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Riddles in the Dark Ages

By Thomas Rowsell

One of the most memorable scenes from Tolkien’s The Hobbit is called “Riddles in the Dark”. I remember the nerdish cheers echoing through the darkness of the cinema as the scene opened in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the famous novel. The scene’s popularity is rather surprising when you consider that there are no great battles or speeches, nor busty maidens and dragons, just a little hobbit and a strange subterranean creature engaged in a battle of wits.

Gollum, as the creature is named, challenges Bilbo Baggins to a game of riddles, on which Bilbo’s life is at stake. Gollum’s cryptic riddles are as enchanting and compelling as any other of Tolkien’s Middle Earth creations. Here is one of my favourites.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters. 

The answer, as Bilbo well knows, is wind. One might think that riddles about weather are rather out of place in medieval fantasy novels of this kind, and that Tolkien merely added it as a frivolous diversion, but that is a mistake. Tolkien was twice Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford, and the riders of Rohan from Lord of the Rings were clearly based on the Anglo-Saxons. Rohan itself was based on the country and great hall of Hrothgar from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. What many do not realise is that the Anglo-Saxons, as well as being macho war-like ale gulpers, also loved riddles. See this Old English example with translation services  by Paull Franklin Baum:

Hwylc is hæleþa     þæs horsc  þæs hygecræftig
 þæt mæge asecgan     hwa mec on sið wræce
þōn ic astige     strong stundū reþe
þrymful þunie     þragum wræce
fere geond foldan     folcsalo bærne
ræced reafige     recas stigað
haswe ofer hrofū     hlǐn bið on eorþan
wælcwealm wera     þōn Ic wudu hrere
bearwas bledhwate     beamas fylle
holme gehrefed     heanū meahtum
wrecan on waþe     wide sended
hæbbe me on hrycge    ær hadas wreah
foldbuendra     flæsc gæstas
somod on sunde     saga hwa mec þecce
oþþe hu ic hatte     þe þa hlæst bere 

What good man is     so learned and so clever
that he can say who drives me     forth on my way?
When I rise up strong     at times furious,
I thunder mightily     and again with havoc
I sweep over the land,     burn the great hall,
ravage the buildings.     Smoke mounts on high
dark over the rooftops.     Clamour is everywhere,
sudden death among men.     When I shake the forest,
the trees proud in their fruit,     I fell the boles.
With my roof of water,     by the powers above
I am driven far and wide     on my avenging path.
I bear on my back     what once covered the forms
of the earth-dwellers,     their body and soul
together in the waters.     Say what covers me
or what I am called     who bears this burden.

oldenglishriddles

The answer, which refers to the biblical flood, is a storm of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning on land. Although longer, this riddle from the 10th century Exeter book is not at all dissimilar to Gollum’s one. But there are some Anglo-Saxon riddles which a conservative Catholic like Tolkien would never dream of including in a children’s novel.

Hyse cwom gangan,   þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele,   stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,   hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,   hrand under gyrdels
hyre stondendre   stiþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;   wagedan buta.
Þegn onnette,   wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,   teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam   strong ær þon hio,
werig þæs weorces.   Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse…

A young man came walking
he knew she was waiting there in the corner.
Marching to her from afar,
that bold bachelor heaved up his garment with his hands
and thrust something stiff
under her girdle as she stood there.
And then he had his pleasure.
Both of them shook.
The man moved quickly,
and that good servant was useful for awhile,
but, although previously stronger than she,
he grew tired and weary from his work.
Under her girdle, something began to grow…

Pretty raunchy huh? No it is not! Get your mind out of the gutter; the riddle probably just refers to a man churning milk with a stiff plunger so that it grows into butter. We will never know for sure, as the answers aren’t included in the manuscript. There are many Anglo-Saxon riddles of this sort, all evoking something rude while referring to something innocent.

Anglo-Saxons favoured alliteration to rhyme, so Tolkien’s riddles do not resemble them in this sense. Latin riddles were popular in medieval Europe but it is clear from the nature of the riddles themselves that Tolkien’s were influenced more by those of Anglo-Saxon England. Latin riddles depended on knowledge of a specific subject in order to be deciphered, while English riddles were often about common things like the weather.

Archer Taylor identifies five different types of riddle in the Exeter book, one of which is the “neck riddle”, so named because it is used to save one’s neck. Neck riddles are unfair because there is no way for the person guessing the riddle to know the answer. Bilbo’s final question is a neck riddle, “what have I got in my pocket?”

But Tolkien’s use of a neck riddle is just as likely to be the result of Viking influence as Anglo-Saxon.  He seems to have used several Old Norse sources for “Riddles in the Dark”. In the Vafþrúðnismál from the Elder Edda and in the Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, the god Odin adopts a disguise before entering into a riddle contest. His final riddle is “What did Odin whisper in Baldr’s ear before Baldr was burned on the funeral pyre?” No one except Odin himself can know this, so it’s just as unfair as Bilbo’s riddle. In each Viking tale, the answerer finally realises that the riddler is Odin himself; Tolkien combines the reactions of Vafþrúðnir, who concedes defeat and Heidrek, who attacks Odin, making Gollum acquiesce at first but then attack Bilbo later.

Another possible Norse influence on the scene can be found in Gollum’s final riddle, which Bilbo only solves by accident.

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.

The answer is time, which is depicted here as a physical force, one which slays kings and bites steel. In one scene from the 13th century Icelandic text Gylfaginning, Thor and his pals are in the hall of a giant king named Utgard-Loki who presents them with a number of impossible challenges. After being defeated in a drinking challenge, Thor is eager to prove himself in a test of strength. Utgard-Loki asks him to wrestle an old woman named Elli. This should have been easy, but the harder Thor gripped her, the faster she stood and it wasn’t long before he was defeated. It is then revealed that the withered woman was “Old Age” personified, and that neither man nor god can ever defeat time.

Tolkien was as enamoured with Norse mythology as he was with Anglo-Saxon poetry, and it is fascinating to see how each have influenced his works. If you enjoyed the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, then I must urge you to investigate Old English and Icelandic literature, as they are equally enthralling.

See also Thomas Rowsell’s article: The Representation of Hakon Sigurdsson and other Heathen Characters in Viking Age Literature

See also: From Runes to Ruins: Documentary looks at rediscovering the Anglo-Saxon past



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