“Riddle me this,” is a stock phrase used to introduce a riddle, which is a statement, question, or phrase having a double or veiled meaning, that is put forth as a puzzle to be solved.
Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and conundra, which are questions relying for their effects on punning in either the question or the answer.
One riddling contest that will always stick in my mind comes from The Hobbit, where Bilbo and Gollum test their wits. The stakes are high: If Bilbo wins, then Gollum has to show him the way out of the goblin cave, but if he loses, he’s destined to become Gollum’s dinner (dang, I should have said “the steaks are high”). As you may recall, Gollum’s first sally is as follows:
What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?
Bilbo successfully answers, “Mountain,” and then responds with:
Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then they stand still.
Gollum responds with the correct answer of “Teeth,” and so it goes.
Riddling appears to be a universal art, appearing in every culture we know. One of the oldest examples involves Oedipus, who was a tragic hero in Greek mythology. Poor old Oedipus was a classic (no pun intended) embodiment of the phrase, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” For example, he managed to accidentally fulfil a prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother, and that was one of his better days.
The story of Oedipus is the subject of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. In Greek tradition, the sphinx has the head of a woman, the haunches of a lion, and the wings of a bird. She is mythicized as being treacherous and merciless, and she will kill and eat those who cannot answer her favorite riddle, which she poses to all passersby.
Of course, hapless Oedipus cannot help himself from meeting up with the Sphinx, who asks him the most famous riddle in history: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” Happily, Oedipus answers correctly, “Man –who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age,” after which he continues on his unmerry way to meet his next misfortune.
I’m sorry, why were we talking about riddles? Oh yes, I remember. My wife (Gina the Gorgeous) and I recently gained new next-door neighbors – a young family that includes a 5-year-old girl and her 6-year-old sister.
A couple of weeks ago whilst I was working in the garden, the girls were playing in their drive with their father. When they saw me, they ran up to tell me a knock-knock joke. The next time we were all outside together, I had a knock-knock joke ready for them, and we’ve been exchanging them ever since (thank you Alexa).
Anyway, earlier today I was having a video call with my chum Matt Pulzer, who is the editor and publisher of Practical Electronics, which is the UK’s premier electronics, computer, and maker hobbyist magazine, and I happened to mention the knock-knock saga to him. Matt suggested that I up my game by moving on to riddles, and he suggested the one I used for the title of this column. Here it is in its entirety:
Question: What’s brown and sticky?
Answer: A stick.
I don’t know if it’s because I have a highly developed sense of fun or an underdeveloped sense of humor, but I’m still giggling. I cannot wait to share this little beauty with the kids next door. How about you? Do you have any knock-knock jokes or riddles that are suitable for a younger audience that you’d care to share?