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.
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:
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:
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.
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…
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.
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!
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
Published September, 2017