Even Bilbo Baggins would have a hard time tackling this week's riddles.
The third installment in The Hobbit trilogy debuts this week. We're celebrating with brainteasers inspired by the riddles exchanged between Gollum and Bilbo in the fifth chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. You'll find them below, under the sub-heading "Sunday Puzzle(s) #11: Riddles From a Recluse." What follows here is an explanation of where these riddles originated, and a brief introduction by Tolkien scholar Adam Roberts, author of The Riddles of The Hobbit.
Some weeks ago, io9 reader and puzzle enthusiast Wallace Pustinjak sent me a copy of Riddles From a Recluse, collection of fifty riddles of Pustinjak's own creation. The book's contents immediately called to mind the wit, wordplay, and poeticism of The Hobbit's "riddles in the dark," which appear in the the eponymous fifth chapter of Tolkien's tale. When I asked Pustinjak if this similarity was intentional, he informed me that he had, in fact, found inspiration in The Hobbit's riddles. I knew at once that I had to include a selection of his puzzles in our series. The release of Peter Jackson's Battle of the Five Armies seemed to me an ideal opportunity to do just that.
I've selected seven of Pustinjak's riddles. They appear below, and I hope you enjoy them. However, I did not want these puzzles to appear without some additional context on Tolkien's use of riddles in his work. For that, I turned to Adam Roberts. An English professor and author of several science fiction novels, Roberts also wrote a book examining Tolkien's use of riddles in The Hobbit, titled, rather appropriately, The Riddles of The Hobbit. Roberts was gracious enough to supply us with a brief introduction, which precedes Pustinjack's riddles, below.
"Riddles and The Hobbit," By Adam Roberts
Though it may look like a relatively small-scale, straightforward YA adventure narrative, The Hobbit has always struck me as a rather more complex and riddling text than that. It is, for instance, rather more riddling, indeed, than the more linear Lord of the Rings. Riddles interpenetrate the earlier novel in a way not really true of the later. It’s not just the celebrated ‘riddle game’ between Bilbo and Gollum (although it’s no coincidence, I think, that that scene was the highlight of the rather overlong first movie in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). Riddles are everywhere in the book, from Gandalf treating Bilbo’s ‘good morning’ as a riddle (‘what do you mean?’) to the Trolls asking ‘what’s a burrahobbit’. The larger form of the novel expresses a riddling, or ironic, juxtaposition of ‘pagan’ Northern European mythology and ‘respectable’ eighteenth-century bourgeois Christianity. This, strangely, is much less a feature of The Lord of the Rings, where the Christian symbolism is much more straightforwardly worked into the fabric of the nobel. Frodo travels through the sort of imagined secondary world familiar from a thousand Fantasy novels written in the genre that Tolkien effectively invented. Bilbo, though, walks through a rather stranger place, figured somewhere between Tolkien’s restless worldbuilding (the invented ‘history’ of Middle Earth) and a more archaic world out of Grimm’s fairy tales or folk stories.
Kids love riddles; but then, most adults do too. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in part because he was himself deeply immersed in Anglo-Saxon culture—and the Anglo Saxons loved riddles. Many of our earliest examples of the form date from then, and collections like The Exeter Book continue to entertain and delight today. I think that the Old English love of riddles captures something of the way they approached life: life is a puzzle, but one to be encountered with joy and wit rather than despair. A lot of art is mimetic, but the relationship between riddles and reality is ironic, playful, tricky. Something similar can be said of the two modes of art, ‘realism’ (mimetic) and Fantasy (ironic).
The Anglo-Saxon world from which Tolkien took so much inspiration saw the universe as a riddle, and prized an ironic stance with respect to it. Not that courage and loyalty and strength were unimportant (of course, they were vitally important), but that a warrior hold his strength lightly, that he face death with a smile, that he fight more fiercely in the teeth of certain defeat. I am not talking about flippancy, or a more clumsy disrespectful. I am talking about accepting that there is a mismatch between our human abilities to understand and the brute fact of the cosmos. All we have to decide, to quote somebody, is what to do with the time that has been given us. Riddles teach us what Keats, in a different context, called negative capability. That's more important now, in some ways, than it has ever been.
This is one reason why The Hobbit is so fascinated by riddles. There are others, I think. Working on ‘riddles’ in Tolkien’s fable has helped me see something clearer about the way the book is structured. It is, of course, a story of good versus evil, like a Grimm's tale or a parable; but it understands something of the appeal of wickedness as well as its delinquency. The two most memorable characters in the book (after Bilbo maybe; or perhaps to a greater extent even than him) are Gollum and Smaug. The tale really comes alive when those two are on the page. What differentiates them from the other threats the travellers face, like the goblins, wolves or spiders, is that they are riddling, they have an extra layer of complexity to them. They both invite us not only to dismiss them as bad, but to understand them as conflicted, or glamorous, or other. In other words, the moral universe for Tolkien includes both the patently good and the patently bad, but also a riddling middle ground.
Sunday Puzzle(s) #11: Riddles From A Recluse
Unlike other rulers I am strengthened by neglect.
Over my jurisdiction, great taxes I elect.
When routine dues are paid, I am weakened severely.
Yet if too long delayed, it may cost you quite dearly.
My vault is of the flesh, my tellers silver and bone.
The upkeep of the kingdom is financed with a loan.
A pallid visage in plain sight revealed by its foe.
It does not fast, it does not feast, and yet does shrink and grow.
Much grander and yet more minute than those it stands beside.
Unendingly stalking around, a circuitous stride.
I'm left behind yet never taken, set down in a row.
Seldom seen in isolation, captured by the snow.
Set apart by haste, though immobile all the same.
When left un-defaced, a betrayal of the game.
Born of the cold and born of the heat.
Pacing the world on legs oh so fleet.
Swiftest up high, lethargic down low.
The actions are seen, the form does not show.
With twelve eggs on order, the cook sat and thought.
"One at a time if I like it or not."
With three in the freezer and three in the pot,
Three in each hand neither too cold nor hot.
The first two were airy, or so he remembers,
The last two both burnt up and ended in embers.
A bound serpent dances on the cave floor.
Writhing guardsman of the windy door.
Sharp yet supple and mute yet speaking.
Devoid of hunger, nourishment seeking.
Ceaseless blur or rigid banner varying by host.
On the smallest scale less substantial than a ghost.
Commonplace yet pivotal to rise above it all.
As a pair they triumph yet once separated fall.
We'll be back next week with the solutions – and a new puzzle! Got a great brainteaser, original or otherwise, that you'd like to see featured? E-mail me with your recommendations. (Be sure to include "Sunday Puzzle" in the subject line.)
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