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di Beppe Roncari

Tolkien the Inventor of Riddles

Blog post del 13/09/2011




This is the English translation of my article Tolkien e l'enigmistica.



Tolkien the Inventor of Riddles

The title of this article is “Tolkien the Inventor of Riddles - and not “Tolkien and Riddles” - to emphasize a point the critics are used to neglect: the literary dignity of word puns.



Moria's Doors designed by Tolkien's own hand for The Lord of the Rings were thought to contain an Elvish riddle: «Say 'friend' and enter!». It actually is a word pun, not an enigma.


Also Wikipedia speaks about Tolkien's riddles:


Riddles as a game

The Riddle Game is a formalized guessing game, a contest of wit and skill in which players take turns asking riddles. The player that cannot answer loses. Riddle games occur frequently in mythology and folklore as well as in popular literature. One prominent literary account of a riddle-game, drawing on a wider literary tradition of mythological wisdom-contests, occurs in the Old Norse Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, where the god Odin challenges King Heidrek to answer his riddles. This was influential on later literature: disguised, the god plays one such game in Richard Wagner's Siegfried, while in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Gollum challenges Bilbo Baggins to a riddle competition; if Bilbo wins, Gollum promises to show him the way out, and if Gollum wins, Gollum gets to eat Bilbo; Bilbo wins the competition by asking the riddle, "What have I got in my pocket?" (though he notes that it was not exactly a riddle "according to the ancient rules") which Gollum cannot answer. The answer was the One Ring, which Gollum had lost and Bilbo had found. As happens in the Norse tale, although this is more of a simple question than a riddle, by attempting to answer it rather than challenging it Gollum accepted it as a riddle; by accepting it, his loss was binding.


It is a common mistake to think that "enigmas" and "riddles" are one and the same thing. They are not. The Italian inventor of riddles Stefano Bartezzaghi proves this point on his book Lezioni di Enigmistica.

An enigma lives in an ancient and mythical context, its background being a situation in which the solution of the enigma is a matter of life and death for the person involved. Just like in the myth of Oedipus or the story of queen Turandot: these are "enigmas", not mere "riddles".

On the other hand, what about the reader - comfortably sitting on an armchair - or the listener to the opera? For an external observer, these very same enigmas sound just like simple riddles.


Historical distance and kinder times (the same that caused the end of unruly violence in war by exploiting diplomacy and leading to The Geneva Conventions) generates a shift in the values of what is "at stake" in the resolution of an enigma. It is likely that Tolkien was well aware of that.

Bilbo and Gollum's riddle contest, for instance, was built on traditional riddles. An epic context and a popular content - a perfect creative connubium  of points of views so far apart from one another as the earth and the sky. This melting pot of different times and values was exploited to the fullest in JRRT's Lord of the Rings.


Even more, we would not be far away from truth if we were to say that the seed of Tolkien's masterpiece was precisely hidden at the very heart of his former "children tale". Riddles in the Dark. Actually, that is what really happened. When the Professor from Oxford was to write a sequel for The Hobbit he started exactly from this episode and the mysterious ring that could make you invisible that Bilbo found in that chapter.


Just like a charade, the narrative solution was always there, in a simple word, before the eyes, but invisible not the less. As Turin's words on the Doors of Moria. Invisible until the eyes of the riddle solver focus on the letters and find their hidden meaning.

These are all clues leading to the conclusion of Tolkien's deep love for word puns. If that was not enough, we can look at some biographic evidence:



I don't remember my grandfather writing when I went to stay with him. He played endless word games with me and did the Telegraph crossword. While he worked out the clues, he'd embellish the newspaper with exquisite designs. He was capable of extremely minute penwork and once gave me a farthing on which he'd written the entire Lord's Prayer in circular script.

Simon Tolkien, My grandfather, in


Circular scripts and word puns are deeply entwined, as in some ancient riddle games, such as the antipodes, words you can read either left-to-right or right-to-left (a popular Latin example is "Roma = Amor", Rome equals Love).

Tolkien the Inventor of Riddles, then? Why not? In my humble opinion, I believe the critics did not devote enough time to investigate puzzling clues in his writing, in his invented languages, and in his names. Obviously, I am more than happy to leave this task to mother tongue English speakers, as it is a skill that comes naturally with a native instinct of language.

I realized that when I found myself playing "in English" with some American kids. There are some words, idioms and jokes that can be only sipped "with maternal milk" - so to speak. Even if you devote your time and study to the thorough understanding of a foreign language you will always left a step back... especially when it comes to word games.

And here, at the end of all things... I would like to quote the ancient northern kenning, a special metaphor that is peculiarly similar to modern day crossword definitions.

Kenningar were born around the 8th and the 13th century AD in Iceland. According to them, the AIR is "the house of the winds", RAIN and HAIL are "Zeus' projectiles", the BOAT is "the wolf of the tides", the TONGUE is the "oar of the mouth" and the KING is... "the lord of the rings".

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