Riddle Mastery

I have often been called a Riddle Master due to my love of inventing riddles and tormenting people with them though, ironically, I am terrible at solving them myself. Hence the reason I prefer the title Riddle-maker. An important point for, while I accept the Master title now, I was not so arrogant as to call myself one when I began telling riddles; like I said, other people called me that and continue to do so. Fun fact: I have found that children grades 3-6 are the uncontested best at riddle-solving; far better on average than teenagers and up. Any guesses as to why? (I know the answer, so consider this a quasi-riddle.) Anyway, Riddle Mastery is a passion of mine and since I am an educator by training and storyteller by inclination, I figured I should share my knowledge of the discipline.


Introduction:
It is sad really that the art of making and answering riddles has been so diminished since the advent of modern history, or at least since collapse of the time-honored respectability granted to Bards, storytellers, and others who partake in oral traditions.

The riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it." - J.R.R. Tolkien

These days it is only those who works within the realms of Fantasy who wholly and truly appreciate the power and potency of riddles, a far cry from when Kings and Heroes placed great weight upon them. Then again, why not? For in the Fantasy genre lives the misty mystery of the ancient past, and so we glory in the enigmatic and such puzzles as twists minds into first comprehending and then solving Gordian Knots. However, true and masterful usage of riddles is rare even within Fantasy literature. 

Riddles in Fantasy:
On that note, those Fantasy authors who do employ concept of riddles will 99% employ Riddle Games as its main element. J.R.R. Tolkien hosts a famous one between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit, the stake being Bilbo's life and freedom.
In The Grey King, the third book of Susan Cooper's fantasy sequence The Dark is Rising, Will and Bran must win a Riddle Game to gain a...special power necessary for the Light in their war against the Dark.
A sphinx appeared in the third task in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, guarding the final trophy. To get past, one must answer a riddle about a spider.
In Stephen King's The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands and The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass, the ka-tet must riddle against Blaine the Mono in order to save their lives. (Of course, seeing as I have read neither of these books, this is only a secondhand account).

But, in my not entirely humble opinion, no Fantasy author makes better use of riddles than Patricia A. McKillip in her books The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Riddle-Master trilogy.
In the latter, the ancient art of riddlery is taught at the College of Caithnard - the study based on books recovered from the ruins of the School of Wizards. The riddles in the series are composed of three parts - the question, the answer, and the stricture - and are both a way of recording history and a guide to living life. Riddles play a crucial role in the series, the main protagonist, Morgon of Hed, beginning his journey by winning the crown of the kings of Aum in a Riddle Game with the ancient ghost of Peven of Aum; Peven had a standing wager going that no one could win a riddle-game with him, and those who lost against him forfeited their lives. (This is not a real spoiler, as the reader learns all this and more within the first chapter or two)
"Beware the unanswered riddle."

Here is an (easy) riddle I created:
What plays with words and logic, yet never tells a lie = ?

 

Actual History:
As aforesaid, once upon a time the art of Riddle Mastery was taken quite seriously, as evidenced by a certain Greek philosopher whose tomb was just (at the time of writing) uncovered speaking so fondly of a passion of mine.

Ancient Greek Sphinx from Delphi
"Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors; for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor." - Aristotle

