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?’
Voiceless it cries,
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]