Definition of Riddle

A riddle is a statement or question that proposes a puzzle to be solved. Riddles generally have a veiled meaning and might use figurative language, a euphemism, or even a sort of pun in order to hide the true answer. Those who want to solve a riddle usually must use some logic to arrive at the correct answer, or see through some misleading clues.

The contemporary word riddle developed from the Middle English word ridlen, in which it meant “to sift,” which came from the Old English word rǣdelle, meaning “counsel” or “conjecture.”

Types of Riddles

The definition of riddle can be further classified into two main types: enigmas and conundra.

  • Enigma: This type of riddle is a statement or question that employs metaphorical or allegorical language. The person trying to solve the riddle must use careful thinking and some ingenuity to reach the answer. For example: I’m tall when I’m young and I’m short when I’m old. What am I? A candle.
  • Conundra: This type of riddle relies on some sort of pun either in the original statement or in the answer. For example: What is the longest word in the dictionary? Smiles, because there is a mile between each ’s.’

Common Examples of Riddle

There are many hundreds of riddle examples in English, many of which are part of common knowledge. Here are a few well-known examples of riddles:

  • Q: How many months have 28 days?
    A: All 12 months.
  • Q: What is so delicate that saying its name breaks it?
    A: Silence.
  • Q: What is as light as a feather, but even the world’s strongest man couldn’t hold it for more than a minute?
    A: His breath.
  • Q: What can you catch but not throw?
    A: A cold.
  • Q: What occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment and never in one thousand years?
    A: The letter M.
  • Q: What travels around the world but stays in one spot?
    A: A stamp.

Significance of Riddle in Literature

Riddles are one of the oldest, most popular, and most enduring forms of literary entertainment. Historians have found that the earliest examples of riddles were written in Ancient Babylon, though, unfortunately, the answers have not been preserved. There are also many riddle examples in ancient religious texts, such as the Vedic texts and the Old Testament. Indeed, there are riddle examples in cultures from around the world and from every time period.

Riddles generally stand alone, though sometimes authors use them in works of literature to show a test that a character must prevail against. Some riddles are trivial, such as in Example #3 below, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while others are a matter of life and death for the characters to answer correctly.

Examples of Riddle in Literature

Example #1

When the Sphinx,
that singing bitch, was here, you said nothing
to set the people free. Why not? Her riddle
was not something the first man to stroll along
could solve—a prophet was required. And there
the people saw your knowledge was no use—
nothing from birds or picked up from the gods.
But then I came, Oedipus, who knew nothing.
Yet I finished her off, using my wits
rather than relying on birds.

(Oedipus the King by Sophocles)

One of the most famous riddle examples in all of literature does not even appear in the text in question. In Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King, Oedipus is tasked with saving the city of Thebes from a Sphinx by answering her riddle. The above excerpt is an allusion to this riddle, though Sophocles does not write it out. It is generally known that the riddle went something like this: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” to which Oedipus replied “Man” (A human crawls on all fours, walks on two legs, then uses a cane at the end of life). This riddle was so well-known to viewers of Sophocles’s play that he did not have to specify it. And, indeed, it is necessary that Oedipus answered it correctly or else he would have died.

Example #2

MOROCCO: The first, of gold, who this inscription bears:
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
The second, silver, which this promise carries:
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt:
“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
How shall I know if I do choose the right?
PORTIA: The one of them contains my picture, Prince.
If you choose that, then I am yours withal.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

The character of Portia in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has many suitors. Each of which must answer the above riddle and choose the correct casket if he wants to marry Portia. The Princes of Morocco and Arragon both answer incorrectly, picking the gold and silver caskets, respectively. Bassanio, who Portia truly desires, reasons correctly and chooses the lead casket, which contains Portia’s portrait.

Example #3

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)

There are many absurd occurrences in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and many of them have to do with the Mad Hatter. In the above excerpt, the Hatter sets out a riddle to which, later, he confesses that even he doesn’t know the answer to. This is an example of riddle that ends up not mattering at all to the plot, though is an element of character development and the general bizarre atmosphere of Wonderland.

Example #4

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.

(The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)

In Chapter 5 of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins encounters the creature Gollum in a dark underground cave. Bilbo and Gollum engage in a riddle war. The above excerpt is one such example of a riddle that Gollum poses. The answer is “Darkness.”

Example #5

“Which came first, the phoenix or the flame?”
“Hmm . . . What do you think, Harry?” said Luna, looking thoughtful.
“What? Isn’t there just a password?”
“Oh no, you’ve got to answer a question,” said Luna.
“What if you get it wrong?”
“Well, you have to wait for somebody who gets it right,” said Luna. “That way you learn, you see?”
“Yeah . . . Trouble is, we can’t really afford to wait for anyone else, Luna.”
“No, I see what you mean,” said Luna seriously. “Well then, I think the answer is that a circle has no beginning.”
“Well reasoned,” said the voice, and the door swung open.

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling)

In J. K. Rowling Harry Potter series, different characters belong to different “houses” in the wizarding school Hogwarts. Harry is accustomed to using a password to get inside his house’s common room, but finds out that a different group of students must answer a riddle each time they want to get inside their common room. His friend Luna is a member of this house, and is able to correctly reason that answer to this riddle.

Test Your Knowledge of Riddle

1. Which of the following is the best riddle definition?
A. A play on words which usually hinges on a word with more than one meaning.
B. A polite or mild word or expression used to refer to something taboo.
C. A puzzle in the form of a statement or question that must be reasoned out.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Consider the following riddle:

Q: What has 4 eyes but can’t see?
A: Mississippi

Is this an example of an enigma or a conundra?
A. Enigma
B. Conundra
C. Both

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Can you solve the following riddles that Gollum and Bilbo proposed in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit?

A. A box without hinges, key or lid,
Yet golden treasure inside is hid.

Answer to Riddle A Show

B. Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking

Answer to Riddle B Show

C. Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then they stand still.

Answer to Riddle C Show

D. What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees Up, up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?

Answer to Riddle D Show