Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tolkien's riddles

The Riddles of the Hobbit is a riddling book about a riddling writer, a philological exercise concerning the works of a philologist. I wish there were more books like this. Literary critics tend to stick firmly (ruthlessly) with the standard critical idiom even when the texts they’re writing about are fundamentally incompatible with that idiom. I admire Adam for letting Tolkien’s habits of mind pull his (Adam’s) prose into an eccentric orbit. There’s a very funny imaginary dialogue between the Sphinx and Oedipus in which Oedipus refuses the Sphinx’s interpretation of its own riddle (“your riddle mixes metaphor and literal application in an inconsistent manner”); and an especially nice turn near the end where Adam comments that “the early medieval romance Ringe describes its hero as ’ane hubbity-duppety fellowe yclepit Fraodo, þat wiþ greete heorte did þe Ringe of powre destrowe” — to which he adds, in a helpful footnote, the information that “There is, of course, no actual medieval romance entitled Ringe.”

But these are not mere jokes, though they’re good jokes: they’re also ways of reflecting on riddling and the pursuit of riddles (including the kind of riddle-pursuit that in humanistic scholarship we call “source-hunting”). The book offers much more sober insights into Tolkien’s tale-telling and language-playing habits, too, but it always wears its critical hat at a rakish angle. I loved it and felt that it did more to get me thinking tolkienially (to coin a term) than almost anything I’ve read about old JRRT, Tom Shippey’s wonderful work alone excepted.

Here I just want to take up one of the secondary themes in the book, which is the relation between Tolkien’s preference for riddles and his deep commitment to a religion, Catholic Christianity, which has at its heart certain mysteries. Adam is quite clear that riddles and mysteries are not the same, but he doesn’t say what I’m going to say here, which is that each is the mirror image of the other. The proper relation between riddle and mystery is absolute opposition.

We can start with two points. First, Adam quotes Robin Chapman Stacey’s claim that “riddles function, in almost every culture in which they appear, as a means by which one person lays claim to power over another”; and second, at one point he pauses to comment that “one of the things this book is trying to do is … to engage imaginative ingenuity as the proper idiom of riddles.” Putting these two points together we see that in contests of riddles ingenuity is the form that power takes: especially since, as Adam also points out, the stakes of riddle-games are so often life and death, to pose a riddle to someone — and equally to accept a riddle-challenge — is to bet your life than you are more ingenious than the other person.

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

Paul returns to this theme in the very last verses of the letter to the Romans, where he looks forward again to the apokalypsin mystēriou — the unveiling of the mystery, the sacramentum. And when will this happen? In 1 Timothy 6 we learn that God the Father will bring the “manifestation” or “revealing” of Jesus Christ, kairois idiois, in his own good time, at the opportune moment. And that cannot be forced or hurried or even known by anyone else.

It sounds like I’m preaching a sermon here, but I’m actually trying to lay out a semantic field, one part of which is occupied by riddles, enigmas, which human beings can at least in principle solve, and the other part of which is occupied by mysteries that are not even in principle soluble, by obscurity that we cannot dissipate: rather we must wait for God to unveil those mysteries in his own time. This is the sense in which I claim that riddles and mysteries oppose one another.

I said in my previous post that Pynchon is a riddling writer, but he is also concerned with those insoluble obscurities that cannot be fought but must simply be waited out. Thus in the last paragraph of Inherent Vice Doc Sportello is simply waiting out a thick California coastal fog — and hoping that when it clears there will be something else there, something other and better than the world he knows. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa Maas — Oedipa! — simply takes a deep breath and awaits what the “crying of Lot 49” will reveal. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction, the passage that I think will give my book on Pynchon its title, we hear a (relatively minor) character say:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible.

Waiting — waiting “for some affirmation from the far invisible” — not striving. No ingenuity here; just patient hope.

After all this it is interesting to return to The Hobbit, and especially the conclusion of the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. Bilbo wins “more by luck (as it seemed) than by wits,” Tolkien says in his Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, and in more than one way. First of all, he can only even get his last chance to stump Gollum because, in trying to ask for more Time to think, he stumbles on the answer to the game’s penultimate riddle. (He finds the answer but never knows the answer.) And then, of course, “What have I got in my pocket?” is even more problematic, within the rules of the game, than the Sphinx’s inconsistencies. Again from the Prologue to LOTR: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ according to the strict rules of the Game; but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise.” And by so accepting Gollum put himself in a position where his power over Bilbo — his superior physical strength and shrewdness of riddling — are trumped by … well, by something else.

