Riddles and wordplay feature strongly in a lot of the English folklore I’ve read. So I’ve handed over the reins of my blog to Charlotte Bond, who’ll explain the fascination with riddles, and just why they appear so often in folklore!
Riddles in folklore
I’ve been fascinated by riddles and word games in stories ever since my father first read me The Hobbit. I think part of the reason was that it was easy to remember them and quote them to myself later on.
At a time when I couldn’t read for myself, it allowed me to relive my favourite moments from a book I loved. It was a habit that persisted into my teenage years, when I’d learn poetry to recite in my head while clearing tables and setting up breakfast in my hotel job.
But what is it about riddles that is so appealing to young and old alike? And why do they crop up in fairy tales so often, my own re-tellings included? To figure that out, we have to start by examining the crucial link between fairy tales and language in general.
Fairy tales predate written stories
Fairy tales existed long before the written word. Even when writing developed, only society’s elite could read. The common people still gathered round the fire to tell their stories, which passed down through word of mouth.
In fact, Diane Purkiss in her book Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories suggests that fairies survived the arrival of both pagan and Christian gods because they existed only in words. With no shrines or physical monuments, there was nothing for alternative religions to tear down or amalgamate into their own.
So fairy tales slipped under their radar and continued to survive and be told.
The denizens of fairy had strict rules of behaviour and etiquette, often bound up with specific words and rituals. For example, if fairies stole your baby and left a changeling in its place, tricking the changeling into speaking became one of the best ways to get your own child back. You could start brewing beer in an egg shell, at which point the changeling would jump up and say something along the lines of: “I have lived 300 years but never have I seen beer brewed in an eggshell before!” The changeling revealed itself through its use of words and language. The real child returned in its place as the changeling disappeared back to Fairy.
(Icy – I’ve written on changelings myself, and you can find my post here!)
Fairy tales were popular at time when society worked on an honour system and a man’s word was his bond. Fairy tales warned what would happen to those who broke their word. Spells in fairy tales were often simple phrases, but speakers should never use these powerful words lightly. They served both an entertainment and warning purpose.
Words have power
In her excellent book Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Marina Warner suggested that the audience gained enjoyment through shared knowledge of fantasy codes and tropes. Thus the words “Abracadbra!” clearly indicated to an audience that some amazing magic would be performed. Shouting “Open Sesame!” warned them that something truly amazing would be revealed.
Stock phrases built anticipation, so even the familiar created a sense of wonder. But it also reinforced the importance of words – just one or two words could cast a spell of amazing magnitude.
So, within that context, it becomes clear how simple riddles could be just as profound as magic mirrors and spinning wheels. Spells could help or hinder a protagonist. But riddles remained obstacles to be overcome.
At the root of many fairy tales was the message that if you had a combination of wits and luck, you would go far. Carrying a magical item of some description symbolised good luck. A magic ring, a lock of hair from your beloved, or a four-leafed clover might help.
Riddles often tested a protagonist’s wits and, by association, the audience’s wits. A listener who knew the answer to the riddle could smile and nod sagely; one who didn’t know it would have the fun of puzzling it out along with the hero.
Over time, fairy tales gradually toned down to become friendly children’s stories. Riddles became viewed by some as trite or infantile. But many modern authors are writing darker and more adult fairy tales again. It might be that riddles by association will increase in popularity too.
In my YA novel, The Poisoned Crow, my heroine is forced into a riddle contest twice in one night. The first is against a band of robbers; she has to be careful to be clever but not too clever. The second is with a ruthless, hungry fairy, where life or death is at stake. I had real fun looking through old riddles to find ones that might suit. I even made up some of my own along the way! Since my heroine is a prisoner and her captors aren’t stupid, she has no physical weapons to fight with; in such a scenario, words, riddles and her wits are the only thing she has to secure her freedom.
Using undiscovered magic and being The Chosen One are very dramatic. But when a protagonist has nothing except words and wits to save them, you can be sure that their struggles are on a level which every reader can relate to and imagine.