Tolkien's Riddles

(Click an option below, or read the entire document in order)
Riddles | Notes | OE Style | Tolkien's Achievement

This is an electronic edition of two riddles composed in Anglo-Saxon by J.R.R. Tolkien, founder of Middle-earth and philologist extraordinaire. It is the express purpose of this site to advocate scholarship on Tolkien, not just as the father of modern fantasy, but in order that his contributions in philology may be recognized for their true worth.

I wish to acknowledge a great debt to Christopher Tolkien for making his father's notes available to the world for further study on his father's mythical creations, and also to Wayne Hammond for his scholarly treatment of Professor Tolkien's works, and to T.A. Shippey for his superb insights on the philological inspirations behind his works.

This site was created in 1997 by Jonathan B. Himes
Please send all queries or comments to:




Meolchwítum sind marmanstáne
wágas míne wundrum frætwede;
is hrægl ahongen hnesce on-innan,
seolce gelícost; siððan on-middan
is wylla geworht, wæter glæs-hluttor ;
Ðær glisnaþ gold-hladen on gytestreamum
æppla scienost. Infær nænig
nah min burg-fæsten ; berstaþ hwæðre
þriste þeofas on þrýþærn min,
ond þæt sinc reafiaþ--saga hwæt ic hatte!
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 called!


Hæfþ Hild Hunecan hwíte tunecan,
ond swa réad rose hæfþ rudige nose ;
þe leng heo bídeþ þe læss heo wrídeþ ;
hire teáras háte on tán bláte
biernende dreósaþ ond bearhtme freósaþ ;
hwæt heo sie saga, searoþancla maga.
Hild Hunecan hath a white tunic,
and hath a ruddy nose as red as a rose ;
the longer she bideth, the lesser she riseth ;
her tears glowing hot on a twig lividly
burning fall dead and in brightness freeze ;
say what she is, man of wisdom.


Notes on the Riddles

The two riddles above were published in A Northern Venture in 1923, along with two other poems by Tolkien. Both riddles appear on the left side, as they were published in 1923, except for my emendations with Old English fonts. On the right side are my translations of both into (somewhat) normal English. The 1923 publication did not use Old English characters for these Anglo-Saxon riddles, for some reason. According to Wayne G.Hammond, they have never been reprinted- at least, until now (J.R.R.Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, p.283). For perhaps the first time, then, these tantalizing little puzzles are printed in Old English font!

The following words were unusual in form or usage, and hence provided small challenges:

In attempting to regularize the spellings, I have consulted: Corrections, criticisms, and non-commercial distribution are welcome, as this site is purely academic in intent. And if you should happen to solve the riddles, tell me. I'd like to know the solutions myself!


Old English Style

Old English riddles are largely anthropomorphic. Many found in the Exeter Book describe common objects in the everyday life of Anglo-Saxons, revealing an earthy similarity between rustic implements or weapons and the people or animals who use them. The solutions of the riddles are often surprising; in fact, some of the puzzles are just as bawdy as any modern innuendo, though others are serious in tone and almost meditative. They are told in the first person, and in some, the subject describes itself to the reader, even if it is inanimate. Personification was a commmon feature of Anglo-Saxon life, as runic inscriptions on swords and place-markers testify(Mitchell 231).

The first of Tolkien's riddles is of this type, while the second is that style wherein the speaker is not himself the object. Though several Old English riddles are given with the solution at the end, Tolkien's unfortunately fall in the class of those that do not. A free drink at the Virtual Irish Pub goes to anyone clever enough to solve this perplexing Enigmata Duo!


Tolkien's Achievement

Poetic and narrative prose material in Old English is a sparse and well-trampled cabbage-patch, as Roberta Flack says, commenting on the pitiably few number of literary texts containing Germanic legend in that language. A great shame it is that more codexes and manuscripts did not survive the Viking incursions! Nevertheless, the texts that were preserved offer us a glimpse into an age of courage and heroism, of the burgeoning Christian faith, and minds like that of the Beowulf poet who wished to memorialize the brave nobility of heroic, if heathen, ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons. One who enjoys languishing in this garden of ancient reverie will exhaust his library of available texts all too soon.

That is why we owe so great a debt to philologists such as Professor Tolkien, whose works in fantasy and fiction, as well as his enlightening essays, have served well in carrying the legacy of Old English into the modern age, and for making those texts relevant to future generations, enabling us to appreciate their significance in context. The growth of Old English scholarship has enabled others to share the vision of great artists such as the Beowulf poet or Tolkien, surveying the grand days of yore, finding the noble code of honor among pagan warriors and the customs, and even pastimes, they knew.

Further linguistic study will reveal to the scholar the unique mindset of the Anglo-Saxon as his thoughts in reflection produced great elegies, heroic poetry, and even intriguing diversions such as the riddle-games. After plumbing the depths of this corpus, should the erudite scholar yet hunger for more, then perhaps it will be his delight, as it was Tolkien's, to take up the gauntlet of composition. In the manner of his great predecessors, an attempt at antiquarian reconstruction may ensue, an educated filling-in-the-gaps. These exercises would add to the storehouse of Old English literature, as valuable speculations on "what might have been," had so many ancient texts not become lost to us. The achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien was his ability to point out in what direction these realms lay, to act briefly as a guide, and show us how "The Road Leads Ever On." We pay tribute here to a man that helped promote a great legacy.

--Jonathan B. Himes