James Joyce, Ulysses, literature, Stephen Dedalus, riddle, Ireland, Dublin

Stephen’s Riddle

I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality. – James Joyce

At the close of his lesson in “Nestor,” Stephen’s students ask for a ghost story, so naturally he provides them an unsolvable riddle. Classic Dedalus. The riddle, however, is not only unsolvable for the students of Mr. Deasy’s school, but also for most adult readers of Ulysses. It goes as follows:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
to go to heaven.

Answer: The fox burying his grandmother under a holly bush.


So, what does it mean?

If you go digging online, you can unearth interpretations running the gamut from total nonsense to the riddle being… riddled with arcane symbolism. It’s preceded by the lines, “To Caesar what is Caesar’s, to God what is God’s… a riddling sentence to be woven on the church’s looms.” So, surely there’s a religious angle to it. That cock crowing (crewing?) does seem to evoke Peter denying Christ three times before the dawn. “Bells in heaven” and “time for this poor soul to go to heaven” also sound religious. Perhaps a father and son angle: God the father, God the son. There’s that other fragment of riddle just before the main riddle: “Riddle me, riddle me, randy ro./ My father gave me seeds to sow.” Ah ha! Father! Of course, the ghost of Hamlet’s father also disappeared at the dawn, when the cock crowed. That could be the particular soul going to heaven. Hamlet’s father gave him “seeds to sow,” I suppose, in the form of vengeance. So, it could be about Hamlet. But then you realize the sun doesn’t generally rise at eleven, and what does this all have to do with foxes and hollybushes? 

Never fear, I have some advice. There are a couple basic truisms I keep in mind when tackling any particular paragraph in Ulysses. The first is that nothing is there by mistake. You don’t spend years writing Ulysses just to fill it with meaningless errata. After all, Stephen Dedalus himself said, “A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Second, it’s best to favor interpretations that serve narrative and character development. Ulysses is, above all other things, a novel. What makes it enjoyable and worth re-reading, in my opinion, is its characters and story. The allusions, the stream of consciousness, the inscrutable puzzles, and those big rambly lists all have their own appeal, but Ulysses is a still a story, and Joyce was no slouch as a storyteller. If you’ve developed a radical new theory about the text, ask yourself, does it advance the narrative or help us understand a character better? If it doesn’t do those two things, then it might need further examination.

Ok, here we go. Let’s examine that symbolism!

red-fox-2230730_640First, the fox. A fox is a fossorial creature (there’s your vocabulary word of the day), meaning it digs up buried dead, here supposedly a grandmother. Traditionally, foxes are associated with slyness and cunning, but also with guilt and hiding.

Next, the crowing cock. The cock can be associated with guilt as well, such as Peter’s guilt over denying that he knew Christ. In the first act of Hamlet, Horatio said of the ghost that appeared to the guards on the walls of Elsinore, “it started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons.”

Finally, the number eleven. Eleven has an association with death in many classical texts. For instance, Odysseus travels to the underworld in Book XI of The Iliad. This also applies to the Milton poem “Lycidas,”an eleven-stanza elegy read by Stephen’s students just prior to the riddle’s unveiling.  I’ve cherry-picked these three symbols because they recur frequently throughout Ulysses, and they are often attached to thoughts of guilt or death. We should take note any time they pop up throughout the novel since Joyce thought they were important enough to bear repeating.

What really opened up my understand of this puzzle, though, was learning the origin of the riddle. Joyce didn’t write the riddle. It was a folk riddle that existed in Ireland in the early 20th century and was included in a 1910 book on Hiberno-English called English as We Speak it in Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce (no relation). PWJ says of this riddle, “Though Solomon solved all the riddles propounded to him by the Queen of Sheba, I think this would put him to the pin of his collar.” We also learn from PWJ that J. Joyce altered the original, which went as follows:

Riddle me, riddle me right:

What did I see last night?

The wind blew,

The cock crew,

The bells of heaven

Struck eleven.

‘Tis time for my poor sowl to go to heaven.

