Enigmas and Riddles in Literature 
by Eleanor Cook.
Cambridge, 291 pp., £48, February 2006, 0 521 85510 1
Show More
Show More

Oedipus the riddle-breaker finds himself caught in a riddle; the coils of the enigma ‘What am I?’ tighten around him until he comes to the horrific knowledge that he is himself insoluble: husband of his mother, brother of his daughters. The question of his true identity is related to the Sphinx’s original riddle – ‘What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon and three feet in the evening?’ – and it’s odd that Oedipus’ predecessors couldn’t solve it, since it was an old chestnut. Perhaps the Sphinx ate her victims and strewed their bones about the Theban desert because their bafflement showed they hadn’t been paying attention: if you can’t answer such a simple question about being human, you haven’t begun to reflect on your nature or your fellow creatures. Her poser is a bit lame; yet it goes deep. Freud brought with him from Vienna to London in the last years of his life his collection of figurines, vases and paintings showing Oedipus in deep conversation with the Sphinx, and kept them in his study close to his desk. The question touches the heart of things: at Delphi, seekers after knowledge were met by the oracle’s command, ‘Know yourself.’ As Eleanor Cook points out in this original study, riddling illuminates the greatest mysteries through the smallest things. ‘The world presents itself as a riddle,’ she writes. ‘“Here is what I am like,” it says to us. “What am I?” Willy nilly we choose an answer to this riddle . . . Good writers help.’

Riddles have provided one of the ‘basic building blocks’ of expression – the phrase comes from Alastair Fowler’s Kinds of Literature. Cook likens her enterprise to Terence Cave’s Recognitions and Leo Spitzer’s study of harmony (she might have added Edwin Honig’s Dark Conceit, an exploration of allegory) – topics of far greater salience and weight. For as she is keenly aware, her subject, like folklore, elicits mainly boredom, condescension and a general wariness. A riddle comes in the form of a snap joke, playing with similitude and incongruity in order to spark laughter; but enigma is a larger matter, and allied to the sacred. So at one end of the spectrum, riddles can be very feeble, silly or smutty (‘What goes in hard and comes out soft? Answer: Macaroni’); at the other, they can be baffling, like the kennings of Anglo-Saxon poetry, some of which have still not been answered, or the mystery of the Eucharist or the Trinity. Like nonsense verse and nursery rhymes, they are as ancient as anything ever told, and they occur in every culture: in the game of dozens played in the ghettoes of the US, in the kinship fables of Aboriginal Australians, in Shakespeare’s plots and Borges’s tales. Rival poets in Scotland exchanged flytings that were packed with riddling conceits; schoolchildren in Nevis trap one another in double entendres; Dante intricated fearsome and solemn symbolic enigmas, while Lewis Carroll poked gnomic fun at various targets in a rather more comic spirit.

Riddling is a ‘trope of obfuscation’, Cook writes: ‘Doubly damned’. Her mission is twofold: first, to rehabilitate the riddle as a significant literary device, and second, to bring back the discipline of rhetoric. Reading closely for latent and symbolic meaning in the tradition of Northrop Frye, she turns riddling around and about to see what it is made of and what it can do. Is riddle a genre, a form, a mode, a trope, a masterplot? She wrestles with this range of terms, probing further, for the meanings of enigma, oracle, prophecy; she tests riddle’s relation to metaphor and simile and other figures of speech; she brings in ciphers, charms and spells, rebuses, conundrums, puzzles, jokes, puns, one-liners. (She could have included advertising: the sophisticated kind that allows you to guess the product from deliberately scanted clues and then feel clever when you have done so.) Her restless plying this way and that risks tangling up the threads even more, making a cat’s cradle of them, which logic can’t necessarily unweave. Some poets’ acrostics and acoustics are extraordinarily nimble, but can even so be seen as tricksy. A late poem by James Merrill, from the collection A Scattering of Salts, receives a brilliant and enjoyable decoding here, as the body shapes in the word ‘body’ are revealed in a poem set out with a head and shoulders and torso, the o ‘like a little kohl-rimmed moon’ between the b of birth and the d of death, and the y standing for something Oedipus might have asked the Sphinx.

