Sunday, February 10, 2013

Riddle (Part II)

If you haven't read yesterday's post about a riddle my father used to recite, you might want to take a look at it now. Below is a version of the riddle that I believe comes closer to being the original:

Twelve pears hanging high,
Twelve knights passing by,
Each took a pear,
And left eleven hanging there.
How could that be?

I discovered a query seeking the solution to this riddle in an interesting 19th century compendium of newspapers and journals entitled Notes and Queries, A Medium of Intercommunication For Literary Men, General Readers, Etc.  The relevant London newspaper in the volume is dated Saturday December, 3 1887.

A respondent named Ellen I. Delevingne provided the correct solution: "The answer is that the [knight's] name was 'Each.'" She then adds, "I always thought it a most unsatisfactory solution."

I concurred until I read one of the other remarks: "The 'twelve knights' must have been Spenser’s 'doucepere,' F.Q.,’ iii. 10, 31. The name has reference to the 'twelve peers' of France, but the context shows that there was only one of him."

The respondent is referring to Edmund Spencer's (ca. 1552-1599) The Faerie Queen, book 3, Canto 10, stanza 31: "Big looking like a doughty Doucepere," 

Spencer's doucepere (fr. OF doze pers, doze per, lit., twelve peers) is "an illustrious noble; specif: one of the twelve peers of Charlemagne." So my guess is that this was a literary riddle that came out of the British Isles during the Victorian period, was originally a pun on the "twelve peers" ("twelve pears"), and included a nod to Spencer's "Doucepere" (just one of the twelve knights).

Maybe the original version of the riddle actually went something like this:

Twelve pears hanging high,
Twelve peers passing by,
Twelve peers took a pear,
 And left eleven hanging there.

How could that be? The solution: Twelve peers (Doucepere) was the name of one of the peers.

When the riddle was passed down in the colonies (including Ocracoke), "twelve" sometimes became "ten," and the literary reference (and the accompanying pun) was lost...resulting in "Each," not "Doucepere," becoming the name of the single knight, and the riddle becoming, as Ms. Delevingne remarks, "most unsatisfactory."

Perhaps there was more to this riddle than I ever imagined as a child. Maybe the "riddle" of the riddle has been solved!

 Hey, at least I found this all quite interesting, even if most of our readers are rolling their eyes.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of windmills on Ocracoke. You can read it here:


  1. Bill Walker7:47 AM

    What if "Each" is one of the Knight's name?
    Bill Walker

    1. That's the answer my father always gave: "Each" is the name of one of the men [knights]. But that solution was never satisfactory. I believe that in the original version "Doucepere" ("twelve peers") was the name of one of the peers (knights), and that the literary reference (and pun) was subsequently lost... so that the solution was changed from "Twelve Peers (Doucepere) was the name of one of the knights" to "Each was the name of one of the knights."

  2. Anonymous9:18 AM

    Ilove this stuff! Thanks for starting my day with such an interesting analysis. Same for the riddle of your family relationships in "I am My Own Grandpa". Great fun!


    1. I am happy you are enjoying my posts. Sometimes I feel like a detective, discovering clues and unearthing evidence. It is fun.

  3. Anonymous9:43 AM

    Why don't you become a syndicated columnist. you share this stuff for free --we all should be thankful or at least send a donation to that museum.

    1. Thank you for the kind comment. Here is the link to donate to the Ocracoke Preservation Society.

      And don't forget to shop at Village Craftsmen! Our gallery on Howard Street will be open again for the season in mid-March. In the meanwhile you can shop at Village Craftsmen on line.

      We always have a great selection of quality, American made handcrafts.

  4. Anonymous4:12 AM

    Your picture of Springer's Point from Facebook is now my desktop background. Makes me smile! Thanks for always sharing your life so generously.

    P.S. - the Cherry Kitchen utensils from the Village Craftsmen are THE BEST!