Puzzle Literature

A smattering of riddles and puzzles in ancient and modern literature:






Solomon’s Riddle – The Book of Proverbs, the Hebrew bible:

“There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.”

- Proverbs 30:18 (NIV ©1984)

[The answer to this riddle is conceptual. Just like an eagle doesn't leave a path crossing the sky, a snake doesn't leave a path crossing a rock, and a ship doesn't leave a path crossing rough water - so a man who has his way with a woman (possibly impreganting her) leaves no evidence of the tryst.]






Samson’s riddle – The Book of Judges, the Hebrew bible:

“Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.”

- Judges 14:14a (NIV ©1984)

[The answer is, the lion and the beehive, for just outside of town (surely everyone was aware of it) was a lion carcas with a beehive in it.]






The Riddle of the Sphinx – The Sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a man but the body of a lion. The Sphinx appears in the mythology of Egypt and Greece. The story of the riddle of the Sphinx is Greecian. The Sphinx guarded the gate to the city of thebes by asking a riddle. Answer correctly, in you go. Answer incorrectly and you get eaten.

“Which creature walks on four legs in the morning,
two legs in the afternoon,
and three legs in the evening?”

[The answer is "man" - that is to say "a human." Humans crawl as infants (the morning), then walk on two legs, then use a cane when elderly (in the evening).]






J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for the riddle battle between Bilbo and Gollum was a similar battle between the god Odin and a human king from Norse mythology. In both episodes cheating wins he day. Tolkien’s riddles are some of the most memorable riddles in literature:

What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?
[A mountain]

Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then they stand still.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.

A box without hinges, key, or lid,
Yet golden treasure inside is hid.
[An egg]

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

And the ever famous cheat:

What have I got in my pocket?

[A ring . . . the precious.]

With the publication of “The Hobbit” J.R.R. Tolken popularized the depiction of immersive puzzles in modern literature. In The Hobbit the party of heroes must enter a dragon’s lair by a secret passage. To enter the passage they must first find it. The answer is found by reading a magical scroll by moonlight which reveals the words:

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.”






Similarity, in Tolkien’s book “The Fellowship of the Ring” a party searches for a way to open a magical stone door. The wizard Gandalf assumes it is a puzzle but realizes when the door was placed there was no need for passwords:

“What does it mean by ‘speak, friend, and enter’?” asked Merry. ”That is plain enough,” said Gimly. “If you are a friend, speak the password, and the doors will open, and you can enter.” ”But do not you know the word, Gandalf?” asked Boromir in surprise. ”No!” said the wizard…”I do not know the word – yet. But we shall soon see.” Picking up his staff he stood before the rock and said in a clear voice: Mellon!

[The door opens.]

“I was wrong after all,” said Gandalf, “and Gimli too. The opening word was inscribed on the archway all the time! The translation should have been: Say ‘Friend’ and enter. I had only to speak the Elvish work for friend and the doors opened. Quite simple. Too simple for a learned lore master in these suspicious days. Those were happier times. Now let us go!”






Dan Brown’s bestseller, “The Davinci Code” is a puzzle lover’s paradise. Putting the inane plot aside, the main character, a symbologist (actually a specialist in religious iconographology, which incidentally is my field) just keeps jumping from one ancient puzzle to another.

“The holy grail ‘neath ancient Roslin waits.
The blade and chalice guarding o’er her gates.
Adorned in masters’ loving art, she lies.
She rests at last beneath the starry skies.”






Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, depicts a wicked immersive puzzle. The circular arena is laid out as if it were a clock. Every hour the twelfth of the arena corresponding to that hour, as seen on a clock face, unleashes a deadly trap.

“Oh,” I say under my breath.
“Tick, tock.”
My eyes sweep around the full circle of the arena and I know she’s right.
“Tick, tock. This is a clock.”