Beyond single puzzle poems, the book distinguishes between two strong forms of enigma, one moving towards the abyss, the other towards the sky: the first the kind of problem Oedipus triumphantly solves, only to plunge blindly into more deadly webs; the second, the transcendent mystery at the centre of Christian faith, which promises to become crystal clear after death (‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’ – in the Latin Vulgate, the darkling mirror is rendered in aenigmitate). The first, Sphinxine vision belongs to tragedy, as the illumination it brings about involves acknowledgment of human littleness; by contrast, Pauline apocalypse, as in Dante’s epic ascent to the sun and stars in the Divine Comedy, leads to fulfilment – the revelations it brings are light in more ways than one. Though alert to riddles’ strong roots in vernacular narrative, Cook’s tastes are mandarin, and she gives a loving account of Wallace Stevens’s meditations on the life of poetic images and simile (‘the intricate evasions of as’) and his later struggles with the concept of enigma as hallucination.

Riddles here turn not exactly polite but a little remote from the vulgar, which means that Cook misses out a strong element in their long and vigorous life. Wendy Doniger’s ebullient study The Bedtrick reveals, for example, how riddles of identity, elaborated through cross-dressing and double cross-dressing and even triple cross-dressing, provide the dynamic for a universal plot, one which still flourishes in the cinema. While Cook touches on figures of cunning intelligence, like the Queen of Sheba putting ‘hard questions’ to Solomon in the Bible, she doesn’t inquire closely into the mysterious and persistent affinity between female protagonists and riddling in folklore. Many very old romances enclose a princess in a knot of enigma: this is the device Shakespeare uses in The Merchant of Venice, with the test of the three caskets Portia’s father has devised for her future husband, and again later, when Portia holds Shylock to the exact terms of the bond. In Pericles, incestuous Antiochus and his daughter kill all suitors who fail to solve a rhyming riddle, and when Pericles sees the answer they plot to kill him as well. The story of Turandot was a popular subject long before Puccini’s spectacular, and was most beautifully told in The Seven Princesses, a 12th-century romance by the Persian writer Nizami, where, again, the bride can be won only by someone who can pass through several impossible ordeals and then solve four intractable riddles. The price of failure is death, as it was in the encounter with the Sphinx. Sphinxine throttling – the name is related to the Greek for ‘strangling’ – comes disturbingly wound up in themes of erotic unbinding (‘loosing the maiden knot’), and the underlying pun means that this dense cluster of stories has no need to give an explanation, psychological or other, for the perverse behaviour of princesses and their fathers, daughters and kings.

These sorts of punning game deal with sex and proper relationships; for example, the Jewish texts that report the conversation between Solomon and Sheba often return to the question of incest. Ideas about generation, genus, genitals, genre and ingenuity are threaded together in a pattern which, taken as a whole, implies civility; understanding it breeds gentleness, as in gens humana or the ‘parfit gentil knyght’, and later, the now debased ‘gentleman’. The riddles that set out the terms of the danger belong to a grotesque form of illumination, achieved through a humour of heavy incongruity:

A man sat down to feast with two wives,
Drank wine with two daughters, supped with two sons.
The daughters were sisters with their own two sons,
Each son a favoured, first-born prince.
The father of each prince sat with his son,
Also the uncle and nephew of each.

Answer: Lot and his family (Exeter Riddle 44, translated by Craig Williamson).

Popular fairytales, however, cast riddling princesses as moral heroines, champions of the downtrodden, mouthpieces of wisdom. A certain low cunning sparkles in stories like ‘The Peasant’s Clever Daughter’, which was at one time Angela Carter’s favourite; the Grimms collected it but there had been versions in illustrated medieval manuscripts. Challenged by a tyrannical king who tells the heroine that he won’t marry her until she comes to him neither naked nor clothed, neither riding nor walking, neither in the road nor off the road, she proves her worth by wrapping herself in a fishing net, dragging one foot on the ground as she rides into the throne room backwards on an ass – or some such contrivance.

