Some Old Riddle-Books (July 1901)

An article providing a ‘humorous’ look at old (i.e. early 19th century) Riddle Books, which were cheaply printed books of riddles in poem form, often made for children, with wood cut illustrations. One of the books mentioned in the article, ‘A Whetstone for Dull Wits’, is available to read on, and there are links to other related books from that page. I do like the pun the article starts with.


“When is a jar not a door? When it’s partly open.” We forget who it was, bored with the repetition of the venerable conundrum, who took refuge in this perversion; and we never knew who invented the original. But this latter malefactor is dead now, and no earthly punishment is possible beyond the perversion perpetrated by the less dangerous criminal. It is sad to realize that once on a time that pitiful, doleful thing, the average conundrum, was regarded as the true essence of wit, and was handed down through generations who were always ready for it with a fresh grin. And our great-grandfathers were not fools; on the contrary, some of them might have taught a trifle or two of wisdom to some of us–even the youngest of us–had circumstances permitted of a personal meeting. But their conundrums and their riddles! But, there, let us not crow too loudly. For some of those same saddening questions have come down to us, and it has even been said (though we refuse to believe it) that books of conundrums have been bought quite recently.

To attempt to trace riddles to an origin would be an impossible task, and no part of our present intention. Riddles have been ever since man has been. But the farther back we go, the duller the riddles seem–by the dimness of distance, probably. And, indeed, if we go but to the beginning of the last century they seem dull enough. About that time was published: “The Puzzle; being a choice collection of conundrums.” There were 500 conundrums in this book–but no answers. The publisher was a smart man. To get the answer it was necessary to buy another book: “The Nuts Cracked,” which was made up of answers and nothing else. But really, if one but dipped into the pages, there was little temptation to buy either. “Why is a picture like a member of Parliament? Because it is a representative” and, “Why is a well like a lock? Because it has a spring.” These are specimens of the conundrums, and neither is particularly inspiriting. We give the title-page of a book of illustrated riddles published about this time: “The True Trial of Understanding.” You may observe a couplet by way of motto, to which the author with natural pride has placed his initials, whereby we learn that the lines are “By S. M.” When you have read the couplet you will wonder that the poet did not give his whole name, and, perhaps, for the sake of literature, you will be sorry.


We proceed to extract a few of the riddles from this book, in facsimile. Here you have answer and all, with an illustration thrown in for each riddle–a beautiful illustration, as anybody may see. The question is always in verse, but the answer is plain prose. The first we give is from page 4. The verse is a bit out of repair, and the feet seem to have got out of some lines and squeezed into others, where the poetry very naturally tumbles over them, and falls rather flat. But it is capital poetry for the price (the book cost at first a few pence only, though it is worth more now), and it is easier to understand than many more expensive qualities. But the picture is the interesting thing. It represents Death and Cupid and an Isosceles Triangle. The Isosceles Triangle isn’t in the conundrum–it is given away as a supplement. At that time, it will be observed, Death not only struck people down with his arrows (that thing is an arrow, not an anchor), but he also dug their graves. (The other thing is a spade.) This was only fair. Nowadays we have to pay regular gravediggers. As for Cupid–but, there, look at him.


The “Two Calves and an Ape” riddle was a favourite one, and it reappears in various forms in many old riddle-books. The legend can be read in our facsimile, and again the picture is a handsome one. Nobody could blame the unfortunate husband for flying from a wife with such a pair of hands as those; nor could wonder at his dropping his hat and wig as he went. It is a noble wig, of majestic proportions–unless it is a nubbly boulder hurled after the fugitive by the fair pursuer.


Next we have a riddle expressed in four lines, in the second of which a touch of Kailyard dialect saves the whole thing from falling ruinously out of rhyme. It is a thin and weakly puzzle on the whole, but the hog is all right in the picture, and anything but thin. His tail curls elegantly, and with his opposite extremity he sniffs at a lusty oak tree, nearly 3ft. high, bearing three acorns about the size of turnips, as well as several distinct leaves. The sagacious animal is cautiously judging the strength of the trunk before climbing its giddy height in search of those acorns.


