Friday, April 15, 2016

Early Riddles and the Mystery Story by Carolyn Wells 1913

Early Riddles and the Mystery Story by Carolyn Wells 1913

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The enjoyment of puzzles or mysteries is as old as humanity itself.

First there is the ancient Riddle, that draws upon the imagination and play of fancy. Readers will remember the riddle of the Sphinx, the monster of Boeotia, who propounded enigmas to the inhabitants and devoured them if they failed to solve them. It was said that the Sphinx would destroy herself if this one of her riddles were ever correctly answered: "What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?" It was explained by OEdipus, who pointed out that man walked on his hands and feet in the morning of life, at the noon of life he walked erect, and in the evening of his days he supported his infirmities with a stick. When the Sphinx heard this explanation, she dashed her head against a rock and immediately expired. Puzzle solvers may be really useful on occasion.

Then there is the riddle propounded by Samson. It is perhaps the first prize competition in this line on record, the prize being thirty sheets and thirty changes of garments for a correct solution. The riddle was this: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." The answer was, "A honeycomb in the body of a dead lion."

The classic "Riddle of the Sphinx" is mythological rather than historical, and belongs to the Grecian deity, not the Egyptian Sphinx. Its date is unauthenticated, but at least it wears the halo of antiquity, for Sophocles wrote of it in the Fourth Century B. C.

Samson has been called the Father of Riddles, but merely because his famous riddle was among the first to creep into print. Doubtless older and better ones were buried in an oblivion from which they can never be disinterred.

"Out of the eater," propounded 1200 B.C., does not strike us as an exquisitely clever conceit, but it embodies the true principle of the riddle and of the riddle story. The asker already knew the solution, and that was why the guessers strove to attain a re-solution.

In those days riddles were proposed at wedding feasts and other social gatherings, a practice still obtaining to a degree.

The Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, "to prove him with hard questions." And Solomon, in his turn was addicted to the giving of riddles to Hiram, King of Tyre, who was fined for those he failed to guess.

Among the Egyptians, puzzling was a religious rite and the Sphinx was their goddess. We are told that such was the esoteric religion of the Egyptians that all the priests were riddlers and their religion one vast enigma.

Other recorded ancient riddles are of interest to the antiquarian, but enough has been said here to prove the inherent love of Question and Answer in man's mind from the earliest ages. From earlier than Samson to later than Sam Loyd the puzzle has held its own among mental activities.

And puzzle, in its broader sense includes all branches of mystery or detective stories as well as mere riddles or conundrums.

The Century Dictionary defines puzzle as "A riddle, toy or contrivance which is designed to try one's ingenuity."

This is the crux of the mystery story. It is designed to try the reader's ingenuity at re-solution. The exercise of this tried ingenuity is what gives the entertainment or amusement found in a mystery story.

The type of mentality or the kind of mental bias that gives pleasure in puzzling is the same in author and reader. The talent that knits is the same talent that unravels. The propounder uses the same kind of acumen as the guesser, and his pleasure in doing so is of the same sort.

It is difficult to say just what this mental faculty is, but we who possess it know that its exercise gives us exquisite enjoyment.

As the athlete rejoices in his muscular prowess, as the musician rejoices in the melodies he makes, as the artist glories in his painted masterpiece, yea, even as the clam is notoriously happy in his own element, so the mental acrobat revels in concentrating all his brain power on an analytical problem.

Lowell declared that Poe had two of the prime qualities of genius,—"a faculty of vigorous yet minute analysis and a wonderful fecundity of imagination." These two qualities are present to a greater or less degree in every lover of mystery fiction; and it is the degree that determines the intensity of the call of the author and the response of the reader.

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