Riddles—Perspectives on the Use, Function and Change in a Folklore Genre

Riddles—Perspectives on the Use, Function and Change in a Folklore Genre – Book Review

Fionnuala Carson Williams

By Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhoj. Studia Fennica Folkloristica, no. 10. Helsinki: SKS (Finnish Literature Society), 2001. 186 pp. Illus. ISBN 951-746-019-8. ISSN 1235-1946

More than thirty years ago, Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhoj began significant studies on riddles. One of her earliest ventures was an unpublished thesis of 1970 examining formulae and language. Further work on structure and classification was published in 1974, and in 1978 followed her meticulous exposition of a common structural scheme within Finnish riddles, The Nominativus Absoltus Formula–One Syntactic-Semantic Structural Scheme of the Finnish Riddle Genre, a Folklore Fellows Communication (no. 222). All this was facilitated by the vast archives of riddles in Finland. With the book under review she provides a broader picture of riddles, dealing with those from a wide range of cultures and eras, their uses and functions in them, and their position and type in the contemporary world. Although effectively employed in literature (for example, in European poetry of the seventeenth century and by more recent writers such as James Joyce), riddles have been primarily transmitted orally. Prior to this book they have fascinated scholars and a substantial body of research and important international bibliographies exist, such as that of Archer Taylor of 1939 (Folklore Fellows Communication no. 126), which was the first, and that of Aldo Santi (Bibliografia delle Enigmistica. Firenze, 1952), which is the most recent. Several regional bibliographies have, however, been produced in the interim.

As Kaivola-Bregenhoj explains in her foreword, riddles, like proverbs, are ancient and have been found in written form as early as the fourth millennium B.C. (on clay tablets in Iraq). Another pointer to their antiquity is that most cultures have their own term for riddle. Over the millennia, however, the status of riddles has fluctuated. Their chief function has, nevertheless, remained constant–to entertain and pose a question that needs an answer. In her extensive introduction (Section 1), she provides some examples with a definition (this is developed in Section 2) and describes riddles in ancient sources, such as the Rig Veda, showing that there they are all contained in narratives. She also discusses the decline of so-called true riddles in oral tradition over the past few decades, pointing out that they were bound up with concepts inherent in pre-industrial life. Her survey, however, looks at riddles of all types because riddles have, in fact, adapted to modern conditions, notably from the 1960s in the incarnation termed the “joking question” where, after a little suspense, the riddler himself/herself supplies the answer. They largely relate to stereotyping and often exist in international cycles, such as the elephant cycle. Less harmless, and often circulating in restricted areas, are those ridiculing minorities. Politics and catastrophes are further subjects that are frequently found in these modern joking questions, which Kaivola-Bregenhoj expands on in Section 3. The Introduction also touches briefly on the relationship of the riddle to narrative–folktale and myth–and to other fixed forms, particularly the proverb. It might be added that joking questions and wellerisms have a particularly close relationship. The introduction ends with an apposite survey of trends in riddle research.

Section 2 of Riddles focuses on definitions of the riddle and its components, which both remain matters of debate. The author moves this debate forward in Section 6 “The expressive devices of riddles” and Section 7 “From image to answer.” Besides true riddles and joking questions, the other “sub-genres” of riddle (visual riddles, wisdom questions, puzzles, parodies, literary riddles and even “pre-riddles”–the riddle-like formula picked up and used by very young children) are all considered in Section 3. As Kaivola-Bregenhoj highlights, previous scholarship has tended to concentrate on the true riddle, but only by examining all manifestations of riddling can one hope to understand the phenomenon. A further kind of riddle that, despite its long-standing and continuing popularity, has not been extensively examined as a category is the sexual riddle. Kaivola-Bregenhoj remedies this lack by dedicating Section 4 to this type, which, in fact, sprawls over several sub-genres, not least spoonerisms, common within certain language areas.

The longest section of the book is devoted to the contexts and functions of riddles, aspects often overlooked by early collectors in favour of amassing texts. The (now historic) Finnish mock-punishment for an unsuccessful riddlee, “The journey to Hymyla,” forms part of this. It is almost uniquely Finnish, lines in descriptions of the trip to the imaginary world having counterparts in the Kalevala and also in Sami practices. However, it seems that there is one extant report of it from Southern Estonia (reference lacking). The second part of this section concentrates on the functions of riddles and riddling, using analyses of fieldwork carried out among various cultures from the 1950s by scholars such as John Blacking (Venda), Kenneth Goldstein (Scottish), John Messenger (Anang) and Thomas Rhys Williams (Tambunan Dusun). The section closes with a sample of contemporary riddles, or rather joking questions, in Northern Ireland. For whatever reason, areas in conflict appear to generate such items.

The book’s final section is rightly devoted to recommendations about the future for riddle research. An interesting suggestion is that quizzes may be a modern substitute for riddling competitions. Contemporary researchers should be aware of such substitutes and also of emerging types (such as the story-riddle), traditional forms in new positions (such as advertisements), and new modes of transmission (such as the Internet). Co-operation between scholars could lead to identifying and defining new kinds of riddle from which investigation of their different aspects, such as distribution, could then flow. Besides all this remains the tantalising question of the origins of riddles, for which Archer Taylor has laid the foundation in English Riddles from Oral Tradition (Berkeley, 1951). This, Kaivola-Bregenhoj concludes, would be greatly aided by a bibliography of all riddle research, together with a forum for those involved. This, of course, includes folklorists in general, as the book ably demonstrates the universality of riddles, their connection to narrative and other genres, and their adaptation to contemporary life.

The bright cover by Markus Itkonen includes a piece of contemporary collage, “Pure Art, Pure Emotions” by Jan-Erik Andersson–a boat-like shape from which quirky objects protrude. It is eye-catching and is a most appropriate visualisation of the book’s opening remark: “Riddles are a voyage into the unknown.” Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhoj is a skeely skipper.

Fionnuala Carson Williams, The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast, UK

COPYRIGHT 2002 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group