1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Riddles
RIDDLES (A.S. raedan, to interpret), probably the oldest extant form of humour. They spring from man's earliest perception that there are such things as analogies in nature. Man observes an example of analogy, puts his observations in the form of a question, and there is the riddle ready made. Some Boeotian humorist, for example, detected the analogy between the life of humanity—the child on all fours, the man erect, on two legs, old age with its staff-on one side, and on the other the conception of an animal with a varying number of limbs. Put this in a question and it is the riddle of the Sphinx; Another instance is the question, “What we caught we threw away, what we could not catch we kept.” Homer is said to have died of vexation at not being able to discover the answer to this riddle, still current on the coast of Brittany, in Germany and in Gascony. After inventing the riddle, men began to use it in a kind of game; bets were staked on the answer and sides were made, each side backing its champion. These sports in, Marriner's time were common in Tonga; they are no less popular among the African Woloffs. Samson's riddle set to the Philistines is an instance of the sport in a Semitic country, In märchen and ballads, the hero's chance of winning his beloved, or of escaping threatened punishment, is often made to turn on his power of answering riddles. It follows from the artless and primitive character of the riddle that regular popular riddles (Devinettes) are widely distributed, like popular tales, popular songs and popular customs. The Woloffs ask, “What flies for ever and rests never?” Answer, The wind. The Basutos put this riddle, “What is wingless and legless, yet flies fast and cannot be imprisoned?” Answer, The voice. The German riddle runs, “What can go in face of the sun yet leave no shadow?” Answer, The wind. In riddles may perhaps be noticed the animistic or personalizing tendency of early human thought, just beginning to be conscious of itself. The person who asked these riddles had the old sense of wind, for example, as a person, yet probably, unlike the bushmen, he would never expect to see the personal wind. He knew the distinction between the personal and impersonal well enough to be sure that his enigma would present some difficulty. The riddle, to be brief, is an interrogatory form of the fable, and like the fable originates among rude people, and is perpetuated in the folklore of peasantry.
Probably the best book on the riddle (a subject less frequently studied than the märchen or the myth) is Eugène Rolland, Devinettes ou énigmes populaires, with a preface by M. Gaston Paris. The power of answering riddles among the people who invented the legend of Solomon and the queen of Sheba seems to have been regarded as a proof of great sagacity. The riddle proper is all but extinct outside folklore and savage life, and has been replaced by the conundrum, which is a pun in the interrogative form.
Old English Rhymes.—A number of interesting poetical riddles in old English are contained in the Exeter Book, written about A.D. 1000. According to the numbering in the only complete edition (in Grein-Wülker, Bibliothek der Angelsächsisches Poesie, vol. iii. pp. 184–238), there would appear to be 95 of them; but No. 1 is the monodramatic lyric Wulf and Eadwacer, which was included among the riddles by a mistake of the first editor of the Exeter Book, B. Thorpe; No. 90 is not in Old English, but in Latin; and several others are mere unintelligible fragments. There remain about 85 that have been preserved either entire or with sufficient approach to completeness for their general drift to be perceived.
The riddles Nos. 2–60 occupy 15 folios in the middle of the MS.; Nos. 62–95 occupy the last 7 folios, and No. 61 and a mutilated and divergent copy of No. 31 are placed by themselves among poems of a different kind. Attempts have been made to show that the two main groups are distinguished from each other by special characteristics that may indicate difference of authorship or date; but there seems to be no good reason for attaching any significance to the arrangement of the MS. Some of the riddles almost certainly were written in Northumbria in the early part of the 8th century; a copy of one of them (No. 36), in Anglian dialect, has been preserved in a MS. at Leiden. Whether all the riddles are the work of one author, or whether they belong to different periods and districts, remains at present uncertain. For the reasons stated in the article Cynewulf the attribution of the whole collection to that poet, once almost universally accepted, is now no longer tenable; and there is no overwhelming probability that he is the author of any portion of it.
The investigations of F. Dietrich and A. Ebert have, established the fact that a few of the riddles are imitated from the Latin enigmas of Symphosius and Aldhelm. No. 36 is a translation of Aldhelm’s riddle De Lorica, and No. 41 is founded on the same wr1ter’s riddle De Creatura. The dependence of the Old English riddles on Latin originals has, however, been greatly exaggerated, especially by A. Prehn (Komposition und Quellen der Rätsel des Exeterbuches, 1885), who goes so far as to maintain that every one of them contains reminiscences of one or more of the compositions of Symphosius, Aldhelm, Tatwine and Eusebius. The correspondences alleged are in most cases slight, if not purely fanciful, and it is even doubtful whether the two writers last named were known at all to the authors of the vernacular riddles. All the Englishmen who wrote riddles in the 8th and following centuries, whether they wrote in their native tongue or in Latin, may be said to belong to one school, and their work has many features in common. But except in a few instances the riddles written in Old English are probably not less but more original than those written in Latin. In poetical merit they are generally superior. A good notion of their character and style may be gained from Mr Stopford Brooke’s spirited (though not minutely accurate) translations of many of them in his History of Early English Literature, vol. i. (1892). Mr Brooke’s interpretation of (No. 11 (the Barnacle Goose) is original, and no doubt correct; in some other instances the solutions he has adopted are somewhat more questionable than they would appear to be from his translations.
Unlike the Latin riddles of Aldhelm, the riddles of the Exeter Book are unaccompanied with solutions. In some of them, however, the answer is indicated by an anagram, usually expressed in runic characters., Thus No. 24 begins with the words “Agof is my name reversed,” where the West Saxon scribe, in accordance with the phonetic laws of his own dialect, has substituted F for the final B of his Anglian original; the word is an anagram of boga, “bow.” In No. 25 the mimic skill of the magpie is described, and at the conclusion the name of the bird (higora) is indicated by the six letters G, A, R, O, H, I.
The solution of nearly all the riddles was attempted by F. Dietrich, in the 11th and 12th volumes of Haupt’s Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum. In many cases Dietrich was certainly right, but in many others his conjectures are strangely perverse owing to misleading comparisons with supposed Latin originals. Subsequent scholars have been much more successful in refuting Dietrich’s explanations than in replacing them by others more satisfactory. The most copious contributor of new interpretations has been Prof. M. Trautmann, in several articles in Anglia, and also in Bonner, Beiträge our Anglistik, No. 19 (1905); but very few of his interpretations can be considered even plausible, and he sometimes rejects the solutions of his predecessors when they are probably right. One riddle (No. 51, Fire) was independently solved by Prof. Trautmann and G. Herzfeld (Die Rätsel des Exeterbuches und ihr Verfasser, 1890). The articles on the subject by F. Tupper, Jr., in Modern Philology, vol. ii. (1903), and in Modern Language Notes for 1903 and 1906, are extremely valuable, though the author’s original explanations do not appear convincing. After all that has been done, the meaning of a considerable number of the riddles is still uncertain. In some instances this may be due to the corrupt state of the text; in others the terms in which the object is described are so vague that several solutions are equally plausible. (H. Br.)
- ↑ For the linguistic arguments against Cynewulf’s authorship of the Riddles see especially A. Madert, Die Sprache der altenenglischen Rätsel des Exeterbuches und die Cynewulffrage (1900).