Oedipus, Bilbo Baggins and Atreyu – Deadly riddles and Sphinxes in Greek Mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story”

From Sphinxes to Hobbits, from the ancient world to children’s fantasy,  Michael Kleu takes a look at the riddling tradition in Tolkien, Ende, and Apollodorus…

When Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of J.R.R.Tolkien’s  The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937), got lost in the cave system and tunnels of the Misty Mountains, he found by chance – or rather by fate – the One Ring, a powerful magical artefact crafted by the evil entity Sauron a long time previously. Shortly afterwards, Bilbo met the strange creature Gollum, who challenged him to a game of riddles. If Bilbo won the game, Gollum was supposed to show the little Hobbit a way out of the tunnels. If the creature won the game, it could eat poor Bilbo. Lost and alone, Bilbo had no choice but to agree to Gollum’s terms. After the opponents had played the game for some rounds the Hobbit won the contest by asking what he had in his pocket. Since Gollum, of course, had no chance to know that Bilbo had pocketed the One Ring, the Hobbit won the game of riddles in a rather unfair fashion and could only escape the creature’s rage by accidentally using the magic ring, that made him invisible.

In Greek mythology something quite similar had happened to Oedipus. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, had promised the throne of Thebes and the hand of his sister Jocasta to anyone who would free the city from theSphinx, a creature that lived close to the city and strangled and swallowed all travelers that couldn’t solve her famous puzzle:

“What is it that speaks with one single voice and has first four, then two and finally three legs?”

Oedipus accepted the challenge and solved the Sphinx’s riddle: As a child a human first crawls on all fours, before he walks on two legs and finally needs a supporting stick in the old age. After having heard the correct answer, the Sphinx committed suicide by jumping from a rock. Thebes was freed, and Oedipus became king (Apollod. 3,5,8).

Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, 450-440 BC, Altes Museum Berlin, CC BY-SA 2.0

In both cases an unhuman creature threatens a hero with death if he cannot solve its riddle and in both cases the creature will eat the hero if he fails. But there is one more parallel. At some point during the game it is Bilbo’s turn to come up with a riddle:

“No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four-legs got some.”

Gollum doesn’t need long to find the solution: “Fish on a little table, man at table sitting on a stool, the cat has the bone.”

Although the parallel to the riddle of the sphinx is striking, it seems to be another tradition to which J.R.R. Tolkien is referring here. In a German book from 1847 I found a quite similar riddle in several versions in German and English language:

“Two legs sat upon three legs, with one leg in his lap. In comes four legs, and runs away with one leg. Up jumps two legs, catches up three legs, throws it after four legs, and maks (sic!) him bring back one leg.”[1]  xx

(In this case two legs is a man, three legs a three-legged stool, four legs a dog and one leg a walking stick.)  Here the parallel is even more striking and indeed Tolkien wrote in a letter to his publisher (letter no.110) that he did not invent this particular riddle but took it from somewhere, (unfortunately he did not mention from where exactly).[2]  Therefore, he obviously did not directly adapt the riddle of the sphinx. Nevertheless, the leg-riddle from 1847 might belong to a category of riddles that goes back to the myth of Oedipus.[3]

Of course, Tolkien was heavily influenced by Nordic and Germanic traditions. Thus, his riddles were surely influenced by the Exeter Book and other collections of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of riddling as well as of the Alvíssmál, a poem collected in thePoetic Edda.[4] On the other hand, even when it has been only for a short time,Tolkien had studied Classics in Exeter and was definitely familiar with Greek and Latin literature. Therefore, it seems still quite possible that at least regarding the hero being threatened to be eaten by an unhuman creature if he fails to win a riddle contest, Tolkien was influenced by the myth of Oedipus.

Picture: Michael Kleu

In Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story, 1979) the black centaur Cairon, who is the most famous physician in the magical land of Fantastica and therefore a clear reference to Chiron is a first indication that the author used elements of Greek myths for his book. And as we will see know, Ende’s story was very concretely influenced by the myth of Oedipus. To reach the so-called Southern Oracle, the hero Atreyu is supposed to pass a way between two Sphinxes facing each other. This is only possible when the eyes of the Sphinxes are closed because a traveler will freeze if he is caught by their gaze, since the eyes of the Sphinxes ask by nonverbal communication all known riddles at the same time and the passerby can only move after having solved all of them, what eventually leads to the death of the people concerned.

The oracle is of course a fixed element in Greek myth and the Delphic Oracle is of major importance for Oedipus’s fate. Furthermore, the freezing of the passerby evokes references to Medusa. Therefore, Ende has mixed some well-known elements of Greek mythology to create a new story. On the other hand, it is quite interesting that Atreyu has no chance to pass the Sphinxes with the help of his own skills, wits or abilities. In fact, it seems to depend on pure chance or fate if someone can pass the Sphinxes or not. At least the gnome Engywook, who is Fantastica’s leading scientist in this field, even after many years of study could not find any form of pattern regarding the question why the Sphinxes let pass some people while they stop others.

While the classical reception is obvious in Die unendliche Geschichte, the case of The Hobbit is a much more complicated case of what might happen when  mixing several myths and traditions. But why do we find deadly riddles in both books for young people? Are such riddles supposed to address notably children and teenagers? The fact that one can find the same topic in fantasy stories for adults suggests that these are interested in riddles in a similar way.[5] But there is nevertheless one important connection between adolescents, riddles of and death: According to Ps.-Plutarch (1.4) no-one less than Homer shall have died of sorrow after he could not have solved some young fisherman’s riddle …

–Michael Kleu is an Ancient Historian at the University of Köln, in Germany, and is fascinated by Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy.  He runs the popularFantastische Antike blog, where his interests combine…  

[1]EduardFiedler: Volksreime und Volkslieder in Anhalt-Deßau, Deßau 1847, p. 43.

[2] Tolkien wrote in the letter to his publisher that he invented most of the riddles from the chapter “A riddle in the Dark” while he took the no-leg riddle and another one from somewhere else. Although he calls the other riddle a traditional one, unfortunately, he does not mention from where he took the riddle with the legs. In the letter Tolkien also wrote that he was inspired by “old literary (but not ‘folk-lore’) riddles” and in one case he mentions American books with nursery rhymes.

[3] The riddle of the Sphinx was a part of the Byzantine Greek Anthology’s riddle collection (book 14 no. 64). Thus, the riddle could have been passed on via the myth of Oedipus and via riddle collections. Neither in Symphosius’ late antique collection (Aenigmata) nor in the Book of Exeter I could find riddles similar to the one under discussion.

[4] In the Alvíssmál Thor and the dwarf Alviss try to settle a dispute in form of a contest in which Alviss must answer Thor’s questions. The contest takes so long that at some point the sunrise turns the dwarf into stone – in Nordic mythology sunlight does that to dwarves – what resembles the fate of the three trolls in “The Hobbit”. For the influence of theAnglo-Saxon tradition of riddling and the Alvíssmál on “The Hobbit” cf. A.Roberts: The Riddles of The Hobbit, Basingstoke/New York 2013.

[5] In Stephen King’s “The Waste Lands” and “Wizard and Glass” (The Dark Tower III & IV) the protagonists have to riddle for their lives against a sentient monorail that has lost its mind.

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Our Mythical Week in Wellington

In mid-July, Liz Hale and I travelled to New Zealand, to attend and present at the biannual ACLAR (Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research) conference at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).  With Babette Puetz (Classics, VUW), we talked about classical reception in children’s literature. I spoke about Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s American Goddess Girl series; Babette spoke about Zeustian Logic, by New Zealand author Sabrina Malcolm; and Liz gave the ACLAR delegates a tour of the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  The theme of the conference was ‘Houses of Learning,’ a topic that brought to light many rich texts and approaches.

We also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days researching in the Dorothy Neal White Collection of Children’s Literature at Te Puna, the National Library, of New Zealand, where we examined an array of children’s texts that engage with the classical world.