Now we have the whole of page 12, with two riddles and their sumptuous engravings complete. It is intended as no disrespect to the author of the verses when we say that the main interest of this page lies in the pictures. In the top one the sun, disguised as a sweep’s broom, frowns discontentedly on the agricultural proceedings below. An undertaker’s horse, of undue corpulence, peeps slily over its shoulder and winks at a dilapidated lump of garden fence. A hatless rustic (or a piece of one) stands at the rear of this piece of fence, and from the answer to the riddle you gather that he intends using it as a plough. But the obese steed in front is wiser, and he winks again–with the other eye. Then below we have Samson slaying a thousand men with the ass’s jawbone. Samson has forgotten his hat–it seems a pretty general fashion in this book–but his wig is all right, and though he is a bit knock-kneed, his broad-skirted, eighteenth-century coat is well supplied with buttons, as, indeed, is that of the Philistine at present being operated on. Samson whangs this person merrily over the head with his weapon (which certainly looks rather like a fox’s tail), cordially shaking hands with him the while. This seems a little inconsistent, but the Philistine doesn’t seem to mind, and looks casually out of the picture as though he found the performance rather dull. A second Philistine is waiting his turn just behind, reclining comfortably so as not to disturb his full-bottomed wig. The other 998 Philistines are not visible; probably they have been finished off and buried out of hand. But from the two remaining we may learn many interesting lessons as to the costume and habits and wigs of the early Philistines, to say nothing of Samson himself.


There is a picture in this book of a “gentleman archer.” Probably by way of symbolizing his social distinction he is accorded the honour of a hat–an honour almost unique in the volume. He plants his legs very deep in the ground–half-way to the knee almost–and shoots valiantly at five rush-leaves–shoots standing full a yard and a half away, to give the rush-leaves a fair chance. His bow is of the Cupid pattern, and his arrow of the death design, as already exhibited in the “greatest travellers'” riddle on page 4. A view of the Needles rocks is to be perceived in the background, though you may consider them trees without extra charge.


In the “Mermaid” riddle we have another aspect of the Needles rocks, attractively embellished with drooping snowdrops (or perhaps the vegetables are wild oats) and surrounded by a pleasingly regular wavy sea, nicely crimped. Balanced dexterously on the top of the sea is the mermaid, doing something to her hair, but with poor success. The sea is much more neatly combed. Still, the mermaid curls her tail elegantly, and lets the floral ornament at the end droop gracefully downward. The “voice is rare” we are unable to judge of, but we cheerfully hope that it is an improvement on the “visage fair” and the “pleasant charms.” Still, nobody can point the finger of scorn at the looking-glass, or the fan, or the frying-pan, or whatever it is.


Now let us consider another riddle-book, of about the same period–“A Whetstone for Dull Wits; or, a Poesy of New and Ingenious Riddles.” There is a verse on the title-page of this book too, but the poet has not signed it this time. Here again most of the merriment is thrown in as an extra, and belongs to the pictures. On page 3, for instance, the riddle about the gooseberry-bush is scarcely brilliant, and the rhymes are in a ruinous state. But the picture redeems all.


Nobody ever saw such a gooseberry-bush before. Some even now may be disposed to call it a head of clover, or a chrysanthemum blossom, or a carnation, or a thistle-head, or a feather duster, or something of that sort; but that is mere prejudice. It may have been a carnation or a mop originally, but when the woodcut had served its turn, and the printer needed an illustration of a gooseberry-bush and couldn’t find it, the thistle-head or cauliflower immediately became a gooseberry-bush, and has remained so to this day; a notable example of vegetable evolution.


Next there is the “Herring” riddle. The supplementary puzzle here is to find where some of the rhymes have got to. “Beer” and “lack” do not rhyme, according to the arbitrary rules usually observed. Was it a subtle dodge of the poet’s to catch the publisher’s eye, and hint to him his lamentable lack of beer, and of the wherewithal to buy it? At any rate, the herring is plain enough, though the hypercritical might object that it is swimming on the sea rather than in it. But the sea is very nicely combed out, like the mermaid’s sea in the other book, and after looking at the picture nobody will need to be told the reason of the slang expression that dubs a bloater a “crocodile.”


