it was Kermit in a lift?

  11. Groan...
    But that too! (Though probably the correct phrase would be 'Kermit in an elevator'?)

  12. Fascinating post Katherine. Do you know this Gaelic riddle?
    Creaking, crackling, hard,
    Thin and bare its hair,
    Hard the skin of its two hands,
    Its eyes in the middle of its chest,
    And its flesh inside its bones.


  13. Ooh no - Gaelic riddles are new to me. Fantastic, and such a good illustration of the sort of thing I was talking about. Thankyou! (Do you know where I can find any more of them?)

  14. Thanks so much for this fascinating post!

    Have you ever read The Telling, by Ursula Le Guin? It's a deeper exploration of the real-ness of words, set on another planet. I would say more, but haven't read it for years, and it is blurry...

  15. No, that's one of hers I don't know - so I'll look it up, as I do love her books. 'The Left Hand of Darkness' is amazing.

  16. I remember in my English class we had to read the old Norse riddles before reading Beowulf. This is such a wonderful post! As a creative writer and an illustrator, you have given me so much inspiration today. Thank you! It's wonderful to meet someone who is writing what I one day hope to: young adult novels.

  17. Dear MME - thankyou, that's lovely to know. I just checked out your website. Love your fairytale illustrations!

  18. I found it in 'A World of Poetry' selected by Michael Rosen. It was translated from the Gaelic by Alexander Nicolson. Does that help?

  19. Just found this post and I love it!
    The Anglo Saxon and Norse language with all its kennings and rhythms just fire me up!
    I've read Beowulf so many times just to revel in single stanzas of it...
    Wizard of Earthsea had a massive influence on me as a child as well...
    ...and Tolkien, and Mervyn Peake, the list goes on...
    I will look out for those other Ursula Le'Guin titles mentioned - intrigued!
    Best wishes
    Carrie:) (Windsongs & Wordhoards)

  20. Thanks Carrie, I hope you will continue to enjoy the posts. It sounds as though we have many interests in common - and I'll look at your blog as soon as I can: it has a great title!