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Reply To: Riddle Me This,” with mythologist John Bucher, Ph.D.”

#74635

John,

Your reference to Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games lures me back to this conversation. Carse’s book was a gift from my first serious, longterm girlfriend (someone I’d known since junior high, but didn’t really connect with until college), decades ago; hence, it’s always been a favorite, thanks to that association (as well as being one of the first works to pitch my mind outside the cartesian comfort zone). [Correction: in retrospect, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach is the first book she gave me – she gifted me Carse’s volume a few years later, on a related theme.]

This Campbell quote seems relevant:

A mythological order is a system of images that gives consciousness a sense of meaning in existence, which, my dear friend, has no meaning––it simply is. But the mind goes asking for meanings; it can’t play unless it knows (or makes up) the rules.

Mythologies present games to play: how to make believe you’re doing thus and so. Ultimately, through the game, you experience that positive thing which is the experience of being-in-being, of living meaningfully. That’s the first function of a mythology, to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence.” (Pathways to Bliss, 6)

We all know the rules when it comes to riddles – they must have an answer that makes sense once shared – such as this example from Finnegans Wake:

. . . where was a hovel not a havel (the first rattle of his juniverse) with a tingtumtingling and a next, next, and next (gin a paddy? got a petty? gussies, gif it ope?), while itch ish shome” (231)

which Campbell and Robinson in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake boil down to “Where was a hovel not a hovel? . . . When it is home.” (149)

That’s an answer which pretty much rings true for everyone – but that doesn’t always seem the case with myth and fairy tale.

Two examples come to mind:

Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.”

and

“One slew none, and yet slew twelve.”

The first is from the biblical myth of Samson, a wager posed to his Philistine bride’s wedding guests (Judges 14:14). The riddle is a reference to a lion the Israelite hero slew with his bare hands; on returning to the carcass sometime later, he discovered bees had built a hive in the carcass – an episode memorialized in a Grateful Dead song (“He ripped that beast, killed it dead / And the bees made honey in the lion’s head”).

The second riddle is from the aptly named “The Riddle” – the 22nd offering in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (published by Pantheon in 1944, which includes a “folkloristic commentary” by one Joseph Campbell).

In both instances, the riddle is drawn from an episode in the respective hero’s life that he alone knows, which seems more than a little unfair to those who are posed the question. Nevertheless, each of these riddles is successfully solved – a result of the hero  of each tale confiding in a woman who shares his bed.

Despite the sweet and simple “where is a hovel not a hovel,” the riddle that is Finnegans Wake seems of this latter variety, with the answer contained within the one posing the question (i.e., HCE – Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, aka Here Comes Everybody / Haveth Childers Everywhere).

Your reference to game and game theory really strikes a chord for me. Myth, ritual, dream, and art all emerge from the play-sphere of imagination. There are many answers – and no answer – to the central riddle of Finegans Wake; nevertheless, I do find an answer in literature (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to be specific), however out of context it may be, that works for me:

The play’s the thing.”