Answer: the fox burying his mother under a holly tree.


Frank Delaney points out on his podcast Re:Joyce that when he was a young boy in Tipperary, this kind of nonsense riddle was common – riddles that were fun to say but had no greater meaning. P.W. Joyce himself precedes the riddle with, “Observe the delightful inconsequence of riddle and answer.” We could perhaps end our interpretation there: the riddle is nonsense, an example of Stephen’s whimsical teaching style or his desire to torment his students of a higher social class.

But why include such a riddle if it’s just nonsense?

Joyce didn’t write the riddle, but he did choose it and alter it to his needs. The most notable alteration is changing the word “mother” to “grandmother.” I’ve interpreted this as a sort of Freudian slip – Stephen is trying his hardest not to think about his mother who previously appeared in a ghostly nightmare, so he either misspeaks or misremembers the line as “grandmother” to hide the mother reference. Perhaps he also avoids the boys’ request for a ghost story because ghost stories hit a little too close to home at the moment. Either way, Stephen has figuratively buried his mother in this riddle by changing one word. This is characteristic of the prose in Ulysses – a thought begins to form in a character’s head and is squashed mid-sentence due to the its repugnance. Bloom struggles in the same way as he tries to repress thoughts of Blazes Boylan’s “music lesson” with Molly throughout the day.

Stephen is ultimately unsuccessful in repressing his thoughts of his mother, as she surfaces in his mind while he tutors young Cyril Sargent. He sees himself in Sargent – scrawny, messy hair, weak eyes, ink on his cheek, a face only a mother could love. Stephen thinks:

Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life?

Stephen’s musings on Sargent are really on himself and his own mother.

This run of thoughts also contains reference to the “odour of rosewood and wetted ashes,” the smell of the spectral mother’s breath in his nightmare as described in “Telemachus.” Stephen feels enormous guilt about his mother’s death. Buck Mulligan repeatedly insinuates Stephen’s culpability in his mother’s death because of Stephen’s refusal to pray at her deathbed. The guilt symbolism is amplified through the fox and the cock in the riddle, especially because Joyce repeatedly connects them to guilt throughout the novel. If the connection wasn’t clear in this early episode, the repetition will call attention to it by the end of the book.

One more little oddity from PWJ: saying someone begins their meal like a fox means they begin eating without saying grace, because a fox never says grace, refusing to pray just like Stephen D.

Stephen thinks:

A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.

His poor old mother, dead and gone, and here he is, this cunning, villainous fox psychically digging up her corpse again and again. Stephen discovers his guilt manifest in the lines of this childish nonsense, the guilt gnawing at his psyche like a fox at a corpse. Scrape, scrape, scrape.


Further Reading:

Bowen, Z. (1974). Musical allusions in the works of James Joyce: Early poetry through Ulysses. Albany: State University of New York Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=srr_rtOEx5YC&pg=PA72&lpg=PA72&dq=riddle+me+riddle+me+randy+ro&source=bl&ots=UQFfMDaaPx&sig=9hq1-KlGzDZvKzW8mqSAtV5vBLY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi69PCYyv_dAhXVKH0KHfVxBZ4Q6AEwA3oECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=riddle%20me%20riddle%20me%20randy%20ro&f=false

Delaney, F. (2011, Aug. 23). Episode 63: A Lot of Nonsense. Re:Joyce [Audio podcast].

Joyce, P.W. (1910). English as we speak it in Ireland. London: Longmans, Green & Co. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/englishaswespeak00joycuoft/page/187?fbclid=IwAR21xIHZOLV48sEIEVS3TM1Au5QqSrO5Oz1T9nEwSSDhXxSExgVqF2SeydI

Kaczvinsky, D. (1988). “The Cock Crew”: An Answer to the Riddle. James Joyce Quarterly, 25(2), 265-268. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25484873

Rickard, J. (1997). Stephen Dedalus among schoolchildren: The schoolroom and the riddle of authority in Ulysses. Studies in the Literary Imagination, 30, 17-36. Retrieved from http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rickard/authority.html



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