Riddle Me, Riddle Me, What Is That?

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In the year 1629 there appeared on the streets of London a pamphlet “printed for Michael Sparke, dwelling in Greene-Arbor, at the sign of the Blue Bible.” The pamphlet, in the English of the day, bore the title: The Booke of Meery Riddles, together with proper Questions and witty Prouerbs to make pleasant pastime, no lesse usefull than behoouefull for any yong man or child to know if he be quick-witted, or no.To test that quick-wittedness, or no, the book opens with the first merry riddle: “Two legs sat upon three legs, and had one leg in her hand; then in came foure legs, and bare away one leg; then up start two legs, and threw three legs at foure legs, and brought againe one leg.” The solution follows: “That is a woman with two legs sate on a stoole with three legs, and had a leg of mutton in her hand; then came a dog that hath foure legs and bare away the leg of mutton; then up start the woman, and threw the stoole with three legs at the dog with foure legs, and brought againe the leg of mutton.”

This same riddle is found today from Maine to Oregon and Kentucky to Texas, and is a good example of the hardy survival in American folk tradition of materials originating across the water. Although no earlier copy of the pamphlet exists, scholars have proved that the Meery Booke goes back to the year 1575 and that it was known to Shakespeare.

The riddle itself as a form of folk literature lies, of course, well back of that date. The earliest riddle of our Western world is the riddle of the Sphinx posed in Greek literature to Oedipus who correctly guessed it: What is that which walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening? The answer is—Man, who crawls as a baby in the morning of his life, walks upright at noon, and dodders on a cane in the evening of old age. Receiving the correct answer, the Sphinx, which had plagued Thebes by killing all who could not answer the riddle, plunged to her death from a cliff overlooking the city.

Professor Archer Taylor of the University of California, whose book, The English Riddle in Oral Tradition, is the great work in the field, had grouped riddles into several broad subdivisions: 1) the true riddle, 2) the puzzle or problem question, and 3) the conundrum and trick question. The divisions make good sense, and an understanding of them also makes for appreciation of this fireside pastime.

The true riddle deals chiefly with associations and comparisons, where one object or action is described in terms of another in order to suggest something quite different. A cherry, for example, is described as a man:

Come riddle, come riddle my roe-tee-tee-tote,

A little red man in a little red coat,

A stone in his belly, a stick in his throat, Come tell me this riddle, and I’ll give you a goat.

Another riddle compares a burning candle, which is the correct answer, to a young girl:

Little Nanny Etticoat

In a white petticoat

And a red nose; 

The longer she stands

The shorter she grows.

In like manner, action is suggested where no action exists, or where the action is of a totally different type than that seemingly described. There is the old English riddle: It runs up the hill and runs down the hill, but in spite of all it still stands still. This same riddle is localized in Maine: What is it that goes from Windham to Raymond without moving? The answer to both is: the road. Like these also is another: What runs all around the yard without moving? The answer is: the fence.

Somewhat more complicated is this one: It goes through the house and through the barn, through the woods and around the farm, and never touches a thing. (Your voice, or any other sound.) And quite delightful is a riddle which any farm youngster can guess easily: What is it that walks over the fields and hills all day long, and sits in the icebox at night? (Milk.)