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Untying the Knot

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Most readers will recall what is perhaps the most famous riddle in literature, that asked of Oedipus by the Sphinx. As given by Apollodorus in The Library, it asks: “What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” Sophocles’ Oedipus answers correctly (even though neither the Sphinx nor the riddle actually appears in Oedipus Rex)—“Man.” As a result of his answer, he inherits the kingdom of Thebes, the dead king’s wife, and finally his own painful and destructive enlightenment. These eighteen essays—intended primarily for the specialist in folklore, speech, anthropology, and semiotics—attempt to shed light on this ancient verbal tradition and develop analyses of various aspects of the riddle, defined as “a form that produces change in the world and in the self that confronts it, modeling “the self in self-definition” as it “works on the socially and culturally constituted world.” The suggestion, developed in these essays from a variety of cultural and scholarly perspectives, is that the riddle, by toying “with the normal borders of referential speech” demonstrates “their hollowness or arbitrary nature.” Transformation thus may be the underlying ontological principle of the riddle. Brooms become princesses; saviors villains in the world of the riddle. While the abundance of specialized language in these essays may prove daunting, penetrating them leads one into a deeper understanding of this much studied form, seeing it, as they do, from perspectives revolving around the enigmatic dynamics of language that connect the riddle with the wider domains of poetic discourse and involve doubt, self identity, and the relationship of words—including their very arrangement on the page with one’s own experience. The volume is divided into five sections each containing from two to five essays. The sections’ titles reveal the systematic approach of the editors in assembling the book—“General and Theoretical,” “Hebrew Riddles,” “Enigmatic Modes in India,” “Chinese Riddling,” and “Notes from the West”—as well as the specific areas of interest and expertise of the contributors, who are variously mathematicians, semioticians, folklorists, historians, anthropologists, poets, psychoanalysts, Indologists, fiction writers, sinologists, dramatists, and comparative theologists. A significant collection of expertise is thus one characteristic of this publication. Annikki Kaivola- Bregenhøj, in an essay entitled “Riddles and Their Use,” examines traditional true riddles, looking first of all at the occasions for their performance, then at the skills required of the riddler who must understand both the nature of ambiguity and the linguistic formulae that function in the riddle, and finally that any variation “of image and answer is not arbitrary . . . [but] is strictly governed by the semantic scheme.” Thus the one who poses a riddle, an expert in the tradition, “must have a command of the various components characteristic of the genre: its vocabulary, metaphors, antithetical and paradoxical images, morphological-syntactical structures, and, above all, skill at combining them in accordance with the semantic codes of the genre.” In “Traps of Trans-formation: Theoretical Convergences Between Riddle and Ritual,” Don Handelman analyzes connections between riddles and riddling and rituals in various areas of the world. Arguing that these ritual occasions make “ trans-formation’ take place through the course of the ritual itself,” Handelman first analyzes the features of the ritual of trans-formation, then attributes of the structure of riddles and how they compare with such rituals, and finally other “enigmatic phenomena—play and game,” for example. He argues that makers of such a ritual of trans-formation postulate it as a microcosm of the whole world; create it as a purposive, instrumental event, one that will change, for...

(The entire section is 2,197 words.)