Riddles and parables and the pursuit of wisdom

Here is a post I began as I was preparing my reflection published 9/22/2012 in Give Us This Day, which never got posted for some reason. I offer it now as a further reflection on the topic.

I get a lot of my theological energy from dabbling in things that, on the face of it, are not theology. Fantasy is one of those things, and always has been — you might almost say that the first theological work I read, or perhaps the first work I read theologically, was the Lord of the Rings. There are works of fantasy I go to when I think my theological imagination is exhausted, and I find it again there. These are books that are not really about magic, but about mystery: about what draws us on, inward into ourselves and outward into the world in spite of our fear of what we might find in either place.

One example is Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master of Hed series. I first read these books in 2004, when I borrowed them from a friend, who is now a computer science professor at St Louis University. I read them in a rush, chasing the mystery pulling me from chapter to chapter. Though the world in the books is suffused by magic, it is not magic that structures the book and provides tension, but riddles — teasing, provocative stories that demand less explanation than conversion of those who seek to master them. I returned the book too soon and put it on my Amazon wish list. I gave it to several people as gifts but didn’t read it again myself.

This Christmas, my mom, who’d received one of those gift copies, was startled to notice it still on my wish list. She bought it for me, and I read it again on the plane on the way back from the North American Academy of Liturgy in Montreal. This time, knowing the surprise “answer” to the great riddle of the plot, I was still startled by its ability to provoke recognition, surprise, humility, and conversion. Great books stay great because we recognize in them an echo of our own stories, and search them for the answer to the questions we are still asking ourselves. This book, for me, is one of that kind. Riddle-Master of Hed is about a man constrained to keep asking riddles, though he’s often fearful of the answers. I can relate to that.

The riddles in Riddle-Master have a set form: there is a question (such as “Who won the riddle-game with Peven of Aum?”); a story, apparently learned by rote, which answers the question; and a stricture or interpretation of the story. One of my favorite examples is the following, which is presented in the text without a question or stricture:

There was a woman of Herun, a hill woman named Arya, who collected animals. One day she found a tiny black beast she couldn’t name. She brought it into her house, fed it, cared for it. And it grew. And it grew. Until all her other animals fled from the house, and it lived alone with her, dark, enormous, nameless, stalking her from room to room while she lived in terror, unfree, not knowing what to do with it, not daring to challenge it —

This story is a riddle without a stricture, but also represents the person running from a question because he or she is afraid of the answer. In the book, the character telling the story breaks off at this point, to be confronted by his listener, who demands, “What did she do?” He responds, “What will you do?” The riddle demands a response from her: action, not words.

Much of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic Gospels is presented in a very similar form, the parable. The parable takes elements familiar to its original audience (farmers, landlords, and widows; coins and seeds) and tosses them up into the air. When they fall, scattered into impenetrable shapes, the whole world looks different, because the parable’s pieces refuse to mean what we expect them to mean. One good example is the parable of the sower, in Luke 8:

“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path and was trampled, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky ground, and when it grew, it withered for lack of moisture. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold.”

Most of us are so familiar with the moral of this parable, the interpretation given in the Gospel that exhorts us to bear good fruit, that we fail to see its surprising elements. Luckily for me, I often teach this story to undergraduates who have very little Christian religious background, or who are more honest with themselves than I am. One semester, a young woman raised her hand when we read this story in class, and said, almost angrily, “Why would God sow seed among the thorns? That makes no sense!” She easily interpreted the conventional symbolism of the story (the sower is God, the seed gifts for humanity), but far from making the parable comprehensible, a simple fable, it frustrated her. If a farmer wishes to reap a hundredfold, he must sow on good soil; if God wishes to save the world, why doesn’t God elect some more competent helpers than me?

The riddle of the hill woman of Herun, too, ends in incomprehensibility. The woman Arya, we are told, “died of fear” after some time sharing her house with the nameless animal. What was it? “No one knew. It wailed for seven days and seven nights at her grave, in a voice so full of love and grief that no one who heard it could sleep or eat. And then it died, too.”

This riddle becomes a call to action, one to help us open the doors of our fears and follow the dimly lit path of doubt and faith. The Good News is not just that God has sown the Word among us; it is that the Word could spring up (at any moment!) among us where we least expect it, driving out fear with love.


  1. I like this one from the Riddle-Master of Hed:

    Q: Who was Re of Aum?

    A: Re of Aum offended the Lord of Hel once and became so frightened that he had a great wall built around his house in fear of revenge. He hired a stranger to build it, who promised him a wall no man could destroy or climb, either by force or by wizardry. The wall was built; the stranger took his pay; and Re at last felt secure. One day, when he decided that the Lord of Hel had realized the futility of revenge, he decided to venture out of his lands. And then he travelled around his wall three times but found no gate to let him out. And slowly he realized that the Lord of Hel himself had built that wall. . . .

    Never let a stranger build walls around you.

    Fear: it can blind, distract, distort, and twist, and far from providing safety, walls are dangerous things.

    Perhaps this is why Jesus, the angels, and the prophets kept saying “Do not fear . . .” and why Jesus went after just about every wall he could see (even the wall of death) to tear them down.

  2. Ah, the wall of death, too… another fantastic (!) fantasy trope. These things are so hard to talk about in plain language, unless you’re a poet.

    Here’s an electronic handshake, friend.

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