A RIDDLE is a general term for any puzzling question. Asking riddles has been from time immemorial a favourite source of social entertainment, and more especially so in the ages before the spread of literary tastes and habits. Every language has probably a word of its own domestic growth for this kind of inquiry, just as 'riddle' is a pure and native English word. But for the varieties of fiddling questions, we do not find that languages have generally provided themselves with any corresponding variety of expiession. The terms enigma, rebus, charade, conundrum, are words of Greek and Latin derivation, and these have become the common property of all literary languages; and there is another term, 'logogriph,' which is used by Ben Jonson, a word made by the French from Greek materials, and signifying word- fishing.
The early riddle exhibits in its composition some of the chief elements of literature. Prominent among these is the anthropo- morphic or personalising tendency of early thought, which makes the riddle appear (in one of its aspects)as akin to the fable. This is well seen in the riddle or apologue of Jotham: 'The trees went to anoint a king over them, and they said unto the Olive tree: Be thou our king ! But the Olive tree answered them: Shall I go and leave my fatness (which God and man honour in me) and go to be puff up above the trees ? Then said the trees unto the Fig tree: Come thou and be king over us ! But the Fig tree said unto them: Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to be puff up above the trees ? Then said the trees unto the Vine: Come thou and be our king! But the Vine said unto them: Shall I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be puft up above the trees ? Then said all the trees unto the Thorn bush: Come thou and be king over us ! And the Thorn bush said unto the trees: If it be true that ye anoint me to be king over you, then come and put your trust under my shadow; and else let fire go out of the Thorn bush and consume the Cedars of Lebanon.'
At the bottom of this is a perception of analogies in nature; the fruitful source not only of fable, but also of such contiguous varieties as allegory, parable, and poetical similitude. If the analogies perceptible in nature, both animate and inanimate, produced fables, and those riddles that savour of the fable; so also did the same analogies which had been unconsciously reflected and stored up in metaphorical speech afford material for making cunning descriptions of things which should be scrupulously true and yet very hard to divine.
The best established form of riddle is probably the oldest; it is that which we still regard as the most legitimate and the most dignified kind, namely, the enigma. An enigma has been defined as a description which is perfectly true, but couched in metaphorical and recondite language which makes it hard to divine the subject. The following is a true enigma, though a homely example: 'Long legs, crooked thighs, little head, and no eyes.'
For a good enigma we must have a perfectly true description of a thing: every term used must be as scrupulously appropriate as in a logical definition; but it must be so ingeniously phrased and worded that the sense is not obvious, and the interpreter is baffled. There is vast room for the development of skill in this art, to make an enigma such that it shall be not merely obscure, but at the same time stimulating to the curiosity. A further step is to give it the charm of poetic beauty. This is quite germane to the nature of the enigma, which has a natural affinity with the epigrammatic form of poetry.
Samson's riddle was an enigma; so was that of the Sphinx. The two chief elements in the pristine enigma were metaphor and an appearance of incongruity, sometimes amounting to contradiction. The famous riddle of the Sphinx, which was solved by OEdipus, is entirely rooted in metaphor. 'What is that animal which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon goes on two, and in the evening goes on three feet ?' Answer: Man. Here morning, noon, and evening are metaphors of infancy, manhood, and age; also, there is a metaphorical use of the word 'feet,' which is applied in one place to hands used for support, and in another place to a staff used as if it were a third foot. The puzzle in Samson's riddle is the result of incongruity joined with abstract terms:
In the following ancient Greek riddle there is something of both, but it rests chiefly on metaphor. 'A father had twelve children, and each child had thirty sons and daughters, the sons being white and the daughters black, and one of these died every day, and yet became immortal.'
Planudes, a Greek monk at Constantinople in the fourteenth century, tells wonderful tales in his 'Life of AEsop' about the war of riddles that passed between Lycerus, king of Babylon, and Nectanebo, king of Egypt. The king of Babylon was always winner, because he had AEsop at his court, who was more than a match for the wit of the adversary.
Once, Nectanebo thought he was sure to puzzle the Babylonian, and his question was as follows: 'There is a grand temple which rests upon a single column, which column is encircled by twelve cities; every city has against its walls thirty flying buttresses, and each buttress has two women, one white and one black, that go round about it in turns. Say what that temple is called.' AEsop was equal to the occasion, and he explained it thus: The temple is the world, the column is the year, the twelve cities are the months, the thirty buttresses are the days, the two women are light and darkness.
An enigma of a homely nature, and which is probably of high antiquity, to judge not only by what tradition tells about it, but also by the fact that it is still found in some of the detached and less central parts of Europe, is this: 'What we caught we threw away, what we could not catch we kept.' There is an apocryphal legend that Homer died of vexation because he could not solve this riddle.
Here is a modern setting of the same idea. 'He loves her; she has a repugnance to him, and yet she tries to catch him; and if she succeeds, she will be the death of him.'
There have been epochs at which riddle-making has been more especially in vogue, and such epochs would appear to occur at seasons of fresh intellectual awakening. Such an epoch there was at the first glimmering of new intellectual light in the second half of the seventh century. This was the age of Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne, the first in the roll of Anglo-Latin poets. He left a considerable number of enigmas in Latin hexameters, and they have been repeatedly printed. Aldhelm died in 709. Before his time there was a collection of Latin riddles that bore the name of Symphosius. Of this work the date is unknown; we only know that Aidhelm used it, and we may infer that it was then a recent product, The riddles of Symphosius were uniform in shape, consisting each of three hexameter lines. The subject of the sixteenth in that collection is the book-moth :--
Translation: I have fed upon literature, yet know not a letter; I have lived among books, and I am none the more studious for it; I have devoured the Muses. yet up to the present time I have made no progress.
