The Riddles of The Hobbit (9 page)

BOOK: The Riddles of The Hobbit
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As Joan Radner has demonstrated, the genre [of riddles] itself is used frequently, in Irish and other world traditions, to underscore the limitations of human knowledge and categorizing techniques. ‘Riddling,’ she writes, ‘reminds people of the unknown, of the limitations of what they regard as sensible and logical, of the inadequacy of their understanding. They are “manipulations of the power of knowledge,” that implicitly render ambiguous or paradoxical that which might otherwise seem to be predictable and secure.’
22

One reason riddles were treated with such judicial respect by the Northmen is that the gods love them. To meet a stranger, particularly a hooded-stranger with one eye and a mysterious manner, might well mean that you have met Odin himself, the father of the gods. And if Odin asked you a riddle, you had better know the answer. Indeed, riddle-contests like this—in which a supernatural creature asks a riddle to be solved by a mortal on pain of death—appear all over world-culture. We can hardly avoid thinking of the Sphinx testing Oedipus (‘what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?’) and of Samson’s riddle in the Bible (‘out of the strong came forth sweetness’). These puzzles encode the human sense that the divine is a mystery with which we must wrestle if we hope to do more than die like a beast.

The Old English poem
Solomon and Saturn
(possibly composed during King Alfred’s reign, in the later ninth-century) includes a riddle contest between the pagan king called Saturn and the Christianised figure of the Biblical Solomon. It is a text in two parts, and although
the second is most relevant to my purpose here—largely consisting, as it does, of an exchange of riddles between the two deuteragonists—the first has its place too. In part 1 Saturn, having searched through Libya, Greece and India hoping to find ‘truth’ has come back disappointed. He asks for Solomon’s help, and is accordingly given a detailed account of the
Pater Noster
, going in detail through the individual letters that make up the prayer. He does this because these letters, represented as richly ornamented runes, individually contain divine power. I will come back to this sense of the power of the individual letter in my next chapter. The longer
Solomon and Saturn II
(327 lines, as compared to part I’s 169) is a straightforward riddle contest.
23
In the words of Dieter Bitterli: ‘the two interlocutors pose and answer several enigmatic questions, including at least two proper riddles whose subjects appear to be “book” and “old age”.’
24
Another perhaps more directly pertinent example is the Icelandic saga of King Heidrek—Old Norse rather than Old English, a favourite of Tolkien’s, and a book later translated into English by Tolkien’s son, Christopher.
25
King Heidrek, a powerful king of men, happens to have a grievance against a fellow called ‘Gestumblindi’. The king sends him word ‘to come and be reconciled, if he cared for his life’; and Gestumblindi, doing so, proposes a riddle-contest.

But this fellow’s name ought to alert us straight away that all is not as it seems: for ‘Gestum Blindi’ means ‘Guest (who is) blind’—
guest
in the old sense of the word, ‘stranger’. The blind stranger, if we know our Norse myth, puts us in mind of Odin: one-eyed, a wanderer, fond of riddles. At any rate, rather than face the judgment of Heidrek’s counsellors, ‘Gestumblindi’ enters into a riddle contest with the king, and asks him:

If only I still had

what I had yesterday!

discover what it was;

it hurts mankind

it hinders speech

yet speech is inspired by it

Ponder this riddle.

The king replies ‘Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar’—‘Good are (these)
gáta
of thine, Gestumblindi; guessed them I have’; or in less
Yoda-like English, ‘your riddle is a good one, Gestumblindi; but I have guessed it!’ This is a line of verse, presumably the stock way of saying that you have solved a riddle, and the king repeats it after almost all the riddles he is asked. (The answer to the ‘if only I still had’ riddle is: ‘ale’)

I travelled from my home

And from my home I went

I saw the road of road;

There was a road underneath

And a road overhead,

And on every sides there were roads.

Ponder this riddle,

O prince Heidrek!

Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar
! ‘You passed over a bridge across a river, and the road of the river was beneath you, but birds flew above your head and flew past on your either side, and that was their road.’

What was the drink

That I drank yesterday?

Neither wine nor water,

Neither mead nor ale,

It wasn’t any kind of food,

Yet I came away thirstless.

Ponder this riddle,

O prince Heidrek!

Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar
! ‘You lay down in shade where dew had collected on the grass, and with this you cooled your lips and satisfied your thirst.’

Who is that shrill one

on hard ways walking,

paths he has passed before;

many are his kisses

for of mouths he has two,

and on gold alone he goes?

Ponder
this riddle,

O prince Heidrek!

Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar
! ‘That is the hammer, which is used in the goldsmith’s art; it screams shrilly when it beats on the hard anvil, and the anvil is its path.’ And so it goes on: twenty-eight riddles in quick succession are asked and answered one after the other. A number of them are similar enough to some of the riddles of the contest between Bilbo and Gollum to excite scholars.

A cask of ale:

no hand shaped it,

no hammer built it,

yet outside the islands

its maker sits straight-up.

Ponder this riddle,

O Prince Heidrek!

‘Your riddle is a good one’, the king replies; ‘but I have guessed it.’ It is, of course, ‘egg’ (‘the egg-shell is not made by hand nor is it formed by hammer; and the swan that produces it carries himself erect, outside the islands’). Another riddle familiar to readers of
The Hobbit
is:

Who is the mighty one

That passes over the ground

Swallowing water and forest?

He fears the wind

But flees no man

And wages war on the sun!

Ponder this riddle,

O Prince Heidrek!

