Riddles as Poetry

Hobbit Day was Sunday, apparently. September 22 is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and, as you recall, the day Bilbo famously disappeared from the Shire and left the Ring in Frodo’s keeping.

In their honor, let’s investigate something near and dear to hobbit hearts: riddles.

A famous chapter in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is entitled “Riddles in the Dark.” Gollum and Bilbo engage in a game—an old and ancient exchange in Middle Earth that carries, even for us, a kind of magic and authority. Gollum agrees to let Bilbo go if Bilbo can solve the riddles he poses to him; and Bilbo—well, given the spot he’s in, he agrees to be eaten if he loses.

This chapter hearkens to a very old tradition, not only in English, but in many languages and cultures, and makes you think of nursery rhymes, and kennings in Beowulf (if you’re particularly nerdy) and even the Sphinx in Greek mythology. Tolkien himself emphasizes the sacredness of that tradition when describing Bilbo’s thoughts after desperately asking Gollum “what do I have in my pocket?” as his last riddle:

[Bilbo] knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)

I remember my dad reading “Riddles in the Dark” to me and my sister and pausing to give us the chance to figure out the answers. It was, I think, the first time I had encountered riddles, and I remember my mind bending and twisting in frustration, stretching to do a sort of thinking that it wasn’t used to.

Here’s one that Gollum poses to Bilbo:

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

What’s so striking about this riddle is that three of the four lines are paradoxes. It pushes against your sense of what is possible. How can something be alive, and not breathe? A plant, perhaps? But then the next line nixes that: plants aren’t “as cold as death.” Well then; so what is never thirsty, but “ever drinking”? A riverbed? But then your mind is thrown again– apparently this thing wears “mail,” like a soldier? A mail that “never clinks”?

The answer is fish–and as with all good riddles, as soon as you hear the answer, you feel a sense of surprise at its obviousness: “oh! Why didn’t I see that before?”

You work backwards, and realize that each of the pieces of the puzzle fit really well, and invite you to see fish in a strange new way: alive, but not breathing, “cold as death”—and indeed there is something rather ghostly about the fish I observed in the Boston Aquarium as a young girl—, always “drinking” water but obviously never thirsty for it, and arrayed in fine, sometimes beautiful scales like silent mail. Fish are stranger than you think.

When I used to teach Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, I loved telling my students the story of how Oedipus became the king of Thebes, a story which precedes the events of the famous awful tragedy with a kind of unexpected playfulness. After diagramming on the board the (somewhat complicated) family tree, I always shared with them the famous riddle the Sphinx poses to Oedipus. Like Gollum, she places dire terms on the riddle: if he solves it, she will leave Thebes alone; if he fails to solve it, she will devour him:

What walks on four legs in the morning
Two legs at noon
And three legs in the evening?

As a class, we would spend at least fifteen minutes guessing all sorts of answers. I would always insist that students who had already heard the story not to give it away. I can still see the furrowed brows, confused smiles, frustrated frowns and eyes raised to the ceiling for inspiration—all proper responses to the riddle, the kind of intellectual language game that most of us don’t often encounter.

Eventually my students would reach the end of their patience and demand the answer. I don’t remember in my eight years of teaching anyone actually solving it:

Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cane in old age.

If you know what happens next to Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, you realize the depths of the irony: Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle about the nature of man, but cannot solve the riddle of his own nature, his own fate.

Riddles don’t seem to be part of our common discourse today, but puns are, and they’re rather akin to them. I have two friends in particular who are really gifted at coming up with puns, and it always takes me several moments to even realize what they’re talking about.

Like riddles, puns rely on something similar to metaphor–on pulling together sounds that you do not normally associate, as riddles pull together disparate ideas or images. And, I would admit, despite my own personal frustration and lack of skill with both, puns and riddles have the unique ability to refresh language, to make you encounter words you think you knew in a new way.

Puns and riddles are poetic.

In his wonderful essay “The Persistence of Riddles,” my friend Richard Wilbur says that riddles “unlimber the mind, making us aware of the arbitrariness of our taxonomy; they restore us briefly to clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery” (The Catbird’s Song 46).

“Clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery.” I love that. Flannery would too.

We think and move and live in language–in a particular dialect, conditioned by time and location and class and economic status and ethnic background and all sorts of things we don’t even realize are forming the way we speak and think. But riddles–and, I believe, poems– have the power to engage us with language in fresh ways that can make words strange and new for us again.

Here’s a wonderful riddle Wilbur offers in that same essay:

In marble walls as white as milk
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal-clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

The first two lines begin gently, with similes. Similes are always easier to swallow than metaphors; they claim less. The marble walls as white “as milk”–like it, but not exactly; they have a skin soft “as silk”–an arresting image, to be sure, but nothing to get too worked up about.

But the riddle intensifies as it ventures into metaphor: “a golden apple” appears “within a fountain crystal-clear”–and your mind starts to stretch a bit as you imagine the apple bobbing up and down in the water cascading from some kind of source. Of course, the apple is a metaphor, but for what? And you can’t quite get the image of an apple floating in water out of your head, even though you know it obscures as much as it reveals.

The last clue is more tantalizing than it is helpful (at least it was for me, as I read it before finally allowing my eyes to slip down to the answer). Another metaphor appears: the apple in the fountain is somehow “a stronghold” that is nevertheless breached by “thieves” who “break in and steal the gold.”

Have you guessed the answer?

Wilbur again:

That rich and curious structure, that doorless stronghold, sounds as if it belonged in a fairy tale or chivalric romance. To someone unused to the aesthetic of riddles, it might seem anticlimactic, after all that marble, silk, and gold, that the answer should be merely “an egg.” But that is not how enigmas are to be taken; whatever else they do, they are out to restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things—to make us amazed, in this case, that an egg should be what it is. (Ibid. 44, emphasis added)

That is what a riddle is—and a pun, and a kenning, and any truly metaphorical use of language. That is what poetry is: the mode of language that can “restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things.”

If you want a bit of proof, look at Emily Dickinson. Her “Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is, of course, a snake—but she never says his name out loud in the poem, as if she were in a drawing-room full of delicate 19th century ladies.

Rather, she offers us a riddle that helps us rediscover the snake as “a spotted Shaft” or a “Whip Lash;” a creature who inspires in us a “tighter Breathing”; we gasp at the sight of him, and not just because we are afraid.

In “I Dwell in Possibility”, Dickinson poses a riddle whose answer is poetry itself: it is a “house” that is “fairer than Prose” with more “Windows” and “Doors”; that is, it somehow lets in more light. It’s “Chambers” are “impregnable of Eye” with a roof encompassing the “Gambrels of the Sky.” Indeed, poetry is capable of endowing the poet, with her “narrow Hands,” the power to “gather Paradise”.

No wonder Socrates felt that poetry was rather dangerous. Riddles are, too. They are both like magic spells because they are both human acts of renaming the world. They attempt to get a fresh look at things that would otherwise be disenchanted for us. They make the expected unexpected, the ordinary unusual, the profane sacred.

I’ll close with a poem containing a series of riddles that Richard Wilbur says describes the poet:

    Pitcher – by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.