Riddle rhymes and puzzle poems have existed in many cultures and for many centuries. They stretch the ingenuity and imagination of the writer as well as of the person who’s asked to solve them. Sometimes they’re easy and fun, and sometimes they can really make your brain ache! In this blog I’ll be showing you examples of both, with a little help from Kevin Crossley-Holland and James Carter, and suggest some structures that you might use in the classroom to puzzle and bewilder your friends. You might also like to wrap a riddle rhyme round Christmas crackers to make the family laugh with delight or groan with despair. You’ll feel clever if they can’t work out the answer, and they’ll feel clever if they do!
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- Where did riddles start?
- Kevin Crossley-Holland and ‘The Exeter Riddles’
- Tricks and techniques for your riddle rhyme and puzzle poem writing
- Some riddle rhymes from James Carter
- Over to you
Where did riddles start?
Riddles were popular many years ago, and examples can be found in the poetry of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. In the early middle ages they were enjoyed for the fun of devising and the pleasure of solving in Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Kevin Crossley-Holland and ‘The Exeter Riddles’
Kevin Crossley-Holland is one of our great poets and authors, and is an authority on Anglo-Saxon riddles. He translated a sequence of riddles, known as the Exeter Book of Riddles, from Anglo-Saxon to modern English. These riddles were first written down in the eighth century!
His most recent book is Arthur, the Always King. This is a beautifully written re-telling of all the Arthurian legends, lavishly illustrated by Chris Riddell. It’s a book that all lovers of the stories surrounding the Knights of the Round Table will cherish. Age 8 and far above.
I asked Kevin if he would like to explain some of the mysteries of riddle writing, and this is what he wrote to me, for you:
I nicked an apple from the head teacher’s office, and laid it on a table in front of years 5 and 6.
‘I can see it’s round, and red and green,’ I told everyone. ‘But what else can you tell me about it?’
‘Well, it’ll cry if you bite it!’ one girl said. Then other children soon joined in. ‘It’s speckled … It’s freckled … It’s like a sphere …’
‘And the pips?’ I asked. ‘Hidden inside it?’
For a while there was silence. ‘Dark secrets,’ the first girl said.
The wonderful Anglo-Saxon riddles are like this.
They’re not trick questions and not puns but lovely, short, alliterating poems. They sort-of walk round animals and birds, household objects, ships and weapons, the sun and moon and icebergs, and describe them sideways, without revealing what they are. You have to think and to use your imagination to solve them. ‘A rake searches for plants and always finds those that are not rooted firmly’; A ship has many ribs, and a mouth in its middle; and when it’s winter, water ‘becomes’ bone (ice).
Now have a look at that object on the wall. It has moving hands, doesn’t it? And a pale face. And that thing in your pocket – doesn’t it have teeth? See what I mean?
The poet Lawrence Sail and I once invited one hundred friends to write a new riddle. This really wonderful one by Kit Wright was my favourite:
I go through the wood in silence
and come out on to the snow
where I leave my prints
though I have no footsteps,
where I speak your heart
though I cannot breathe.
Can you guess the answer?
– Kevin Crossley-Holland
You can find the answer to Kit Wright’s riddle, and all the puzzles, riddles and rhymes on this page, in the toggle section further down this page. But don’t look until you’ve tried really hard to guess the answers!
The writers of riddles and early poems also used a lovely way of grouping words that now seem almost like riddles in themselves. They‘re called kennings, and they’re actually ways of ‘knowing’ things. To ken something is to know it. Do you know what a swan-road is? Or a whale-road? They both mean the sea. What do you think your bone-house is? It’s your body!
As you see, you write a kenning by putting together two different nouns that together mean something else! In my book Spellhorn I used kennings a lot in the language I created for the Wild Ones. For instance, I wrote ‘belly-fill’ for ‘food’ and ‘eye-light’ for ‘sight’. You could try to write some kennings too.
Tricks and techniques for your riddle rhyme and puzzle poem writing
Here are some tricks and techniques for you to try.
The Anglo-Saxon poets didn’t use rhyme words at the end of the line. Instead they used alliteration within the line. Alliteration means repeating the consonants in words. Can you find alliteration in this riddle?
I cannot walk, I slink and slide
I want no words, but hear my hiss!
