Definition of Riddle
Riddle is a question, a puzzle, a phrase or a statement devised to get unexpected or clever answers. It is a folklore genre as well as rhetorical device, having often veiled or double meanings. When someone uses it as a puzzle or a question, it could be a thought provoking challenge for the audience to figure it out themselves, or it could be a funny comment intended to make the audience laugh. Some riddles show the wit of protagonists in a narrative, allowing them to escape a terrible situation by using their wit rather than their strength. Often times, puzzling riddles tell us that we cannot answer some questions, leading to hours of perturbed head scratching. However, it opens our minds to a number of possibilities.
Common & Popular Examples of Riddle
- It is so fragile that if you say its name you break it, what is it? It is silence.
- I have a head, I have a tail, but I do not have a body. I am neither a lizard nor a snake. Then, guess what am I? It is a coin.
- It can run and does not walk, has a mouth and does not talk, has a head and does not weep, has a bed and does not sleep? It is a river.
- Something that falls, and never breaks and something breaks but never falls? The day breaks and the night falls.
- My father is white but I am black, I am a bird without wings, fly to the clouds. I give tears of mourning in those who encounter me, however, there is no reason for mourning because once I am born I am dissolved into air. Now can you guess who am I? It is smoke.
Types of Riddle
There are two main types of riddle:
- Enigmas – Enigmas are problems expressed in an allegorical or metaphorical language, requiring careful thinking and ingenuity for solving them.
- Conundrums – Conundrums are questions that rely on punning for creating effects in a question.
Riddle Examples from Literature
From Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
One of the most popular riddles in literature is the riddle of Sphinx, who asks questions from Oedipus.
Riddle: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?”
Answer: Oedipus solves this riddle by giving right answer that it is man, who can crawl on his four legs as an infant, and as an adult, he walks on his two legs, while he walks with a stick when he becomes old.
From J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Bilbo and Gollum play a riddling game, as Bilbo’s life would be in danger if cannot solve the riddle. Luckily, he answers the riddle posed by Gollum. Thus, Bilbo earns an award as to get a safe passage out of the tunnel.
Riddle: “This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.”
From William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
The father of Portia plans a riddle for the men who wish to marry his daughter and whoever would solve it, would marry her. For doing this, he places three caskets of gold, silver and leaden and asks them to pick the one of their choice.
Riddle: The golden casket inscribes, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The words engrave on silver: “who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” The leaden: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
Answer: The golden casket encloses a skull with a warning note that appearances are usually deceiving, human wishes could be dangerous, the silver casket symbolizes chasing intangible goals, and holds a portrait of an idiot. However, the leaden casket symbolizes modesty and inner beauty, with a portrait of Portia contains a note, “You that choose not by the view, chance as fair and choose as true.”
From Jane Austen’s Emma
Emma displays her wit while correctly answering Mr. Elton’s riddle.
Riddle: “My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!”
From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
During his competition in Tri-Wizard Tournament, it was must for Harry to answer a riddle posed by a Sphinx:
Riddle: “First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies,
Next tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?…
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?”
Answer: A spider.
Function of Riddle
In written literature, riddles deceive the audience with its meanings. As far as its purpose is concerned, it explores questions with enough thoroughness in order to provide readers a clear view of major issues. Riddles could be generally conversational starters or brain busters to get readers think, while in oral literature, riddles serve as the competition of wits and skills and guessing games. However, if the audience knows the answer they take pleasure in hearing them repeatedly. Gaming riddles reveal the playful side of language in a manageable form. Besides, it is usually possible to draw appropriate metaphors from good riddles.