Recent Posts

Curiosity killed the cat

Curiosity killed the cat

If you believe some blogs, the cat was first killed at the turn of the 20th century. Wikipedia claims that the saying first appeared in print in 1873 but a brief search of the British Newspaper Archive reveals it was in common usage in Ireland […]

National Writing Day 2018

National Writing Day 2018

27 June 2018 is National Writing Day. Thanks to Creative Royston, I am delighted to be leading workshops over two consecutive mornings on 26 & 27 June with students from Greneway and Roysia Schools. We’ll be exploring non-fiction writing in the run up to Creative […]

Facing Rob Roy

Facing Rob Roy

Exhibition
Thursday 13 September – Saturday 6 October 2018
10am-4:45pm
Royston and District Museum
FREE

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy, this one-off pop-up exhibition explores the changing faces of Scotland’s ‘Robin Hood’. From Macready to Liam Neeson, from Barcelona to Broadway. Vintage playbills, cinema lobby cards, illustrations and twentieth century comics explore the constant recreation of the Scottish folk hero.

Pop-up talk by Graham Palmer,
Saturday 15 September 2018, 11am
Royston and District Museum
FREE

In books, films and musicals, Rob Roy has been celebrated for centuries as a ‘highland rogue’ but just how much is true? Discover the layers of fiction that have ensured this eighteenth century’s outlaw’s survival into the 21st century.

Graham Palmer is a freelance researcher and writer.

 

Finding your voice

Finding your voice

It is said that every poet should find their own voice. But perhaps not every poet should use it – or not in public, at least. Reading your work in to an audience is not the same thing as reading it at home. No matter […]

The challenge of writing history

The challenge of writing history

When you treat history creatively, how do you ensure you aren’t faking it? This is one of the things I was asked to discuss for the ‘Doing History in Public’ blog: A Cracked Voice.

Riddles

Riddles

Bilbo Baggins bets his life on a riddle in The Hobbit. Fortunately, for the story he doesn’t lose (or else the dwarves would never have kept their appointment with Smaug!). That riddling competition takes place in a dank deserted cave under the Misty Mountains – all very lonely and sinister – but riddles are mostly rooted in a far more homely place.

In the drinking halls of Anglo-Saxon Britain riddling competitions were as common as pub quizzes today and the word-puzzles were often packed with as many double-meanings and smut as the Sun. It’s a tradition that still continues in Christmas Crackers where the jokes are made up of sound-alike words and make you groan out loud:

Marathon runners with bad footwear suffer the agony of defeat.
A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it is two-tired.
Santa’s helpers are subordinate clauses.
Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft and I’ll show you A-flat minor.

In Anglo-Saxon times very few people could read, so the riddles relied on sound-alike words. The riddles would be learned by heart and performed in public, sometimes with musical accompaniment.

Luckily for Tolkien, around 975 AD some of those riddles were eventually written down. The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon riddles in the world and provides the first recorded use of the term ‘Middle Earth’.

Most of The Exeter Book riddles pretend something that can’t talk is alive. They give inanimate objects a voice, just like Gollum and Bilbo, and ask ‘What am I?’

Riddle 1
Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

Riddle 2
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.

The answer to these two of Tolkien’s puzzles are or course wind and time.

When writing about the Anglo-Saxon origins of Therfield Heath (a puzzle in itself) for Cracked Voices, it seemed right to base the song on a riddle, so I set about writing my own.

Riddle the first
Beaten for the silence I steal –
I am the cup that spills sorrow and joy.
With prayerful mouth and enduring noise,
mine is the fateful summoning voice.
Tethered yet ethereal –
no fruit in the Garden so readily peels.
[Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the answer].

Why don’t you have a go? (Don’t worry…it doesn’t have to rhyme!). Here’ some ideas to help you.

  • Think of your favourite object…the thing you couldn’t live without.
  • Think of its function: What makes it special? Why’s it important? What does it do? What’s it similar to?
  • Think with your five senses: What does the object look like? What does it feel like? Does it smell of anything? Does it taste of anything? Does it make a noise?
  • Think of your friends and family. Who is your object most like? Why? is it because they have the same emotional connection, do something similar or look alike?
  • Set yourself three minutes ONLY to scribble down your random thoughts and phrases without analysing them or changing any of them.
  • Read what you’ve written and then salvage the best one or two lines as the start of your riddle.
  • Leave it a day or two. Then return to the riddle and expand on it by answering more of the questions in (2), (3) and (4).
  • Make the object talk but don’t give its name until you give the answer! Always remember you are asking the question, ‘What am I?’
  • Avoid using like (NOT I’m like a cup). It weakens the riddle. BUT I am the cup…—
    [Answer to Riddle the first: a bell]

For slightly more in depth advice from the Poetry Society on writing riddles click here. There is also a downloadable teachers’ pack that I wrote for Cracked Voices available for free here.

Welcome

As Mark Twain wrote, ‘Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.’ I’m keeping on crossing out.