The Gist: While traveling, a prince and his servant arrive at the house of a witch. With one poisoned drink, a string of events is set in motion that leads the prince to a kingdom where the princess will marry whoever can pose a riddle to her that she cannot solve. His riddle is this: “One slew nobody and yet slew twelve.” The answer? For that you will have to read what happens between the poison and the prince’s arrival at the kingdom (or read my analysis below—I kind of give part of it away…)
Riddles pop up in a number of tales, my favourite riddle battle of course being Bilbo and Gollum’s showdown in The Hobbit. I like riddles, especially those based on word play. What I like about the riddle in this story is that even though it is about an occurrence in the prince’s life, it still works on its own outside of his story.
Pullman’s version of “The Riddle” is definitely preferable to the one found in Zipes’ version for three reasons. 1) Pullman’s version is much more clearly told. In Zipes’ version, twelve murderers sit down to eat with the innkeeper and the witch. OK, first of all, what is the witch doing there?! Why does she suddenly appear at the inn? And second, if the innkeeper and the questionable witch eat with the murders, then fourteen are killed, not twelve. Just because you’re copying down oral stories, Grimm boys, doesn’t mean you’re stories don’t have to be consistent! It’s storytelling 101. 2) In Zipe’s version, the servant sends the maids away with “a good beating” (86). Uh… Beating up women? Not. Good. However, in Pullman’s tale, the servant just chases them away with a stick. And 3) Pullman’s has some humour; the servant doesn’t just chase away the second maid with a stick—he chases her away with an even bigger stick!
Inconsistencies aside, this was a good tale and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
One of my favourite riddles is the following:
You are walking through the woods when you happen upon a cabin with smoke coming from it. How do you know that everyone inside is either injured or dead?
Do you know the answer? What are some of your favourite riddles? Share your answers in comments.
For more information about this feature, check out the main page for “A Grimm Year”.
- The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 3rd Edition translated by Jack Zipes (Bantam, 2003)
- Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman (Viking)