Indeed, riddles and Riddle Games are not mere tools, mere elements, of mythology and Fantasy literature alone. Professor Archer Taylor of Pennsylvania, a seminal proverb and riddle scholar and folklorist, says that "we can probably say that riddling is a universal art" and cites riddles from hundreds of different cultures including Finnish, Hungarian, Native American, Chinese, Russian, Dutch and Filipino sources amongst many others. Riddles have been characterized as one of the most important forms of oral art in Africa. 
In the assessment of Elli Köngas Maranda (originally writing about Malaitian riddles, but with an insight that has been taken up more widely), whereas myths serve to encode and establish social norms, "riddles make a point of playing with conceptual boundaries and crossing them for the intellectual pleasure of showing that things are not quite as stable as they seem" though the point of doing so may still ultimately be to "play with boundaries, but ultimately to affirm them." A perfect example of this is the Riddle of the Sphinx, arguably the world's most famous riddle (indeed, I cannot begin to tell you how many times children have given it in an attempt to stump me). 
The Riddle of the Sphinx is: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?
The answer is a human, because a human being walks on all fours in early life, on two legs as an adult and with a walking stick in old age. Of course, arms and canes are hardly legs, but they functionally act like them, thus proving Elli Köngas Maranda's point. Also and on a side note, Sphinxes are famous in world mythology for their riddles – as well as their annoying habit of killing those who fail to answer – making them a sort of mascot for the art of riddlery.


When people ask how I fashion riddles, this is the answer



According to Archer Taylor, "the oldest recorded riddles are Babylonian school texts which show no literary polish," such as the riddle:
My knees hasten, my feet do not rest, a shepherd without pity drives me to pasture = ? 

I, personally, disagree with him as, per my own Riddle Maker mind, I judge the above riddle as perfectly respectable. My only grievance is that the answer was not preserved! AUGH!!

"Eyes see only what is possible. A trained mind can explore the impossible." - Magic: the Gathering

"The worthy shall cultivate a nimble mind to perceive the glorious wonders that await them." - Magic: the Gathering


Types of Riddles:
Experience has led me to the conclusion that there are four basic types of riddles: Logic, Wordplay, Scenario, and Combination.

Logic The most common form of riddle; generally describes something in a new way that, while telling the truth, makes it difficult to guess what the thing is.
Example: A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid = egg

Wordplay Less common but still widely used (and, for me, harder to make), wordplay riddles are generally word puzzles that have the answer somehow concealed within the riddle. In effect, instead of trying to describe the answer itself, it describes how it is spelled. As these tend to vary more in construction, I will provide two examples.
Example: My first is always behind you, my second is a group of wolves = backpack
Example: What has two lips, but no mouth = a tulip flower

Scenario Still common, at least among kids, but of a very different makeup. Typically they are a description of a puzzling situation and the person trying to solve it must figure out how and why it occurred. (This is the one type of riddle I do not deal in; too cumbersome to make and solve, in my opinion).
Example: A man leaves home. He makes three left turns. He returns home and finds two masked men. Who are the masked men? Answer = The umpire and the catcher (i.e. the man is playing baseball)

Combination A riddle that combines the principles of any of the aforementioned types.
Example (Wordplay/Scenario): One (k)night, a king and a queen went to bed in their room. No one came in and no one went out. In the morning the king and the queen were tied up. Who tied them up? Answer = The knight (this riddle for obvious reasons requires being told aloud rather than written)
Example (Logic/Wordplay): I am a fraction and far away = apart (i.e. a fraction is "a part" of something, and to be far away from something or someone is to be apart from them)

? There is, actually, a fifth (and not so basic) kind of riddle; but you will need to visit the College of Caithnard if you want to learn it.
 
Knowledge This is not actually a type of riddle, more of a sub-type, yet it needed to be addressed somewhere and this seems the best place. Regardless of type, all riddles should be solvable using only common knowledge; things children know enough about to recognize and describe. Knowledge riddles are riddles that requires what I like to call special (or uncommon) knowledge. I generally avoid them since posing a riddle the prospective Solver(s) does not know enough to solve is both unfair and, to the Solver(s), annoying. If I have a Knowledge riddle I really want to tell then I will carefully feel my After-school students or campers out via casual conversation to ascertain if they have the necessary learning and, if not, may teach them myself also per casual conversation a few days in advance.
Example: I wither flowers, lift birds’ wings, and make you not want to do certain things = heat (The issue with this one is that not everyone knows that warm air rises, much less that birds take advantage of the fact.)

