Riddles come in the form of phrases and statements and are used as a rhetorical device within literature. They sometimes have double meanings and are usually challenging to solve or answer. The best riddles are those in which the answer wasn’t obvious until the character, or perhaps the reader, thought of it. Some are purely challenges of intelligence while others are meant to be amusing and make the reader or characters laugh.
Definition and Explanation of Riddle
Riddles can be used in a variety of ways in literature. Some are presented as challenges to the characters and then display the wit of the main character or characters. They are used among friends, enemies, and acquaintances as an interesting way to test one another. Sometimes riddles are so complex that they take many pages or lines of a dramatic performance for a character or the reader to solve. The example from The Merchant of Venice is a great example of a long, complex riddle that has only one right answer, but which is obvious once it is solved.
Types of Riddles
There are two main types of riddles. They are the enigma and the conundrum. Enigmas are problems expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language. They require ingenuity and creative thinking to find the answer. A conundrum is defined by punning in order to create an interesting and creative question.
Popular Examples of Riddles
The following are a few of the best-known and most commonly used riddles today. They might appear in literature but are more commonly going to be heard on this street and among friends.
- What is so fragile that if you say its name you break it?
- What is as light as a feather, but even the world’s strongest man couldn’t hold it for more than a minute?
Answer: One’s breath.
- What is iron on a horse but leather on a man?
- I have a face and two hands, but no arms or legs. What am I?
Answer: A clock.
- What can be used when it’s broken?
Answer: An egg.
- Something that falls and never breaks and something breaks but never falls?
Answer: Day breaks and night falls.
- What can you catch but not throw?
Answer: A cold.
Examples of Riddles in Literature
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit is a wonderful and very popular example of a work of literature that includes riddles. In one of the most famous scenes, Bilbo has to save his life by playing a game of riddles with Gollum. The most famous riddle follows:
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.
This a good example of how writers have to think outside the box, considering things physical and intangible in order to create thoughtful enigmas and conundrums.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
No reader should be surprised to find out that William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains another example of a riddle. In a very creative scene, Portia’s father plans out a riddle for any man who wants to marry her. If he can solve it, that man can have his daughter’s hand in marriage. The riddle includes physical elements— three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The suitor is asked to pick one. The riddle is described below:
The golden casket was inscribed: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The words engraved on the silver casket: “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” The leaden casket: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
The correct choice between the three turns out to be the leaden casket. Inside it contains a note that says “You that choice not by the view, chance as fair and choose as true.” It also holds a portrait of Portia. It symbolizes inner beauty, especially when juxtaposed against the other two choices. The gold casket included a skull with a note that appearances can be deceiving while the silver symbolized intangible goals and holds the portrait of an idiot.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, readers will find a good example of a riddle in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. The riddle and answer are below:
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.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there are several riddle-like passages. In one section of the novel, the Hatter creates a riddle that he later confesses to not know the answer to. The riddle is included in the following passage:
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
When Alice asks what the answer is, the Hatter replies “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Why Do Writers Write Riddles?
Writers create riddles in order to deceive, challenge, and amuse their audience. Riddles explore questions and work as conversation starters. Usually, in literature, they feature as challenges for the characters. Perhaps, as in the case of The Hobbit, they serve the purpose of proving someone’s intelligence and creativity, or as in The Merchant of Venice, work as a test to achieve a goal. These riddles are usually challenging but once the answer is revealed, it’s obvious and clever.
Related Literary Terms
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Figurative Language: figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
- Folklore: stories that people tell. These include folk stores, fairy tales, urban legends, and more.