Sunday, 5 April 2009

Riddle Me This

"I watched four curious creatures
travelling together; their tracks were swart,
each imprint very black. The birds’ support
moved swiftly; it flew in the air,
dived under the wave. The toiling warrior
worked without pause, pointing the paths
to all four over beaten gold."

The Exeter Book Riddles (translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland)

I am wrestling with riddles. The ultimate obscure metaphors. Ancient and largely forgotten by most but children love them.
I am researching riddles for my next book, whilst waiting for my editor to get back to me about Mortlock (those of you who think the waiting ends once the deal is made take note). When I opened ‘A World Treasury of Riddles’ by Phil Cousineau and read:

‘What goes up a mountain and down a mountain but never moves?’

My second son snapped the answer out straight away: A path.
Riddles are old, very old. Oedipus staked his life on a riddle. There are riddles in the Rig Veda, the Bible, and the Koran. There are hundreds of Riddle Songs, purported to be love songs but as you travel in time through the collections from Alan Lomax, back through Vaughan Williams, and Child, you find them twisting into their original form: tales of innocent children pitting their wits against demons they meet on the highway. A slip of the tongue, one wrong answer will see them in Hell.

They come from an age before instant feedback, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones. A time when people waited. For the seasons, for a story to unfold, for a song to finish.

Our children pounce on these echoes of older times, the riddles the songs and stories, and devour them hungrily but too often we adults dismiss or misunderstand them. We see them as children’s pastimes when in truth, they are for everyone.

These are the inspiration for my stories. Mortlock came from The Twa Corbies, the Second Book, The Demon Collector, from Riddles Wisely Expounded.

And the answer to the above riddle? Apparently it is a hand writing with a feather quill on a parchment.

Take ten minutes out, mull it over.


SueG said...

Love this post, Jon!

DOT said...

He! He! I used to be brilliant at riddles. I remember really pissing off my Dad 'cos I answered a riddle he posed, and had thought impossible to answer, in five seconds.

I also remember the issues posed by the riddle. i.e. the danger of not being able to respond - in many ways, for a kid, it is like peering over the edge, so one has to be careful how far, as an adult, one pushes a child - you will know better than me.

Jan said...

I DO hope children in schools are STILL interested in Riddles.
They were very much part of my childhood and something my brother and I talked/played with endlessly....they're a great tool for learning.

Tam said...

I love riddles and that feeling of enlightenment when you get the answer :-) Mind you, it was just as often a feeling of disappointment that I couldn't work it out.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Ooh, there's magic in riddles. Brilliant post, Jon.
And no, I can't answer the riddle, I'm still struggling with "Why is a raven like a writing desk"...

Jon M said...

SueG: Thanks, I'm trying to chase you through the blogosphere on your book tour too!

DOT: I reckon it's a skill we can quickly lose.

Jan: They are too! I think they crop up somewhere in the curriculum but that somehow doesn't necessarily reflect their magic and age.

Tam: They can be frustrating, tis true!

Vanilla: The four creatures are two fingers, thumb and quill, the birds' support is the feather of the quill...see?

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Oh right - got it.
Now, can you answer the raven and the writing desk one, please :-)

Pearl said...

good brain exercise. it gets back to the roots of critical thinking which is uncoupling and mulling and puzzling, rather than just do a synthesized regurgitation.

Jon M said...

Vanila: Ummmm.

Pearl: Good point!