It was especially exciting to view texts by local New Zealand writers, including Ken Catran, author of the historical novels The Golden Prince (1999), Voyage with Jason (2000), and Odysseus (2005).  It was also fascinating to see how some of the Greek myths had been rendered as readers for New Zealand school children, another area of reception that is often under-represented.  Downstairs from the reading room, we joined a group making Maori masks, based on Cliff Whiting’s creation myth mural, ‘Te wehenga o Rangi rāua ko Papa.’

Classics and Kiwi Culture–Intersections and Invasions

My involvement in the Our Mythical Childhood project has heightened my awareness of the ways in which ancient myth invades our contemporary world, and on this trip I was particularly curious to see ways that classical and Kiwi culture intersect. One of the most explicit examples of their convergence is in the work of the lithographer Marian Maguire, who juxtaposes the iconography of Ancient Greek vase paintings with New Zealand’s colonial past, and with indigenous mythology. In one piece, Ajax and Achilles play dice at Milford Sound; in another, Captain Cook arrives on his boat bearing an ancient Greek vase. And in another still, Odysseus clings to the remnants of his raft, about to be blasted by the Maori god of the sea, Tangaroa.

I was fortunate to have the chance to see the collection of Maguire’s works displayed at the Classics Department at VUW and was struck by their clarity and precision. I was also struck by the remarkable way her work explores the resonance of the stories and artistic traditions of ancient Greece within another culture on the opposite side of the world. Although her work isn’t intended for children, it has important implications for the research questions at the heart of the OMC project, and I’m eager to read Maguire’s chapter in the recently published collection Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society (2017), edited by Diana Burton, Jeff Tatum and Simon Perris of VUW’s Classics Department.

One lunchtime I visited Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where I encountered Age of Fishes (1980), by Auckland artist Richard Killeen. It’s an arrangement of large silhouetted shapes hung on a white wall, in shades of blue, yellow, brown and black. While some of the cut-outs are recognisable as marine creatures, others are more abstract, and to my mind, some of them resemble the silhouettes of archaic pottery vessels.

Another of Killeen’s works, Welcome to the South Pacific (1979) happened to be on display in the VUW Council Chamber, where the ACLAR conference was held, and I enjoyed the interplay of the different elements, while also reflecting on the notion that I was beginning to recognise classical motifs even in the most abstract of shapes.

Frequency Illusion, Classics Style

Perhaps it was a simply a case of frequency illusion, a form of cognitive bias in which we register a concept and immediately begin to observe it everywhere. (Colloquially, the phenomenon is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, after the West German militant group). On one city street, Pandora’s jewellery shop was located next to an interior design firm called Attica. And I noticed winged figures everywhere, not only at the library in Gerald McDermott’s retelling of the Icarus myth, Sun Flight (1980), but also on Te Papa’s colourful windows, and even on the hoodie of the man who made our morning coffee.

Back at home in Australia, I am still reflecting on how to make sense of these encounters, profound and frivolous.  The classical past is a rich depository of images, narratives, and motifs that the modern world continues to draw upon. My week in Wellington revealed that it is not merely within the pages of texts that ancient stories endure, but everywhere I look. I feel very fortunate to be taking part in the Our Mythical Childhood project, as it seeks to understand the myriad, diverse, and often surprising ways that the classical past infiltrates contemporary children’s culture.

–Miriam Riverlea, PhD Monash, is collaborating with Liz Hale on Classical Antiquity in Children’s Literature: An Alphabetical Odyssey.  It will be a guide to the field, taking into account issues of reception, children’s culture, and more.  Miriam’s PhD, My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children, can be read here.

 

Myths on the Move–Our Mythical Animation . . .

 

Our Mythical Childhood went to Greenwich University in June, to the Children and Youth on the Move conference, hosted by the Children’s History Society.  The theme was movement, and so we talked about the ways that animators mobilise classical myth in their work for children.

Sonya Nevin showed how she and Steve Simons move myth in their Panoply animations of Greek vases.  We were privileged to see their animation of the Sappho Vase for the National Museum of Poland.

Anna Mik showed us how Walt Disney played with mermaid myths in the 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon, King Neptune.  You can read her Our Mythical Childhood survey entry on King Neptune here.