If what Bilbo has is luck it is extraordinary luck — too extraordinary for Gandalf to accept that explanation, as he says to Frodo: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it." In fact, then, the riddle-game is resolved not by ingenuity (which Bilbo lacks), and not even by luck, but by some unnamed force who has decided that the kairos moment, the Appointed Time, has come. What we have in Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring is not cleverness or skill or bravery or any other human virtue, but an apokalypsin mystēriou, the unveiling of a mystery. The riddle-game marks the end, in this tale, of the sovereignty of riddling.

7 comments:

  • I wonder how Gregory Treverton's distinction of puzzles versus mysteries would compare (or comport) with your separation of riddles from mysteries:

    Mysteries also differ from puzzles in that, by definition, puzzles have already happened. The result has occurred, though it may not yet be known. The missiles have been built, with warheads and accuracy that may be remain unknown even though they are knowable. War plans have been framed, and the attack started, though it may still come as a surprise. Thus, any opportunity by the United States to influence the outcome has been lost. The United States may influence the next round; it may deter the conflict from escalating further or negotiate constraints on the next generation of missiles.

    By contrast, many of the most interesting mysteries—for example, Will North Korea keep its nuclear agreement with the United States?––are not only unknowable at this time, but their eventual answer is intertwined with what the United States government does. We often care most about events we hope to influence, or we hope to influence them because we care about them. And so, as for the North Korea problem, trying to understand “them” is impossible without knowing in detail what “we” are up to. The Cold War’s separation of intelligence and policy becomes a barrier.


    Treverton, Gregory F. Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information. Cambridge UP. 2003. pp. 11-12.

  • Well this is a wonderful, and wonderfully generous, response to my book. I could say a lot by way of response, and may yet, but will limit myself here, briefly, to two observations. The first is: I very much take the force of the distinction you draw between 'riddles' and '(religious) mysteries', and should have said more about this in my book. The second, though, is to register a gentle hmm? with respect to the specifically Tolkienian points you make at the end. In a way you're distinguishing between the riddle as something ingenious/clever, something worked, strenuous, contrived on the one hand, as against, on the other, the mystery as something spontaneous and marvelous, the latter revealing itself to those prepared to open themselves to it. I get that. But one thing we have to concede about Tolkien is that he was very far from being a spontaneous writer. On the contrary, he was an inveterate, almost a pathological, writer-rewriter, working over and over his material, sometimes taking decades in the process. He couldn’t write a simple letter to a friend without going over it, crossing things out, rephrasing, reworking. Though the arrival of the ring into Bilbo’s possession is presented, in-story (I agree) as a matter of providential ‘affirmation from the far invisible’, the writing of that section was entirely symptomatic of Tolkienian effortfulness: the first edition version of the whole chapter is quite different to the one familiar to readers today; the second edition is extensively reworked to retcon in the Lord of the Rings; and then, as I say in my book, Tolkien is still worrying away at the episode in his notes and unfinished alt-versions, so assiduously collected by his son Christopher as The History of Middle Earth.

    That said, I simply don’t know, and also simply don’t know if anybody does know, whether Pynchon is a spontaneous or a strenuous writer: whether he generate all that density and complexity after the manner of Mozart in Shaffer’s Amadeus (another cleverly riddling text, that), or whether he works and reworks and rereworks, ploughing through multiple drafts.

  • Adam, I'm inclined to think that a strenuous, contrived, elaborated, meticulously stitched narrative about our human inability to save ourselves — to achieve deliverance or even enlightenment — through strenuous elaboration and meticulous stitching is a perfect illustration of Tolkien's theory of subcreation. The story "Leaf by Niggle" seems immensely relevant here....

  • C.L., I don't know quite what to make of your comparison but I think it's fascinating. I'll think more.

  • Another book of Adam's I need to read.

    An interesting contemporary meeting of these two categories occurs in an essay by Sarah Coakley, “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does It Not?” An auxiliary point in it is that we could justifiably read the famous four “withouts” as a particular form of riddle—a “ruling out of disjunctive possibilities” such that the great Mystery of the Incarnation is illuminated in a “new and surprising” way. FWIW.

  • Thanks for that, Matt!

  • Off topic for this post, but interesting for your #pynchonread: http://seattlemag.com/how-thomas-pynchon-turned-seattle-nazi-germany

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