Saturday, March 19, 2011

Food for Thought - Riddle me this

If one is lucky enough in his academic lifetime, he is able to learn from a gifted teacher who is able to inspire and affect his mind for the rest of his life. I have the distinguished honor of boasting to several individuals that have left their indelible mark in my memory, but perhaps the one teacher that still walks in my thoughts when I’m asked to define a verb or an adjective is Joe Drennan, my 8th grade English teacher.

Every Friday, Mr. Drennan would send his students home with a “Food for Thought” worksheet. Each worksheet would remind the student of visual cues he taught as a means of remembering the definition of common parts of a sentence, such as nouns, verbs and prepositions. If the student returned with a complete Food for Thought worksheet, he was issued extra credit – an incentive right up my alley, but the catch was that the worksheet had to be complete. On every worksheet there contained a riddle that required a solution. Try as I may, I rarely was able to complete a worksheet without the help of a fellow student who was gifted in the riddle department. Sadly, I’ve never possessed the natural fluidity of thought and words required to solve these puzzles. What I didn’t realize until I began to study the “art of riddling” is what a Tolkien fan Mr. Drennan really was. Never claiming to be the sharpest crayon in the box, I had not made the connection to those rare moments when I knew the answer to a riddle posed was because they were riddles I’d heard from readings of The Hobbit.

Riddles by definition are statements or questions posed that require depth of thought and the ability to look beyond what is seen in order to provide solution. Enigmas are types of riddles expressed metaphorically, where a word or a phrase is used to express an analogy. Allegorical language is a type of riddle that requires careful thinking in order to solve. Riddles can come in many forms – from poetic to the more contemporary riddles in which the answers become part of a humorous punch line (for example: “What’s brown and sounds like a bell?” – DUNG), or part of a play on words (“Why is six afraid of seven?” – because seven, eight, nine…<7 ate 9>). Riddles have deep roots in the history of man, most abundant in the history of Anglo-Saxon literature and their strong Christianity beliefs where riddles were designed to provide wisdom through wit. This fact explains why Tolkien was astute in the riddle game.

A young Tolkien and his brother became wards of the Catholic Church after their mother succumbed to type II diabetes. Schooled in Anglo-Saxon wisdom, Tolkien, who had once toyed with the notion of becoming a Priest, was encouraged to develop his English and writing skills. This talent enabled him to graduate from the Exeter College of Oxford with “first class honors” in English and Literature – a degree he later utilized in teaching as Professor of English Literature at the Oxford University. Known for his love of language, he was sought to serve his country as a linguistics expert during World War II. Records to his exact service detail are vague; some historians assume that his position was so significant that his fame would have endangered war efforts and therefore, remained classified. Others content that his illness attracted from his service during World War I kept him from serving his country during World War II and the idea of him serving as a linguistic expert was nothing more than war propaganda. Either way, it is certain that the idea of going head to head with this gifted riddle Gollum probably sent chills in the hearts of the Axis Power.

Tolkien was a doting father who shared his love of words with his children through holiday mythopeaic adventures of Father Christmas. Each year he would add mythagos creatures who would help deliver the message of Christmas to the imaginations of his growing offspring. Upon his death, he made his son Christopher the executive of his literary works. Christopher later shared some of Tolkien’s unpublished Anglo-Saxon riddles and works with the world in a collection titled, The Silmarillion.

The riddles left behind by Tolkien are rich in thought and texture and offer readers a small glimpse into the Christianity faith through courage and wisdom. Much like the many Food for Thought worksheets I once turned into Mr. Drennan after a long weekend of debate – the riddles remain unsolved even today:

In marble of milk-white are
My walls wonderfully wrought;
A delicate garment is hung within,
Just like silk; since in the middle
Desire is filled, water glass-clear;
There glistens gold-laden in still streams
the shiniest apple. No one has entered
my fortress fast; nevertheless will burst
thirsty thieves in my splendid hall,
if that treasure reave – say what I’m

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