A page or two farther in the book we find the “Boat” riddle. Here we observe that the sea is coarser, and not nearly so well combed. Perhaps that is why it is referred to in the verse as the “very element.” If it had only been the “rather” element it might have been more regular in its habits. For “scullers” in the second line of the answer, one should read “sculls”; though in the picture the weapon of propulsion seems rather to be one of the flexible laths used by harlequins. But there is merit in the representation of the jolly young waterman, and nobody can fail to recognise the boat as what is technically known as a “trim-built wherry.”


Later we arrive at the “Pillory” riddle. Here the poetry is of superior workmanship. The rhymes nobody can impugn, and the lines are almost free from lameness–just a trifle stiff in the joints, perhaps, but no more. Observe the fine imagery of the third line. “Many persons to him flow’d.” “Flow’d” is admirable. In the picture three gentle men are about to fling things at the victim, but they all obligingly stop and pose in position for the artist to draw the picture. The victim himself also composes his features, and looks as pleasant as possible while his portrait is being taken. A gentleman with no arms finds it difficult to fling anything on his own account, so leans against the side of the picture for safety (having only one leg).


We have rather a famous puzzle in the next we reproduce. A well-known “sell” show at fairs, down to quite recent times, was the “wonderful horse, with his head where his tail ought to be.” The innocent who parted with their pennies were presented to a very ordinary sort of quadruped, with its tail turned to a corn-bin. Being thus made wise, they said nothing to their friends outside, except to persuade them also to pay their pennies and be sold, which was very grateful of them, and good business for the showman. The mare in the present example is with difficulty repressing a very excusable smile. She stands nobly to attention, and only lacks a pair of rockers to put her completely in character.


And so we come to page 12. Here the poetry is a trifle irregular, and is apt to cause hiccoughs if one attempts to read it off trippingly. But once more the picture saves the situation. Observe the cheerful whiteness of the gloomy night, and the easy nonchalance wherewith the two linkmen brandish their flaming torches. Neither of them is swinging a leg of mutton round on a string, as inconsiderate persons have supposed; nor are they about to batter each other with knobby clubs, as other superficial students are apt to imagine. They are simply lighting up that black night with flaming links, and with so much success as to whiten the sky as though it had been lime-washed.


The next riddle gives us a bright and airy view of Thames Street, on an early morning, when three misguided fiddlers spoiled their own rest and that of a bridegroom by fiddling in a vague hope of eleemosynary drinks. Every right-minded person will be delighted to know that they did not get those drinks, though regretful to find no mention of a brick or a bootjack; either of which articles might with propriety have been contributed by the neighbours. It will be observed that all three fiddlers are left-handed. This may account for a certain perversity of habit, and some unreasonableness of expectation; but it does not excuse the supine endurance of the bridegroom, nor the disgracefully mountainous state of the public street wherein the fiddlers stand.


The lugubrious merriment of this “Merry Book” (vide title-page) is carried on fittingly in the next riddle we print, cheerfully illustrated with a picture of a discontented-looking corpse in a coffin. One can sympathize even with a corpse unwillingly associated with such a dull and clumsy riddle, and truly, to be shoved into the middle of such a doleful performance on a page of public print might bring a discontented scowl to the brow of the most naturally genial corpse; to say nothing of the unnecessarily aggravating flower-pot hat. The first four lines of the verse seem to be an extremely obscure, muddled, and misinformed allusion to the silkworm.


Perhaps the next riddle is the best of the lot in conception. The five birds in a cage, each with one wing, each bird a hundred years old, and with a tail 30ft. long, is no bad trope for a peal of bells in a steeple, and rather poetical in its way. The verse staggers a bit, it is true, but that is an external detail. Pleasant reflections, too, are to be got out of the picture. There are the bells, about to clang all at once, and standing upside down, meanwhile, like a row of penny ices on a board. Certainly the tails do not seem to be altogether 30ft. long, but there are considerations of space, as the editor says. They seem a worthy, respectable row of men, these ringers, though not strikingly handsome, and one trusts that when the bells do swing right side up they will miss their heads by a little, hopeless as the chance seems.


After the bells we have the sun, as it appears on the fire-office plates. It is a healthy-looking, well-fed sun, with a nose like the ace of clubs, a dimpled chin, a pious smile, and a rebellious head of hair. But the riddle is uncommonly poor and flat, even among the other poor and flat riddles.


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