These word-pictures make clear that riddling moves closer to the codes of visual communication than the use of other figures of speech; riddles are like hieroglyphics and semaphore, or even computer icons. As with the challenge that the peasant’s clever daughter solves, a rebus is a kind of visual riddle, a text made up of bits and pieces of pictures and letters, which interestingly reproduces in a spirit of play the mixing and matching of body parts that goes into making monsters, many of whom are masters of deception: ‘I have the body of a lion, three heads like a goat’s, and the tail of a scorpion. What am I? Answer: Chimaera.’ At the time of their origin, these monsters bred, making different conjugations of parts: the Sphinx is the offspring of Typhon the dragon and the half-snake, half-nymph, Echidna. Sir Thomas Browne calls them ‘Poetical Animals . . . things of no existence’, and puzzles over the Mosaic prohibition on eating the flesh of griffins. (Ruskin later pronounced on the nature of true griffins versus false ones, and appended illustrations of the difference.) Griffins share hybrid bodies with sphinxes (both part leonine) and are fierce guardians of treasure – the gold of the Indies in Herodotus – so, like the Sphinx, they move into the metaphorical terrain of rich secrets and knowledge. Cook makes great play with griffins, moving between the Latin terms for griffin (gryphus) and riddle (griphus) with pleasing sleight of hand.

Lewis Carroll spotted the secret wrapped inside ‘gryph’ (an old word for a riddle) and, laying out a ‘topography of enigma’, peopled it with the Mad Hatter and Humpty Dumpty, who keep putting annoying riddles to Alice, and the Red Queen, who speaks in riddles, alongside other creatures who are themselves riddles, like the Gryphon. Cook says she nearly laughed out loud in the library when she came across the word griphus for ‘riddle’ in a rare Latin grammarian’s work and realised what nimble footwork Carroll was executing when the Mock Turtle reminds the Gryphon that the classics master taught him ‘Laughing and Grief’.

What Carroll was doing shows the depth of the relationship that riddles reveal between language and meaning. Humpty Dumpty makes a point about power when he says all that matters is who is to be Master. But words keep playing games with Alice and tricking her into misunderstanding – this is the crucial and tiresome difficulty the Red Queen embodies – and she has a hard time wising up. Riddles do this to children when they are training in the playground for a future in the world. The cunning at the heart of the Sphinx’s ordeal, the flyter’s fury and the crossword clue-writer’s craft all turn on the way literal meanings can conceal a figurative enigma and vice versa and then open up vistas of alternative sense.

One of the most popular examples given in the ancient sources shows this to and fro between figurative and literal: ‘My mother bore me and soon was born of me. Answer: Ice.’ It’s a classic riddle also because the ice/water is speaking as if it were alive. ‘In both worlds, one of the most important and powerful characters is not a person but the English language,’ Auden wrote of Alice’s adventures. Carroll loves to play with figures of speech to show that they are nothing but façade, and his questing heroine keeps coming up against the English language’s conventional rule-making and its undependable and baffling waywardness. At the same time, what the words name can come into being: the ‘dream rushes’ that Alice gathers from the stream, and the Poetical Animals, like the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon.

The riddles in the medieval Exeter Book give voice to commonplace things and everyday natural phenomena – eggs and snow and stars and millstones and quill pens. Like the magic tablecloth that always spreads out a meal in a fairytale, or the dancing teapots and teacups and candelabra in a Disney cartoon, the subjects of riddles have a life of their own. But, as Auden says, it is language that endows them with this, and language can take it away, when meaning fails or interest flags. The wordsmith writes for his life, the talespinner stays the day of her execution (Scheherazade).

As an approach to understanding what writing is made of, the ancient discipline of rhetoric might be due for a comeback. One of the planks of the trivium, the compulsory university syllabus in the Middle Ages, rhetoric fell into disuse alongside the equally forlorn pair, grammar and logic. But, as Cook points out, when Shakespeare went to school, they were still on the curriculum: he was probably taught how to declaim and blazon and vituperate, and how to perform other versatile acts of rhetoric, such as punning, fooling and riddling, and the instruction would stand him in good stead. Cook quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘By rhetoric I mean all the common and teachable element in literature.’ In an era when lovers of books want to write far more than they want to read, when the British Library is debating if and how they are to archive the ever expanding numbers of blogs, and when literature departments are starting creative writing courses in response to demand (on offer in 85 British universities when I last heard), the old tools and methods of the rhetor’s art might be worth dusting off.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 29 No. 4 · 22 February 2007