Hanna Paulouskaya showed us how Soviet animators such as Aleksandra Shezhko-Blotskaya used classical myth to move around the land as part of a national narrative.

And I talked about how the Australian animation, The Deepmoves myth underwater, using classical myths to appeal to an international audience.

Questions and discussion took us around the world, showing once again how myth functions both locally and universally, and to what ends  We talked about the rights of the mermaid, about what a siren really looks like, and what they really get up to.  We talked about how myth is put to use, encouraging Soviet schoolchildren to travel, for instance, or connecting Australian viewers to a wider world of mystery and story.  Sonya showed us how children move myth to their own ends, through the activities she and Steve give them–making their own shields and vases, for instance, and incorporating them in their own stories and mythology.  

The conference in general was emotionally moving, looking at how children move (or are forced to move) around the world, and also about how children’s culture moves through social changes, and how children move culture on, transforming and reshaping adult ideas for new generations.   Putting animation and mythology into these contexts, it is clear that mythology moves as culture moves, offering useful ways to frame children’s experiences and the way that reception is framed in its turn.

— Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

A Cockatoo Called Caesar

When I was a child I was bitten very hard on the finger by a pet-shop cockatoo called Cocky.  Perhaps if he’d been called Caesar our encounter would have been more civilised.  We change pace this week with a lovely piece from Anne Rogerson (Charles Tesoriero Senior Lecturer in Latin at Sydney University) about the curious habit of calling cockatoos Caesar, and their import in iconic Australian children’s books.  

A Cockatoo Called Caesar

I can’t remember whom I encountered first as a child – the engaging young Norah of Billabong or Julius Caesar. I think that it was probably Norah. I was certainly reading Mary Grant Bruce’s stories about life on a Victorian cattle station, and then abroad in England and Ireland during WWI, while still in primary school, long before I had anything but the haziest knowledge of Roman history.

A Little Bush-Maid by Mary Grant Bruce (author's photograph)
A Little Bush-Maid by Mary Grant Bruce (author’s photograph)

At first glance, it may not seem that this popular and determinedly Australian series of young adult novels has much to do with the Classics. Its heroes and heroines are hard-working, horse-riding, cheerful and clean-cut young people, who – though well-educated – aren’t given to dwelling on academic matters and are rarely seen to read a book. But it was while re-reading the series recently that I realized that a little snippet of Roman history had been hiding in plain sight in the early chapters of the first Billabong novel all along.

 

A Little Bush Maid (1910) introduces Norah, her father, her brother Jim and his school friends, and the “menagerie” of Norah and Jim’s pets. These are many and various, including a wide variety of native and introduced species, an aviary full of unnamed birds, a parrot called Fudge and – last but most certainly not least – “old Caesar, a very fine white cockatoo”. Only Caesar gets a naming story. He was shot while very young and rescued by Norah, who brought him home and handed him to her brother, whom he promptly bit:

 

“Jim was no hero – at the age of eleven, he dropped the cockatoo like a hot coal. “Great Caesar!” he exclaimed, sucking his thumb, and Caesar he was christened in that moment.”

Mary Grant Bruce, A Little Bush Maid (1910), Chapter 2

 

As one might expect from such an introduction, Caesar’s story is characterized by aggression, particularly towards other animals and visitors to the homestead. He exists in a state of deepest enmity with the housekeeper’s cat, and their relationship is one of battles, strategic plotting and occasionally (for the warlike but chained Caesar rarely wins these fights) a “wild state of triumph” on the part of the victorious bird.

 

Thinking about the bellicose cockatoo of A Little Bush Maid set me wondering about the subliminal effects of his Roman name on the impressionable young reader that I was in the 1980s when I began to read the Billabong books. I didn’t know any boys for whom “Great Caesar!” was a customary exclamation, and I hadn’t yet come across the Superman comics, where “Great Caesar’s ghost!” is a catch-phrase of Perry White, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet. Nor had I read any Mark Twain, where the once-popular oath is also recorded, or encountered the comic strip by A. E. Hayward titled “Great Caesar’s Ghost” and published in the New York Herald in the mid-1910s. For me, Jim’s “Great Caesar!” was simply something to take at face value, and the cockatoo’s name likewise.