I am not kind, my cunning hug can kill.
Now try your own riddle using alliteration instead of rhyme. Write about a pig, a fire, a river, but what ever you do, don’t give away its name!
What am I?
Usually riddle-rhymes are in the form of ‘What am I’ questions. This is how you can start:
- Think of an object (a horse, a bike, a spider, anything as long as it’s well known).
- Now think of a way of describing it without using its name. The best way is to use metaphor (I am) or simile (I am like).
I’m as round as a ball
- Next, you could say why I’m not a ball:
But I can’t bounce at all
- Then you write down another clue:
If you peel off my skin
You can eat what’s within.
There’s a big clue there with the use of the word peel, so instead you could write If you take off my coat but you need to find a word to rhyme with coat. So maybe you could compromise:
I’m as round as a ball
But I can’t bounce at all
if you lift off my skin
You can eat what’s within.
See how writing it can puzzle the writer just as much as the reader?
So that’s a simple rhyming riddle, or riddle rhyme. Now have a look at a riddle rhyme that’s a bit harder.
My First is in
In these riddles, every line of the poem gives you the letters of the final object, in order. Try it with your own name. Write down your name vertically rather than horizontally.
The first line of your riddle is going to tell you which of two words contain the first letter. It’s fun for your brain if the two words are the same kind of thing, like musical instruments or birds:
What’s my name?
My first is in banjo but not in drum
My second is in finger but not in thumb
My third is in cruiser and also in crew
My fourth is in puzzle and also in clue
My fifth is in fiddle but never in bow
My sixth is eagle but never in crow
My whole is a writer whose name you might know!
Try writing a My First is in riddle using your name. And if you’re called Ivy then next time pretend it’s Nebuchadnezzar!
Onomatopoeia in riddle rhymes
Ready to try something a bit harder?
Choose an object, and hide the spelling in the usual rhyming My First is in way, but this time try to make every line has something to do with the answer. For example, you could use a lot of sounds in your description. Onomatopoeia mimics the sound that objects make. Here’s an example from my poetry book Walking on Air:
My first is in rattle but not in creak
My second’s in creak but not in squeak
My third is in squeak and also in squeal
My fourth is in whistle and also in shrill
My fifth is in clanking and clanging and iron
My whole is the monster who roars on the line.
I had fun with that one, using half-rhymes and alliteration, and a strong rhythm to build up to the power of the object I’m writing about.
Free verse puzzle poems
You don’t have to make it rhyme at all! Your free verse poem must tell you a lot about the answer though, without using the actual word! Is that easy? Look again at Kit Wright’s poem above. And can you solve this one? It’s an example from Walking on Air:
the beginning of life
you hold me in your palm
smooth as a stone
solid as a house
yet you shatter me
My golden heart
pours out for you
I give you life
If you take mine
Some riddle rhymes from James Carter
James Carter’s poems have delighted teachers, classes and audiences for many years. His latest book, Weird, Wild and Wonderful, is an illustrated (Neal Layton) collection of some of his best-loved poems, plus some new ones. 8+.
James very generously gave me permission to show you a couple of examples of his riddle rhymes. Can you solve them?
There are lots of lovely examples of kennings in the first one:
What Am I?
To make a splash
I never fail
Have you guessed?
James Carter from Hey, Little Bug! (Frances Lincoln, illustrated by Mique Moriuchi).
A Sticky Riddle
Wherever I roam I’m close to home and leave a silver trail – in mist or frost I’m never lost because I am a ?
– James Carter
From the forthcoming BOING! a bouncy book of bugs (Otter-Barry Books, illustrated by Neal Layton, 2024).
You could try some in the classroom with your teacher, or make some up at home to slip inside Christmas cards or wrap around crackers. You could write about the nativity, Father Christmas, presents, reindeer … but whatever you do, don’t give the answer away! Have lots of fun thinking up ideas.
Riddles are great to write and solve at any time of the year – you could put them inside birthday cards and presents, and use them at parties. You can write them about anything at all – fire, an owl, a bike, a horse, birthdays – anything!
Over to you
I’d love to see your riddles! Put them in the comments box below and we can share the fun!
Unless otherwise stated, all the poems in this blog are written by Berlie Doherty.