Riddles Wisely Expounded

Riddles Wisely Expounded

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writer = Traditional
composer = Unknown, no extant tune before 1719
lyricist = Unknown
published = Earliest extant version circa 1450
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Riddles Wisely Expounded is a traditional English song, Child ballad 1, Roud 161. It exists in several variants. [Francis James Child, [http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch001.htm "Riddles Wisely Expounded"] ]


In the earliest surviving version of the song [Child, Additions and corrections to Ballad #1, in the appendix to Volume 5 of "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads"] , "Inter diabolus et virgo", "between the devil and the maiden" (mid-15th century), the "foul fiend" proposes to abduct a maiden unless she can answer a series of riddles. The woman prays to Jesus for wisdom, and answers the riddles correctly.

In later versions, a knight puts a woman to test before he marries her (sometimes after seducing her), or a devil disguised as a knight tries to carry her off. The woman knows the answers, and thus either wins the marriage or is free of the devil. In the latter case, the last riddle is often "what is worse than woman?" (the devil).

The riddles vary, but typical ones include
*What is longer than the way? -- love
*What is deeper than the sea? -- hell
*What is louder than the horn? -- thunder
*What is sharper than a thorn? -- hunger
*What is whiter than milk? -- snow
*What is softer than silk? -- down


The motif of riddling in folklore is very ancient, the stories of Oedipus and Samson giving two early examples. The particular form used here matches the folktale Aarne-Thompson type 875 "The Clever Girl" where a woman wins a husband by her clever answers to riddles. [Francis James Child, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads", v 1, p 1, Dover Publications, New York 1965] Other tales of this type include "What Is the Fastest Thing in the World?" and "The Wise Little Girl".

In this ballad, the words of each verse are interspersed with a chorus phrase "lay the bent to the bonny broom". A. L. Lloyd euphemistically describes this as a phrase of "physiological significance", explaining that the word "bent" means a horn. [A. L. Lloyd, "Folk Song in England", Paladin, 1975. p.154]

There are many German variants of this ballad, [Francis James Child, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads", v 1, p 1-2, Dover Publications, New York 1965] and a Gaelic form was widespread among both Scots and Irish. [Francis James Child, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads", v 1, p 3, Dover Publications, New York 1965]

Historical Background

Cultural Relationships

tandard References

* Child Ballad 1


Textual Variants

Modern retellings

*"Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary" by Pamela Dean
* "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or the Devil's Ninth Question," by Andy Duncan

Non-English variants

ongs that refer to PAGENAME




Television and Movie References



Musical variants

Other songs with the same tune

ee also

*The Fause Knight Upon the Road
*The Elfin Knight
*Proud Lady Margaret



Further reading

External links

* [http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/ballads/early_child/sidebar5.html "Riddles Wisely Expounded"] with 18th- and 19th-century melodies, and text to "Inter diabolus et virgo"
* [http://www.dandutton.com/downloads.html An MP3 of Riddles Wisely Expounded by Kentucky ballad singer Daniel Dutton]

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