It was much more recently that I learned that Caesar is a popular name for cockatoos, along with Napoleon, Alexander, Angel Baby and Houdini (Mattie Sue Athan, Guide to Companion Parrot Behaviour, 2nd edition (2010), p. 194). Cockatoo Caesars appear in the Wall Street Journal (“Polly Want a Xanax? Neurotic Parrots Can Drive Their Owners Crazy”), and the Journal of the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (a good news story about a nervous and neglected cockatoo called Charlie who was rehabilitated and renamed Caesar to mark his happier new self). They also inhabit a corner of their own on the internet. There are those whose percussion performances on saucepan lids, coffee tins and salt and pepper shakers are immortalized on YouTube, one who does a head banging dance to the strains of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’, and another who mimics her owner’s typing on the computer keyboard (female cockatoos are called Caesar too). Others are not so outgoing – one poor Caesar appears as the terrorized victim of persistent bullying by a companion cockatoo called Carmen. But whatever their accomplishments or state of mind, it is a curious fact that from Australia to the United States of America, from 1910 to 2018, if you meet a pet cockatoo the chances are reasonably good that it will be called Caesar.

 

Is this anything more than a curiosity? Maybe not, but it is still perhaps worth thinking about the Classical names casually dropped into our lives, and our children’s literature, as the names of our pets. They are intended to reflect on the character of the animals so called, and it is no surprise that confident and cocky birds like cockatoos are graced so often with the name of Caesar. But they also tell us something about popular perceptions of the ancient figures they (if very distantly at times) recall. And in turn they have a small part in shaping our own impressions of the historical characters whom we later learn so much more about. Somewhere still in the back of my mind, whenever I read Caesar’s commentaries today, Norah’s pet bobs up and down on his perch, “a giant among cockatoos, [who] had a full sense of his own importance.”

Anne Rogerson

Anne Rogerson

Quaerite et Invenietis: Surveying Classics in Children’s Literature

Hot tip for researchers in classical reception!  In Warsaw this month, the OurMythicalChildhood team launched its wonderful survey of Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture Inspired by Classical Antiquity  Read on to find out more . . . .

I’m writing this from Chopin airport, waiting for my plane to take me away from the magic that is OurMythicalChildhood’s Warsaw team.  It was a wonderful visit: exciting and challenging.  I’ll be posting more about it in the next weeks, as I’m hoping to share some of what the students in the project have been up to.  At The Present Meets the Past they gave excellent presentations about their discoveries while working on the survey, sharing their findings from literature, film, games, and toys: they’re sending me information for a posting later in June.

In the meantime, some information about the survey.  It represents the work of the past year, in which our teams have been gathering entries from around the world.  Currently there are 450 entries, and we’re committed to producing over 1000 more during the project.  See the OurMythicalChildhood website for more information about the project as a whole.

The survey is truly a team effort.  Each entry is written by a researcher, identifying and uncovering the classical elements in books, films, games, toys, and ephemera from children’s culture around the world.  It is peer-reviewed twice by senior members of the team, checking for accuracy and insights.  Each entry contains a summary and analysis of the item, providing scholarly insights from different angles (classics, reception, children’s literature, film…).  Each entry is also tagged with markers from different fields of knowledge–classics, children’s literature, genre, more . ., throwing up interesting combinations and providing surprising results.

This survey will be a useful tool for researchers and teachers of classical antiquity and children’s literature alike.  It reveals the ongoing power of classics in popular culture day, the care and enjoyment with which children’s writers draw on ancient motifs, and the sheer fun that is to be had in finding one’s way through a labyrinth of curious texts.

Katarzyna Marciniak launched the survey during the Present Meets the Past workshop, and it is open for use, as a living work of scholarly inquiry.  So we invite you, please, to use it and to join with us in our mythical explorations.  The motto at the base of the site reads: Quaerite et invenietis (seek, and ye shall find), and we hope you will find what you’re looking for, and more, and that you will also share with us your discoveries and insights along the way.

Screenshot 20http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey18-05-31 17.21.26

–Elizabeth Hale