What is a Riddle? Definition, Examples of Riddles in Literature

Riddle definition: A riddle is a question or statement that offers a puzzle to be solved.

What is a Riddle?

Riddles are questions or statements that offer a puzzle to be solved. They often involve critical thinking on the reader’s part in order to figure out the answer, and this offers challenging entertainment.

Examples of Riddles

A popular children’s riddle is, “What is black and white and red all over?”

  • Common answers to this riddle are = “an embarrassed zebra” or “a newspaper.”

Another examples of a riddle is, “Feed me and I live, yet give me a drink and I die.”

  • Answer = fire

Third example, “What is big and yellow and comes in the morning to brighten mom’s day?”

  • Answer = school bus

Types of Riddles

Here are some different types of riddles people can create:

Enigma: Enigmas are types of riddles that employ the use of allegorical or metaphorical devices. These riddles involve critical thinking and ingenuity on the solver’s behalf in order to devise a solution.


  • I have a tail and a body, but I am not a snake. What am I?
    • Answer = Coin

Conundrum: A conundrum is a riddle that relies on the use of puns in order to achieve its desired effect.


  • What kind of tree can you carry in your hand?
    • Answer = Palm Tree

The Function of Riddles

While riddles often serve the function of entertaining the audience by proposing challenging questions to be solved, they also serve other purposes. For instance, they may allow for deeper thinking regarding an issue or to allow other questions to arise. By using riddles in these situations, it requires the reader to think of several possibilities in a critical manner rather than a superficial reading.

Examples of Riddles in Literature

Sophocles alludes to a well-known riddle in the play Oedipus Rex. In this play, he alludes to the riddle of the Sphinx. While the riddle wasn’t explicitly stated in the text, his audience would have been familiar with the question; therefore, they would have understood the reference.

The riddle goes as follows:

  • “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?”
    • Answer = A man. He crawls on four legs as a baby, two as an adult, and finally three as an old man with a cane.

In J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, the characters Gollum and Bilbo exchange several riddles for each other in a riddle war.

Here are some examples of riddles that the two share:

  • “Voiceless it cries, / Wingless flutters, / Toothless bites, / Mouthless mutters.”
    • Answer = the wind
  • “A box without hinges, key, or lid, / yet golden treasure inside is hid.”
    • Answer = an egg

Summary: What’s a Riddle?

Define riddle: In summation, riddles provide the audience with a challenging question or statement that requires critical thinking in order to be solved. These can allow for humor to be created for the audience or to display a character’s wit through the ability to create or accurately solve such challenging questions.

Final Example:

In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mr. Elton challenges Emma with the following riddle:

“My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,

Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.

Another view of man, my second brings,

Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!”

Answer = courtship