Marina Warner describes the riddle posed by the Sphinx and solved by Oedipus as ‘an old chestnut’ (LRB, 8 February). She goes on to praise Eleanor Cook for ‘a brilliant and enjoyable decoding’ of a poem by James Merrill: ‘The body shapes in the word “body" are revealed in a poem set out with a head and shoulders and torso, the o “like a little kohl-rimmed moon" between the b of birth and the d of death, and the y standing for something Oedipus might have asked the Sphinx.’ This seemed familiar to me for some reason, and a brief web search turned up the following, from a piece by Laura Quinney in, of all places, the London Review of Books (LRB, 4 April 2002):

The poem looks closely at the letters in the word ‘body’, and sees in their configuration an emblem of that body’s trajectory from b(irth) to d(eath), or rather the trajectory of the little o, the embodied subject or soul, which ‘plots its course’ towards extinction just because it is embodied. It crosses the night sky like the moon; or else, like an actor, it crosses the stage, moving in an irrevocable pattern from origin to end. And yet it does not experience itself as mechanical. The o is the ‘I’, as its likening to ‘a little kohl-rimmed moon’ (a mascara-lined eye) punningly suggests, and the way in which the ‘I’ experiences its course is always novel. It must remain bewildered, as the puzzle of why – y – it exists goes unsolved. At the end, the poem turns directly to the evocation of this bewilderment, instructing ‘you’ (who is first Merrill himself, and then the reader) to mark the baffling anomaly of your own subjectivity, a paradoxical o or zero, a mark of annihilation, which stands for a nothing that is something, and a something that is nothing.

I then looked up the poem itself, which is constructed as a riddle, and ends by asking what the b and the d stand for. It’s not a hard question to answer, which would explain how Quinney and Cook came up with their (not so) uncannily similar interpretations. Cook’s decoding is hardly deserving of the epithet ‘brilliant’, then; though Quinney’s reading of the 0 as an eye, and therefore as an ‘I’, still is. Incidentally, I was full of admiration for Michael Wood’s declaring that when the dog in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day says, ‘Rr Rff-rff Rr-rr-rff-rrf-rrf,’ this is ‘easily scanned as The Princess Casamassima’ (LRB, 4 January). Full of admiration, that is, until I started reading the novel (since abandoned) and saw that Pynchon in fact scans the barking for us. I wonder, does it happen a lot, this critics’ claiming of credit for things that novelists and poets have already pointed out?

Martin Harris
New York

Vol. 29 No. 6 · 22 March 2007

Martin Harris (Letters, 22 February) scolds me for praising Eleanor Cook’s commentary on James Merrill’s riddle-poem ‘b o d y’ without realising that Laura Quinney had discussed it in similar terms in an earlier issue (LRB, 8 February). It’s not unlikely that I read Quinney’s review of James Merrill’s Collected Poems: Merrill used an Ouija board – and the help of the spirit Ephraim – to write his long, autobiographical work, The Changing Light at Sandover, and I was then researching connections between psychic phenomena and poetic inspiration. (Yeats is well known to have been interested in these connections; but before him, Frederic Myers, a force in the Society for Psychical Research, won a prize at Cambridge for a poem some of whose lines were later found to have been written by others in earlier works: Myers wasn’t put out, simply saying that he had acted as a kind of oracle, filled with voices – a ‘channeler’, in the term used today.) However, I don’t remember reading Quinney’s review at the time. I may have responded with such pleasure to Eleanor Cook’s close reading of Merrill’s riddle poem because unwitting recognition worked its charm (heard melodies are sweet, but those twice-heard are sweeter?). Looking up Quinney’s piece, I now find there are overlaps between her exegesis and Eleanor Cook’s, but they arise from the manifest structure of the poem. So I stand by my calling Cook’s account ‘brilliant’: she attends perceptively to much else as well in this ‘riddle of reading’. Quinney’s illuminating gloss of the ‘little kohl-rimmed moon’ as ‘the eye/ What am I?’ of the traditional riddle form appears only in her review; and yes, Martin Harris is right, this shines, too.

Marina Warner
London NW5

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences