- The Riddles of The Hobbit by Adam Roberts
This book is not only about riddles, it is a bit of a riddle itself—though probably not in the playful sense that the author, Adam Roberts, would have liked. Roberts is probably best known to Tolkien readers from his 2003 parody The Soddit. He is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy novels and also a professor at Royal Holloway, London, where he teaches courses on nineteenth-century literature and creative writing. I am stressing his literary and academic background because it may explain some of the sometimes rather baffling characteristics of The Riddles of The Hobbit.
First, there is no clear (linear) structure to the book. The chapter-headings may suggest so, but once Roberts gets started, he takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of associative arguments ranging from entertaining and insightful to free and wildly unlikely. He opens with a lengthy introductory chapter where he discusses instances of riddling communication and argues in favor of a rather loose definition of the riddle concept—which he applies to entire books, so that for him “The Hobbit is a deeply riddling book” (5). The main argument on this level is that The Hobbit (and science fiction and fantasy in general) is ironic (or “metaphorical,” cf. 153) rather than mimetic, i.e., it does not aim at a realistic depiction of the primary world but provides a commentary on our reality in a nonrealistic mode. Riddles work in the same way and, as Roberts rightly points out, they reveal “the great wonder of a commonplace thing” (16—which is, as Roberts indicates, a quote from Patrick Murphy’s study Unriddling the Exeter Riddles, 7). A pity that this important point has not been elaborated and linked to Tolkien’s concept of “Re-enchantment” by means of the mooreeffoc-effect, as proposed in his On Fairy-stories. This sin of omission is, however, indicative of Roberts’s noninclusion of several relevant studies that seem to me central to his argument. My own article “My Most Precious Riddle: Eggs and Rings Revisited” in Tolkien Studies 10 (2013): 89–103 was published too late for inclusion, but Verlyn Flieger’s essay “Bilbo’s Neck Riddle” from her recent volume Green Suns and Faërie (Kent, Ohio: [End Page 247] Kent State University Press, 2012), as well as Nigel Barley’s “Structural Aspects of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle” in Semiotica 10.2 (1974): 143–75 and Tom Shippey’s Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1976) were widely accessible and would have offered vital information on the topic.
According to Roberts, The Hobbit has not only ten riddles in the narrow sense of the word as its core, but it is itself a “textual riddle” and the reading of the book, as any reading, “is inevitably an unriddling” (6). The problem with such a definition is that the term loses its usefulness—everything becomes a riddle. Furthermore, we lack the necessary exact terminology for discussing the actual workings of the text-type riddle—often with devastating consequences for the logic of the argument. The closest we get to such a discussion is Roberts’s hilarious dialogue between Oedipus and the Sphinx (53f). Here Oedipus defeats the Sphinx not so much by providing a straightforward answer to her riddle “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?” but by questioning her actual phrasing. Oedipus, not unlike an obnoxious student in a poetry-seminar, points out that the actual words in the riddle were “morning, noon and evening; not infancy, youth and dotage” (53) and proves immune to the Sphinx’s attempt to make him understand the concept of metaphor and metaphorical usage. He takes it even further and argues that the Sphinx’s riddle “mixes metaphor and literal application in an inconsistent manner” (54) and finally, like an unsatisfied customer, lodges a complaint with the Over-Sphinx. This is, however...