The answer to this riddle is a particular sort of darkness, ‘fog’; and Tom Shippey argues that this riddle is behind the ‘dark’ riddle that Bilbo answers ‘without even scratching his head’ because ‘he had heard that sort of thing before’. We might want to pause and consider whether ‘a cask of ale’ is the same thing as ‘a box without hinges’; or whether ‘fog’ means quite the same thing as ‘darkness’; I discuss these near-analogues, or perhaps deliberate riddling swerves, in the next chapter.
Each riddle is a doddle for Heidrek (
Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar
!) until the last one. Finally Gestumblindi asks this:

What did Odin say

Into Balder’s ear

Before he was carried off to the fire?

Of course Heidrek does not know the answer to this. Nor is it a riddle, or at least a riddle after the manner of the others; for it is not possible to guess or intuit it from the information given. Either one knows the answer or one does not; and in fact only two beings (Balder and Odin himself) can possibly know the answer to this one. In a rage, the king shouts that he has seen through Gestumblindi’s disguise (‘you alone know the answer to that riddle!’), whips out his sword and attempts to stab the god. To escape harm, Odin changes himself into a hawk and flies away, but not before cursing the king: ‘because you have attacked me with a sword, King Heidrek, you yourself shall die at the hands of the basest slaves!’

What is the answer to this last riddle? The honest answer is: we do not know. Perhaps this is its point: that it is unanswerable. Tolkien, in what looks very like an imitation of this contest, concludes his riddle-contest between Bilbo and Gollum, with a similarly unanswerable question. ‘What have I got in my pocket’ is not a riddle in the sense that we cannot work out what the answer is; either we know, or we do not. Gollum does not know, and guesswork does not help him.

And here we come back to the question of the riddle in the court of law. Asking an unanswerable riddle is a way of overmastering the questioned person. One of the things the
Gúbretha Caratniad
is interested in is the respective power rightfully due the law on the one hand and the king on the other. By acting out their riddling exchange, the Judge Caratnia and his king Conn Cétchathach are jockeying for power and status, one with the other. In a much smaller sense, this is also what Bilbo and Gollum are doing. In the words of Robin Chapman Stacey: ‘riddles function, in almost every culture in which they appear, as a means by which one person lays claim to power over another’.
26

Like Bilbo and Gollum’s contest,
The Saga of King Heidrek
ends on a debatable point. As Tom Shippey notes, Tolkien’s mind was particularly drawn to the grey areas of scholarship—that is, his creative imagination was sparked by debatable points. Thus the cup-stealing
episode in
Beowulf
, which inspired the chapter ‘Inside Information’, is based on a scholarly reconstruction of a badly-damaged section of the manuscript. Similarly the name
Eomer
in
The Lord of the Rings
is borrowed, not from
Beowulf
, but from a scholar’s emendation of the word which actually occurs in the
Beowulf
manuscript. While
The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise
and its riddle-contest are well known among Norse scholars, ‘this particular riddle (“alive without breath”) is found in only one of the three main versions of the saga … Furthermore, the page containing this riddle is lost from the original manuscript.’
27
It is the very debatableness of riddles that makes them so imaginatively powerful.

One notion I am setting myself against, here—I may as well be plain—is that any given riddle has one right or correct answer. I take seriously the urge a riddle raises in us to ‘solve’ it, and I do not underestimate the extent to which the going from sifting through possible but unsatisfactory answers to any given riddle to lighting upon an answer that fits, like a key sliding in a lock, is a notable human pleasure. I do not repudiate this pleasure; but neither do I think it a simple thing. The thesis of this study (to repeat myself) is that riddles are, amongst other things, ways of
ironising
the world; and adding an answer to an unsolved riddle does not dissolve away such irony.

I need to tread carefully here, because I am not talking about
ambiguity
, either in the simple or even in the more complicated Empsonian sense of the word. To read through the
Exeter Book
riddles is to be struck that some of the answers seem obvious where for others the answer is hard to decide. Indeed, many people from specialist scholars to enthusiastic amateurs have proposed sometimes contradictory solutions. But I want to suggest that this contradictoriness is not an index of muddle, or confusion, but of something more radically ironic in the nature of the text itself.

I am going to look at one more
Exeter Book
riddle, the brief but lovely Riddle 69, by way of thinking what it means to ‘answer’ an Anglo-Saxon riddle. Here it is:

Wundor wearð on wege: wæter wearð to bane.

On the way, a wonder: water becomes bone.

Scholars
agree that answer to this riddle is:
ice
. Scholars do not always agree on the answer to any given riddle. For example, various Old English riddle experts have looked at Riddle 74 (‘I was once a young woman, / a glorious warrior, a grey-haired queen. / I soared with birds, stepped on the earth, / swam in the sea—dived under the waves, languid amongst fishes. I had a living spirit’) and suggested variously
cuttlefish
,
water
,
siren
and
swan
as the answer. By comparison, and remembering that the answers to these riddles are nowhere written down or officially tabulated, ‘on the way, a miracle: water becomes bone …
ice
’ looks relatively straightforward. It is a nicely satisfying and poetic image, too. But here is another answer to the riddle:

Climbing Cooper’s Hill, and looking back at the curve of the Thames in the bright, cloudy light: the afternoon sun polishing away all grey or blue from the water until it is white, its edges sharpened by the angle of illumination, looking like nothing so much as a mighty rib-bone gleaming, set in the flesh of the land … and I thought to myself
yes, water becomes bone
.
28

The answer
ice
identifies two points of similarity (hardness, colour) with bone; but this vision of the Thames identifies three (colour, shape, setting). Does that make it a ‘better’ answer to the
Exeter Book
riddle? I suppose there are not many people who would say so. But stop a bit. Here is a third possible answer to the riddle:

BOOK: The Riddles of The Hobbit
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