26 February 2009Add to My Folder
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Riddles have been part of the oral tradition for centuries. Here, Taffy Thomas explains their enduring appeal and launches a new series of brain-teasing online riddles for you to solve
Riddles have long been a vibrant part of the surviving oral tradition of the British Isles. This is probably because of the sheer challenge of tackling a puzzle presented to you by a loved one. Ideally, three friends are necessary for a riddle to function. Firstly there is the riddler, who has the knowledge; secondly there is the wise listener, who can either solve the riddle or wishes to know the answer. However, for maximum comedy impact (and the oral tradition is a social art) a third person, who fails to solve the riddle, is required.
A touch of teasing
Riddles include a rich element of teasing (thankfully non-malicious): even as a boy growing up in the 1950s in a semi with no television, I recall my father teasing me that if I was to make my way in the world, I had to know how many beans make five. The answer of course is:
A bean and a half And a half bean A Bean and a quarter and a quarter bean A half a bean And a whole bean
Armed with this priceless information, I have made my way through the world as teacher, fisherman and professional storyteller!
What a cracker!
Other childhood memories of riddles bring back thoughts of Christmas, and with Christmas came crackers – every one containing a riddle on a slip of paper next to the paper hat. For example,
What is black and white and red (read!) all over?
This showed me that there is a whole string of riddles that only work orally.
And there are also the playground memories. I recall, at the age of six or seven, my friend Jack asking me a riddle that, even at that age, I was sure must have been naughty:
Long and thin Covered in skin Pink in parts And put in tarts
The answer, of course, is an innocent fruit (or, to be botanically precise, a vegetable) best consumed with custard!
In my student years I recall a craze for lateral thinking puzzles – which are merely riddles with intellectual pretence. For example:
A man with a pack on his back was heading towards a field. He knew when he reached the field he would die. Why?
Romeo and Juliet lay dead in a damp patch on the floor surrounded by a circle of broken glass. Felix sloped out through the door with his head down, knowing he was in trouble.
This second puzzle is especially interesting because it’s also a tiny story. There are many traditional tales where the entire story is a riddle or, more commonly, where the protagonists have to solve a riddle or riddles to save themselves – The Stanhope Fairies (On-screen resource 1) and The Star Apple (Poster 1) are fine examples of these from my own repertoire.
As a professional storyteller, a couple of years ago I was performing in the tiny Borders village of Roadhead (between Brampton, Cumbria and Scotland). A woman in her eighties, who was present, told me the riddle that will be Taffy’s Teaser No 8 (see below) whereas Taffy’s Teasers Nos 6 and 7 came from primary-school children, proving that riddles are truly multi-generational. She told me that when she was la’al lass in the 1920s, she was a farmer’s daughter. Every morning, when she came down to the kitchen for breakfast, her mother asked her a riddle to make sure her brain was working before she went to school. I, of course, embrace this as forward-thinking not just for those times but for our times. We live in an era when there is much educational debate about the value of teaching philosophy at Key Stage 1, and of developing creative problem-solving and lateral thinking in young people as a way of empowering them in the modern world.
A riddle a week
For eight consecutive weeks during this spring term, starting from Monday 2nd March, Taffy Thomas the Storyteller will be setting schools a brand new riddle-a-week on the Literacy Time PLUS website. Each of these Taffy’s Teasers will be accompanied by a clue – audio or visual – which you can use if you get stuck. The answer to each riddle will be revealed on the Monday of the following week.
I believe that traditional riddles and puzzles have a valuable part to play in this process, and the proof of their value is in the fact that they have stood the test of time. Probably the best-known riddle in the world is also one of the oldest – the riddle of the Sphinx:
What has got four legs in the morning, Two legs in the afternoon And three legs in the evening?
The Sphinx presented this riddle to Oedipus who had to solve it to ensure his safe passage back home to Thebes.
Riddles like this can be used as a starting point for creative writing tasks in the classroom in which children can invent their own stories involving a plot line where the hero or heroine has to solve a riddle to save his/her life.