Riddle Me This Poetry Challenge

Thursday 21 September 2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit. To celebrate, we’re challenging you to write and send in your own fiendish riddles.

Mountain in New Zealand

Riddles are poems which describe something (or someone) without naming it. The intrigue of a riddle is trying to guess the object, person, or idea being deceptively described.

In Tolkien’s book, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins encounters Gollum, a strange creature who lives on an island in the centre of a lake. Gollum wagers the fate of his precious ring on a riddle contest: if Bilbo can guess all of Gollum’s riddles, and ask a riddle too difficult for Gollum, Bilbo can keep the ring.

Riddles were some of the earliest types of poetry in the English language. Unlike a lot of poetry, the riddle is a really participatory form: because the reader has to guess the object, the riddle is almost like a question which needs an answer.

This universal art can take lots of forms, and use lots of different techniques. We’re going to look at three ways of writing riddles, starting with…

Metaphor and paradox

Like all poems, riddles make good use of metaphor. They say that their object is, has, or does something which isn’t strictly speaking true. Let’s delve into some examples from the famous chapter ‘Riddles in the Dark’ in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Try to guess the answers – we’ve included them at the end of this feature. This is Bilbo’s first riddle: 

Thirty white horses on a red hill. First they champ, Then they stamp, Then they stand still.

Can you work it out? Bilbo’s object isn’t really ‘white horses’, and there isn’t a literal ‘red hill’ – but these metaphors help you to visualise what he’s describing. Once you’ve guessed the answer, the poem offers a drastic new way of seeing this object. In this way, riddles are a way of making an everyday object seem new and interesting again. Gollum answers correctly and poses his next riddle:

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

At first this all seems very contradictory. Nobody can cry without a voice – right? Gollum’s riddle is a great example of paradox: a statement that seems impossible but, when investigated, proves to be true.

These paradoxes work because of metaphor. The object can ‘cry’ without a voice because it’s not literally shouting; instead, it’s making some kind of noise without using voice, which makes a lot more sense. Why not try creating some interesting metaphors and paradoxes to make your riddles really tough?

The kenning list

A riddle can also be a list of poetic images, like Jon Stone’s poem ‘Blue Poison Dart Frog’, which describes the electric-blue frog.

Blue Poison Dart Frog

Stone’s poem isn’t exactly a riddle: he tells us the answer in the title. But throughout the poem he lists different ways of seeing the blue poison dart frog. This is related to another Anglo-Saxon and Viking poetic tradition – the kenning. You can read more about kennings in this fascinating YPN challenge by Debbie Potts, which might help inspire your poetic response to this riddle challenge.

In short, ‘kennings are a means of referring to people or objects without naming them directly’ – they’re mini-riddles, encased in just a handful of words. ‘Bed of ships’ and ‘whale-house’, for example, are kennings for ‘the sea’.

Jon Stone’s poem isn’t exactly a kenning, but you can definitely see influences of this poetic tradition on his piece. Here’s how it starts:

Little gas flame sparking in the mulch
Cog-tooth of a Scandinavian iris
Micro-totem to a god of shyness
Petrol bubble birthed from earthy belch …
Driblet-beast from thirty fathoms down
Half-exploded teardrop of a clown…

from ‘Blue Poison Dart Frog’ by Jon Stone 

‘Driblet-beast’ is a traditional kenning, while ‘little gas flame’ is an adapted, but inventive and visual way of describing the frog without naming it. You can really visualise a ‘little gas flame’ flickering in the brown ‘mulch’ of the forest. And what a great image ‘Half-exploded teardrop of a clown’ is! As you can see, you can be very inventive with your descriptions – the stranger and more imaginative, the better.

What am I?

Perhaps the most traditional riddles are those which use the first person, and say ‘I am’, ‘I have’, or ‘I do’. Our example for this type comes from a famous tenth-century book containing a vast hoard of Anglo-Saxon poems, including a sequence of riddles. ‘Riddle 35’, as it’s known, can be found in both its original Old English and a Modern English translation by Paull Franklin Baum here. Here’s a snippet:

Bound with rings     I must readily obey
from time to time     my servant and master
and break my rest,     make noisily known
that he gave me a band     to put on my neck.
Often a man or a woman     has come to greet me,
when weary with sleep,     wintry-cold, I answer him…

from ‘Riddle 35’, translated by Paull Franklin Baum

Using the first person gives the riddle a different effect. By personifying the object, the poet makes us look again at objects and how we treat them. I’ve certainly never thought of this object as having to ‘readily obey’ its ‘servant and master’ – but now I have, the object has a new wonderful inner life! This form also actively asks the reader for an answer, expecting the response ‘you are…’. By using this ‘I am’ form, you can create a lively conversation between the writer and the reader of your poem.

