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Books: Riddles Ancient and Modern: by Mark Bryant

3 minute read
Stefan Kanfer

RIDDLES ANCIENT AND MODERN by Mark Bryant Peter Bedrick; 207 pages; $15.95

When one does not know what it is, then it is something; but when one knows what it is, then it is nothing.” What is it? Answer: A riddle.

These somethings that become nothing are the focus of a sparkling, if obsessive, study by British Freelance Writer Mark Bryant. “It may come as some surprise to those who have only encountered riddles in the guise of jokes,” he notes defensively, “that this skittish footnote to the austere chronicles of our folk-culture heritage has itself an ancient and learned history.” As proof, he ventures back to Babylonia to unearth an early example: “Who becomes pregnant without conceiving? Who becomes fat without eating?” Answer: Clouds. In ancient Greece, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx: “What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?” Answer: Man. (First he appears as a crawling baby, then upright in maturity, then in old age with a cane.) The Old Testament yields some difficult puzzles and praises those who solve them, like the prophet Daniel: “A notable spirit, with . .. the gift of interpreting dreams, explaining riddles and unbinding spells.”

The folklore and literature of nearly every tribe and climate are riddled with riddles. Enigmas abounded in ancient Rome, in Sanskrit hymns and the sagas of the Norse. Galileo composed some, so did Shakespeare and Cervantes. In the last century, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll experimented with trick questions; in this century, J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit offered a few original puzzles: “A box without hinges, key or lid. Yet golden treasure inside is hid.” Answer: An egg. The sport trickled down to Gotham City, home of Batman and Robin; in a recent comic-book adventure, the Riddler leaves a clue to the locale of his next crime: “When is a horse most like a stamp collection?” Answer: When it’s a hobby horse (a reference to Hobby Airport in Houston).

Bryant argues that we have long since passed the golden age of conundrums, when there were riddling magazines and contests that intrigued kings and poets. Today such puzzles are usually confined to children’s books and Sunday supplements, a situation that leads the disgruntled anthologist to pose a question of his own: “Is riddling something only relevant to cultures at the so-called ‘mythological’ stage of thought or has all the fun gone out of the Western world?” Answer: No. For proof, see Riddles Ancient and Modern, an engaging festival of some 700 posers, ranging from Homer (“What we caught we threw away; what we didn’t catch we kept”) to Jean Jacques Rousseau (“The truer I am, the more false I appear, and I become too young as age creeps on”) to everyone’s favorite author, Anonymous (“What turns without moving?” “What goes out but never comes back?” “What is it that you will break even if you name it?”). Answers: Lice; a portrait; milk; breath; silence.

— By Stefan Kanfer

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