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.
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.
"Beware the unanswered riddle."
|Ancient Greek Sphinx from Delphi|
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!!
Types of Riddles:
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.
? – 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.
Easy – Simple riddles that have a token of complexity but can be solved fairly quickly by 1st graders. These are always (at least for me) Logic riddles.
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
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. Most tend to be Logic riddles.
Example: What can’t you keep until you give = a promise / your word
Hard – Difficult to describe this level as these are typically a short step or two above Middle-ranking, being of more complex wording and often having slightly less obvious answers. Indeed, those only one step (as opposed to two) above Middle-ranking I call Upper Middle-ranking. Both Logic and Wordplay riddles are common. (For clarity, I judge the example below as a pure Hard riddle as opposed to an Upper Middle-Ranking one.)
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.
Example: ---- (Sorry, but I am going to keep these to myself. Torturing people with them is too much fun to spoil by posting the answers here.)
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 fifteen have ever solved it (and most of them took a few days to do so).
Example: ---- (Sorry but, as a rule, usually, it is never given unit a person or group has proven themselves at the Hard level at least, preferably with one or two Master-ranked ones under their belt as well.)
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 once: 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. In fact, I only created the Championmaster riddle because my friend Devin, who had solved the Grandmaster, challenged me to craft a harder one.
Example: ---- (Sorry, but today I only tell this riddle to those very select few who solve my Grandmaster.)
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. One can be both, of course, 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.
I, of course, am a riddle-maker and have trained all those interested in both the skills of answering and creating (see the Personal History section below) – 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 does one become a Riddle Master, able to say it with utter seriousness, the answer is, like with any title, the ability to back it up. For riddle-makers this is comparatively easy as one need only produce one’s list of created riddles; for example, no one has ever questioned my claim to the title once I show them my Riddle Sheet with 300+ riddles and their answers. As for riddle-solvers, they need merely demonstrate their skill by correctly answering the lion’s share of the riddles posed to them and/or by having a riddle-maker grant them the title. I say “and/or” because situations vary. What happens when someone who had answered few riddles correctly manages to solve several Hard and even a couple Master-ranked ones? This 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 title on anyone who solves my Grandmaster Riddle, for obvious reasons.
|Here is a hint, provided by Neil Gaiman: only tell the ferryman the answer from a safe distance.|