"A riddle is nothing more than a trap for small minds, baited with the promise of understanding." - Magic: the Gathering


Riddle ranking-system:
Doing anything for years naturally leads ones to take measurements of skill-requirements needed for certain level, so just as chemistry is considered a harder form of science compared to others, I measure my riddles per these ranks:

Easy Simple riddles that have a token of complexity but can be solved fairly quickly by 1st-2nd graders. These are typically Logic riddles, as I never even introduce Wordplay riddles until a person or group has proven themselves with Middle-ranking Logic ones. Typically I use these to introduce 1st-2nd graders to Riddle Mastery since, for them, they will be hard enough to pose a challenge without taking so long to solve that they lose interest.
Example: When alive I am green, when I die I am brown, when I live I stay up, when I die I fall down = leaf 
 
Lower Middle-ranking Those comparatively harder easy riddles that serve as a bridge to more sophisticated ones, employing more complex language that requires a greater degree of creative thinking to solve. In short, simple riddles that can no longer quite be accurately called easy.
Example: I have no voice yet all can hear me, and I am only around when the ceiling is grey = thunder
 
Middle-ranking The most common level of riddle and, for me, the easiest to make. Sophisticated enough in wording, playing with words and logic, to pose a challenge to most for several hours. I typically use these to judge a person's (3rd grade to adult) skill in riddle-solving.
Example: What can’t you keep until you give = a promise / your word

Upper Middle-ranking These riddles are, as their name implies, a step above Middle-rankng, yet not quite matching the more complex wording and sophistication of the Hard rank. I use these as the bridge between them, giving Upper Middle-ranking riddles to those who have proven themselves in Middle-ranking, though sometimes the distinction between the two is blurred.
Example: Only one color, but not one size; stuck at the bottom, yet easily flies; present in sun, but not in rain; doing no harm, and feeling no pain = a shadow

Hard These are typically a couple steps above Middle-ranking, being of more complex wording that requires the riddle-solver to think more creatively and/or outside the box while often having slightly less obvious answers. They are, in short, openly and purposefully hard.
Example: You saw me where I never was and where I could not be. And yet within that very place, my face you often see = a mirror reflection

Riddles in the Dark; one of the Fantasy
genre's most iconic riddle games. I judge all
of Tolkien's riddles to rank from
Upper Middle-ranking to Master.
Master Few and far between are these riddles, both in terms of people able to make as well as solve them; even I have very few. As the name implies, only true master Riddle-solvers can answer these, and often only after hours of thought, for they require one to truly think outside of the box. Hence as a rule I only pose these to experienced Riddle-solvers: people who have successfully answered plenty of Middle-ranking riddles at minimum. The example below is a Master Wordplay one.
Example: When you take away some of me, I remain whole = Wholesome

Grandmaster Answering one of these puts you in the riddle-solver hall of fame. Always Combination riddles (at least all of mine are), these can be counted on the finger of one hand and are hardly ever solved even by those who can answer Master-ranked ones. I have one myself and, though I have given it to hundreds of people over the years, only twenty have ever solved it, and most of them took several days to do so (while some took weeks).
Example: ---- (Sorry but, as a rule, usually, I never give these one unit a person or group has proven themselves at the Hard level at least.)

Championmaster Those insane riddles that are a hair's breath away from being unsolvable. I honestly do not know why I even bother listing this as a rank as, to date, my single riddle of this kind has only been solved three times, first by then-in-middle-school siblings Chloe and Heather, each of whom individually was a Master Riddle-solver and it took them, working together, a full week to solve it; and the first to solve it alone was a 4th grade Master Riddle-maker and Solver named Noam, and it took him weeks. In fact, I only created the Championmaster because my friend Devin, who had solved the Grandmaster, challenged me to make a harder one.
Example: ---- (Sorry, but today I only tell this riddle to those very select few who solve my Grandmaster.)

Ultimatemaster Those beyond insane riddles that are half a hair's breath away from being unsolvable. History repeats itself here, for just as I only created the Championmaster because one who solved the Grandmaster challenged me to make a harder one, I made the Ultimatemaster at the request of Noam who, as stated above, solved the Championmaster. This riddle pulls out all the stops plus a few more that by rights should not have existed in the first place. That said, and to my utter shock, Noam managed to solve it.
Example: ---- (Sorry, but today I only tell this riddle to those barest few who solve my Championmaster or both my Grandmaster and Adeptmaster.)
 
Adeptmaster? Yes, like many devout readers and writers of Fantasy, I have an incurable love for giving titles to things, though this actually had and has pragmatic reasoning behind it. Since for so long my first Grandmaster Riddle was the only riddle above Master-rank I possessed, "the Grandmaster Riddle" became its title in my mind in addition to its rank. So when I started making other riddles above Master I gave them names to distinguish them, which helped both me and my students (continue reading to learn more about methodology for teaching riddle mastery in an educational setting) remember which was which. Bottom line? I give any riddle above Master a name. To date I have a Highmaster, Archmaster, and an Adeptmaster, all Combination Logic/Wordplay riddles the last of which was made by a camper at a summer camp I once taught at.
 
Eldermaster Whoever thinks 4th graders are not clever enough to create fiendishly difficult riddles never met my After-school students since Noam and two others, Jay and Ren, created this monster around the time Noam solved the Ultimatemaster (they started working on it prior, but finished after). A triple Combination riddle, with elements of Logic, Wordplay, and Scenario. What can I say at this point about difficulty? A neuron away from impossible? Regardless, I think it works even if only a confirmed genius has the barest chance of solving it but, alas, I will never know if/when anyone does so since I refused Noam's offer of a copy for my own Riddle Sheet. A Grand, (Adept,) Champion, and Ultimatemaster Riddle is all I need, thank you very much.


Riddle Mastery:

Now one often hears the term riddle master used to describe those who excel in the art of Riddle Games. But I judge the title differently because, while I have often been called a riddle master, I, paradoxically, am atrocious at solving riddles myself. Hence I say that there are two kinds of Riddle Masters: the Riddle-solver and the Riddle-maker, the latter of whom creates riddles. Naturally one can be both, but if not, then it is the riddle-makers' task to train the riddle-solvers' in answering, and the riddle-solvers' task to challenge the riddle-makers' in creating as well as test new riddles. Neither can truly flourish without the other.

I, of course, am a Riddle-maker and have trained all those interested in both the skills of Solving and Making – for to be one allows a unique perspective as to the other and, in my experience, riddle-makers are the rarer of the two kinds of Masters. That said, and also paradoxically, it is easier to learn to become a Riddle-maker than it is a Solver. Why else would I, after over a decade, still be terrible at solving?

As to the question of how one becomes a Riddle Master, the answer is, like with any title, the ability to back it up. To quote J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, "A king is he that can hold his own or else his title is vain," so naturally the same applies for Riddle Masters. For Master Makers this is comparatively easy as one need only produce one’s list of created riddles; no one has ever questioned my claim to the title on seeing my Riddle Sheet with 400+ riddles and their answers. As for Master Solvers, they need merely demonstrate their skill by correctly answering the lion’s share of the riddles posed to them or by solving a Grandmaster level riddle. Mind you that situations vary. What happens when someone who had answered few riddles correctly manages to solve several Hard and even a couple Master-ranked ones? Sounds improbable, yet I have seen it happen. What do I do? It varies. But I do know that I grant for all to hear the Master Solver title on anyone who solves my Grandmaster Riddle, for obvious reasons.

Then, of course, there is the third type of Riddle Master: A Riddle-teller, who is adept at getting others excited about and teaching Riddle Mastery. Anyone, be they Maker or Solver, can do this, though I generally I deem it easier for Makers since then one is less likely to run out of riddles. For the details on how to become a Master Teller and Master Maker respectively, continue reading until you reach the Methodology for teaching Riddle Mastery in an Educational setting and How to become a Riddle-maker links (or scroll down now if you are too impatient to read a few more very short paragraphs).



Riddle-maker Philosophy
It occurs to me that Inquiry Teaching is synonymous with my Riddle-maker Philosophy. To expand young minds, those minds must find the answer themselves and with limited hints.
 
It can either be found by, or given to you, when found you understand it, when given you might not = ?

Designing a curriculum is also akin to making a Riddle; working backwards, first you think of what you want to teach and then how to teach it.
As Patricia A. McKillip, author of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Riddle-Master trilogy says, "When caught between the riddle and its answer there is no freedom," which is exactly why Inquiry Teaching has proven to be such an effective method of teaching children (who, in my experience, are the best riddle-solvers). Furthermore, not only are children typically the best riddle-solvers, they, at least in my experience, more often than not become addicted to them and subsequently develop great respect for the riddle-maker.
 
A riddle is a tale so familiar you no longer recognize it
 
Sadly I have had to separate the remaining content of this page onto separate mini-pages since having it all together on this one page makes, for reasons I do not know, editing this page slows down my computer. See the link below for the rest of what I have to say regarding Riddle Mastery:
 
 
Now I can hear you saying, “this is all very interesting, Ian, but why did you start inventing riddles? You must have had a bunch already created before you worked at day-camps because otherwise you would have been unable to pose them to campers.” Quite right. As an avid fan of the Fantasy genre, I grew up with something of a fascination for riddles, courtesy of the iconic riddle-contest between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum. Hardly unique, true, and yet I soon ran into a problem: everyone knew Tolkien’s riddles. Then there was the Arthur show on PBS Kids, namely the episode "Arthur and the Big Riddle" where Arthur gets a spot on the gameshow Riddle Quest. These riddles were naturally of a simpler, albeit still challenging, nature (meant for sharp children to guess), and yet they only worked on the show because the characters did not know the answers beforehand from prior experience. I repeat, “did not know and could not look up.”
 
Therein lies the crux of the matter: Riddle-telling and solving had become meaningless because all riddles had become public knowledge or could be Googled in a heartbeat. Do you know how many people I told the Riddle of the Sphinx to upon first learning it? Dozens. All my friends. Do you know how many of them already knew it? Dozens. Most of my friends. Where was the fun? Nowhere, so I let my interest rot. Then, when I was around eleven-years old, came one of those ordinary days that ends up shaping so much more. It was a chilly Autumn day and I was sitting on the swing-set in the playground across the street from our apartment, talking to my younger sister and one of her friends who somewhere along the way had become my friend too. Then out the blue they asked me to tell them a riddle. So, looking around, I tried to think up a good one. “When alive I am green, when I die I am brown, when I live I stay up, when I die I fall down,” I said, and they swiftly got the answer: leaf. Yet it was a new riddle. They had never heard it before for I had literally made it up right then. Then they asked me for another riddle, I made up one for fire, and the cycle continued with me looking around for inspiration and racking my brain for ways to make the riddles rhyme if possible. Soon I had created just short of a dozen and, realizing that I would never be able to remember them all, went back inside and typed them all out on a sheet called Sayings and Riddles (for I also included my favorite quotes). Thus a new hobby was born: me looking around the house and nature for objects or concepts they would make good answers, and then devising (hopefully rhyming) riddles to match them.
 

Is this everything I know about riddles? Of course not, but only because any Riddle-maker worth their salt always keeps a secret or two up her/his sleeve; or, in my case, in a hidden pocket. My After-schoolers are likely saying "But Ian said this page would reveal the rest of his secrets! He said it would!" at this point. Well, my friends, let this be my final lesson to ye: keeping a few secrets is part of the fun! That, and the few that remain to me relate purely to Riddle-telling which experience will teach you all more and better than I could henceforth. Rejoice! Finally and again, the reason why I do not post the riddles I make is because the whole reason I make them in the first place is so riddle-solvers cannot look up the answers on the internet. Hence posting them here on Stars Uncounted would be counterproductive.

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