Church

The challenge

We’d like you to write us some riddles. If you like, you can use one of the structures we have talked about here, or go your own way completely. It can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. It can be long or short. You could write one really imaginative riddle, or a series of riddles, like Bilbo and Gollum’s. We welcome all types of riddles, as long as the answer is difficult to guess.

If you’re feeling adventurous, we’d really love to read riddles about unexpected items. The examples on this page mostly describe quite traditional riddle objects. We’d love to read an up-to-date riddle from the twenty-first century. Maybe you could describe an underground metro system, a kettle, or a particular spacecraft. Think about how you could describe something totally everyday – such as a mobile phone – in a completely new, strange way, which is difficult, but not impossible, for your reader to guess. Tip: make it specific. Not just any phone, but a particular model; not just any teddy, but a Paddington Bear which has been taken back to Peru…

Above all, we want poems that really make us think – so don’t afraid to be tricksy and weird!

Prizes

Winning poets will have their poems published on the Young Poets Network and receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, as well as other assorted poetry goodies.

How to enter

This challenged is now closed – thank you to everyone who entered! You can read the winning poems at the top left-hand side of this page.

Answers to the riddles (no cheating!)

‘Thirty white horses…’: teeth
‘Voiceless it cries…’: the wind
‘Riddle 35’: a bell

11 thoughts on “Riddle Me This Poetry Challenge

  1. Do we get confirmation when our poems are sent in? I was wondering as I’ve entered a few competitions recently and not had confirmation of my entries. Just checking that this is the done thing, and my poetry isn’t going astray!
    Looking forward to entering this. 🙂

    1. Hi Matilda,

      We only send confirmation of receipt if you write ‘confirm receipt’ in the title of your email. Which challenges did you enter? I’ll just double check that we received them. We do send out an email to everyone who submits, whether they win or not, so if you haven’t received this, something may have gone awry…

      All best,

      Helen at YPN

    1. Hi Kate,

      Thanks for your comment. No – please submit as many poems as you’d like to! We’d love to read them all.

      Best of luck,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  2. This is an excellent competition. However, in your description of The Hobbit you write: ‘Gollum wagers the fate of his precious ring on a riddle contest: if Bilbo can guess all of Gollum’s riddles, and ask a riddle too difficult for Gollum, Bilbo can keep the ring.’ This doesn’t take into account JRRT’s final version of the meeting: Bilbo Baggins stumbled upon Gollum’s lair, having found Gollum’s ring in the network of goblin tunnels leading down to the lake. At his wits’ end in the dark, Bilbo agreed to a riddle game with Gollum on the chance of being shown the way out of the mountains. In the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum was characterized as being less bound to the Ring than in later versions; he offered to give the Ring to Bilbo if he lost the riddle game, and he showed Bilbo the way out of the mountains after losing. To fit the concept of the ruling Ring that emerged during the writing of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien revised later editions of The Hobbit: the version of the story given in the first edition became the lie that Bilbo made up to justify his possession of the Ring to the Dwarves and Gandalf. In the new version Gollum pretended that he would show Bilbo the way out if he lost the riddle-game, but he actually planned to use the Ring to kill and eat the hobbit. [Thank you, Wikipedia]

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment! You raise a good point. I didn’t want to go too much into the plot details for fear of unleashing spoilers on unsuspecting Young Poets Networkers who hadn’t yet read The Hobbit. I hope you understand!

      All best,

      Helen

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s a writing book notebook! Look forward to reading your entry,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Niamh,

      Thanks for your comment, and for your entry! There isn’t a fixed date, but it will definitely be before Christmas. Sorry I can’t be more specific right now but I hope that’s a teeny bit helpful.

      Best of luck,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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