Here is one of Aldhelm's upon the Alphabet :--
Translation: We are seventeen sisters voiceless born; six others, half-sisters, we exclude from our set; children of iron, by iron we die, but children too of the bird's wing that flies so high; three brethren our sires, be our mother as may; if anyone is very eager to hear, we tell him, and quickly give answer without any sound.
That is to say, seventeen consonants and six vowels; made with lion stile and erased with the same, or else made with a bird's quill; whatever the instrument, three fingers are the agents; and we can convey answer without delay even in situations where it would be inconvenient to speak.
A younger contemporary of Aldhelm's was Tatwine, who was educated at St. Augustine's in Canterbury, and who for the last three years of his life (731-734) was Archbishop of Canterbury. He also left riddles in Latin, but they still remain in manuscript among the curiosities and treasures of the Cotton Library, except a few that have been selected for print as specimens. Dean Hook gave three in his 'Archbishops of Canterbury,' and of these three we will select one :--
of which the translation, nearly verbal, is as follows :-
The answer is, in Latin, 'Recitabulum'; in English, ' An eagle- lectern.'
The fiddling propensities of the seventh and eighth centuries propagated themselves throughout the remainder of the Anglo- Saxon period, and we have a collection of rather more than eighty riddles in English of the period before the Norman Conquest. These are mostly of the enigma type, and nearly all of them are in a poetical form.
The seventeenth century was a great era of riddle-making in France, and there are some considerable publications in French during that century, especially by Abbe Cotin, who is distinguished from the general company of riddle-makers by the fact that he owned the authorship of his enigmas, and, unless he has been maligned, did not spurn the credit of some that were not his. Generally the riddles of this period are without any author's name. The taste spread to England, and Jonathan Swift made some enigmas. Here are two of them :--
Answer: The Moon.
I'm up and down and round about,
Yet all the world can't find me out;
Though hundreds have employed their leisure,
They never yet could find my measure.
I'm found in almost every garden,
Nay, in the compass of a farden.
There's neither chariot, coach, nor mill
Can move one inch except I will.
Answer: A Circle.
The same may be said of the following, which is by the poet Cowper, and which calls for no unriddllng :--
But now ye tell another tale:
That life is brief, and beauty frail,
That joy is dead, and fondness blighted,
And hearts that doted disunited.
Away ! Ye grieve and ye rejoice
In one unfelt, unfeeling voice;
And ye, like every friend below,
Are hollow in your joy and woe:
' He [John Moreton] had a fair library rebused with More in text and a Tun under it.'
When the Scythians were invaded by Cyrus, they sent him a messenger bearing arrows and a rat and a frog, which was a way of saying by lesson-objects that unless he could hide in a hole of the earth like a rat, or in water like a frog, he would not escape their arrows.
In its secondary sense the rebus is a sort o[ riddle in which the subject, or rather its name, is indicated by reference to objects either of experience or of history. Here follows a rebus by Vanessa (Miss Vanomrigh) on the name 'Jonathan Swift,' in which indications are given to guide the inquirer to the first syllable of Jo-seph, and then to the name of the prophet Nathan, and thirdly to the adjective 'swift' :-
There is a weekly contemporary which not only furnishes its readers with a periodical supply of charades, but also offers them subsfantial prizes for the solution. The following is a specimen of its craft in riddllng, and for the solution we must refer our readers to the oracle itself, namely, 'The Magazine of Short Stories,' No. 130.
The most eminent example of this species (or sub-species)is the beautiful riddle on the letter H, which was long attributed to Lord Byron, but is now known to have been written by Miss Catherine Fanshawe :--
A prevalent form of the conundrum is that which demands a resemblance or dissimilarity between two things that are incapable of comparison; the answer must therefore be based upon a play of words. But the conundrum is very miscellaneous.
This comprehensive term covers a variety of absurd questions and answers. There is a funny old book, printed in 1511, by Wynkyn de Worde, with the title, 'Demands Joyous,' that is to say, Merry Questions. Many of them are not calculated to be found out. Thus:
As the riddle usually turns upon metaphorical expression, and every kind of rhetorical figure, we naturally come to it with minds prepared to thread the labyrinth of verbal intricacies and subtle analogies. And out of this rises a new opportunity for the cunning questioner.
A secondary type of riddle is generated by taking advantage of the general impression, that the terms of the question will be ingenious and recondite and far-fetched. If every term of the question is plain, literal, and used in the properest sense, the guesser will be thrown off the scent, and will be hunting far afield while the game crouches at his door. Of this artless kind of artifice there are examples both enigmatic and charadish; here is one of the enigma type, which has before now mystified a whole circle of attentive riddle-lovers :-
The next is of the charade type, and it has a pecullar interest for me, because a friend of mine, with whom I discoursed of riddles, propounded it to me, with a little bit of his own personal experience which took my fancy. This riddle (he said) was long ago proposed to him by a friend who could say the riddle but did not know the answer, and perhaps this condition made it take the deeper root in my friend's unsatisfied mind; and some years after- wards he recalled it to mind, and at the same time the answer flashed across him. The riddle is as follows :-
Among the literal sort are these: