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Book Review

Riddling Tales From Around the World
Selected by Marjorie Dundas
University Press of Mississippi (2002)
reviewed by Alan Irvine

First, a disclaimer: the late Marjorie Dundas was a loyal reader and subscriber of Works In Progress since its early days as a print journal. So when we first received this book, I was both excited to see her name on it and worried about what I should do if it was not very good. Fortunately, I need not have worried. Riddling Tales is not just good, but excellent. Dundas has drawn together a wonderful collection of tales from an impressively wide variety of sources.

Who would have guessed that there are so many different kinds of stories about or posing riddles? The book is organized into 13 chapters, each one focusing on a different type or category of riddle tale, such as Clever Manka-type Riddle Tales, Puzzling Language, Making a Riddle of One's Own Adventures, Debate in Sign Language, Riddles in Threes, The Devil's Riddles… One chapter presents some classic riddle ballads, another stories that blend elements of the earlier categories. Some chapters contain only a couple of stories, but others are packed full. In some chapters, the stories are all similar – different versions of the same basic tale and riddle; in others the stories differ greatly, united only by a general theme.

The collection proves fascinating on a number of levels. For instance, the same situations, even the same riddles show up again and again, often in tales from widely separated cultures. Many times the same riddle gets the same answer in many different tales (for example, to arrive neither walking nor riding always means to arrive riding on the back of an animal, usually a goat, that is small enough that the rider's feet drag on the ground, allowing the rider to take steps as they proceed.) In other cases, the same riddle elicits different answers in different cultures (What is higher than the trees? The sun, the moon, the sky, Heaven, …) There are also many different ways in which a riddle can be posed. It can come at the end of the story, directed at the audience to answer. Or it can be posed and answered within the story: one character asking it of another who either can answer it or must ask for the answer when they cannot.

The book not only presents us with a rich array of riddles, puzzles, dilemmas, and conundrums; it lives up to the Around the World part of its title as well. The range of cultures represented is the book's second main strength. Not only are the usual sources represented – European, African, Jewish – but others that we rarely see in story collections: Mongolia, Hawaii, India, Indonesia, Kirghizstan, ancient Rome, and many more.

The third main strength of the book is the information about the stories. Dundas has not only noted the source of each selection and its culture of origin, she has included detailed information on Tale Type and motifs, so you can track down each story in our various story indexes and find others like it. This book is, itself, well indexed to help in locating a particular story or character. Dundas also introduces every chapter with a brief discussion of the chapter's theme, every story with a brief note of how it fits with that theme, and often concludes a chapter with mention and even summaries of other, related stories that there was just not enough room to include in full.

So whether your interest is in riddle tales specifically or in a good collection of folktales from all around the world; whether you want some good stories to read, some riddles to solve, or a rich trove of stories to tell, Riddling Tales is for you. And though Dundas is no longer with us as a reader and supporter of Works In Progress, I am pleased that we can enthusiastically recommend her book, and am glad we will have it with us for hopefully a long time to come.

—posted September 2003


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