Riddles, Runes and Tolkien in the “At-Risk” 8th Grade Classroom

Christina M. Fitzgerald, The University of Toledo

At the University of Toledo, we have fairly long standing relationships with a number of local high schools and junior high schools through our Humanities Institute, which runs programs providing visiting scholars from the university to the schools.  When one of our local junior high school teachers asked if someone could work with her and her class on teaching The Hobbit and its medieval influences, the Humanities Institute came to me, and I cheerfully obliged. Community engagement is an important part of UT’s mission statement, and there aren’t many opportunities for a medievalist to practice such engagement except through educational activities.  And while I’m more a Tolkien admirer than scholar, I do regularly teach Old English language and literature. The Hobbit, perhaps more so than Lord of the Rings, is clearly indebted in part to Old English literature and culture, notably in its use of runic writing in the map illustrations and in the story itself, and in the important role of riddles in Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum, from whom he somewhat accidentally wins the ring so central to the story of Lord of the Rings.  This was my opportunity to take something that younger students might already be familiar with from popular culture—Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories—and introduce them to much older, much stranger literature that they surely wouldn’t have encountered.  It was also a chance to perhaps instill an interest in Old English culture that could blossom later—in high school, where textbooks frequently include Beowulf, or in college.

But as I was soon to find out, the class to which I was asked to contribute my expertise was not only a much younger crowd than I was normally used to, but was also the “at risk” class, a population I had no previous experience with at all.  Would these students be at all interested in what I had to teach them? Are Old English riddles and runes too “hard” for such a class? And how would I adapt my college-level teaching experience to capture their interest, imagination, and attention?  The following essay narrates what I did in two visits to this class and suggests ways you might adapt the lessons for your own classes.  In both visits I focused on the Old English influences on Tolkien’s imagined world, and though I made clear connections to where this influence can be found in The Hobbit, I left discussion of and lessons about the novel to the class’s regular teacher.

Class One: Old English Runes

The first day I visited the class I began by introducing myself and what I do for a living; I told them I teach and study medieval English literature at the University of Toledo, and then I explained what “medieval” means in terms of the time period it covers. I did this not so much to establish my authority, but to forge a connection between what I do and what J. R. R. Tolkien did as a scholar, because the next thing I did was to present a very brief biography of Tolkien, and to explain that much of the inspiration for his works came from his teaching and study. Although I did not say this explicitly, I wanted students to understand that modern writers do not simply write from life experiences, but gain inspiration from reading a wide range of literature. I would draw on that point again in my second visit, when I taught the Old English riddles.

I kept these remarks brief and moved straight into activities focused on the runes. This class was using an edition of The Hobbit that included Tolkien’s maps, but in case their books had not yet arrived, I’d come to class with photocopies from my own paperback copy of the Houghton Mifflin edition, as well as a color calendar of Tolkien’s illustrations for the book, which included a full color version of “Thror’s Map,” on which the runes figure prominently. The other visual aid I brought – the one key to the class activities – was a chart I made of the Old English rune system with modern English letter equivalents, as well as the words the runes can also represent (as written and spoken in Old English, but accompanied by translations into modern English). This complete chart is included in the Appendix (Handout 1) so that you can use it in your classroom as well.1

This is perhaps a more complicated chart than is necessary, since the concept of letters that are also words is potentially difficult. But my goal was to give students a taste of both the foreignness and the closeness of the past. So I read aloud the Old English words associated with the letters and asked the students to repeat after me. They got a kick out of some of the strange sounds, particularly the final ‘h’ in “feoh,” which is pronounced with the tongue against the back of the roof of the mouth, much like the ‘ch’ in “loch.”  They also giggled at the ‘g’ in “lagu,” which sounds a bit like a person gargling.  But they perceptively noticed that some words, like “dæg,” “is,” and “mann” are not all that different from modern English.  If you are not knowledgeable in Old English, you can present your students with the letter forms without their word equivalents.  The font I used on my handout for the Old English runes is a variety based on Tolkien’s design for runes written by the Dwarves in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings universe, and is available for free download. Not all of the runes listed on my chart are true Anglo-Saxon runes; but they are the runes of Tolkien’s world, so I included them. The font pack comes with slightly more typical Anglo-Saxon and Germanic runes, as well as sets with underscoring and overscoring to imitate the decorative runes on the title pages of most editions of The Hobbit.

After reading through the Old English words on the chart, I let the students get to work on the primary task of the class: decoding and writing messages in runes (see Appendix). In the first instance, I gave them messages from The Hobbit itself, from “Thror’s Map,” but I let them play freely with writing their own messages.Given a task and a problem to solve, students who were somewhat disconcertingly disruptive in the first half of the visit settled down to work diligently in pairs on rune messages. And they swiftly came to the realization that knowing runes might have some practical application; one student perceptively thanked me for teaching them a language that their teachers would not know.  “We can pass notes in runes now!” he exclaimed. Of course, their teacher also had the key, so neither she nor I were worried about students being able to communicate wholly in secret. But I was pleased that the students so easily made the connection between such an old system of writing and their own world, bridging the cultural gap of centuries. Given that “rune” means “secret,” using runic writing for note-passing, or for communication with a select circle of peers, seemed particularly appropriate.  The use of specialized language for defining a social circle is common practice to teens in our culture; and the way that friendships depend upon shared knowledge and experience is also important to The Hobbit. What that gleeful student wrote in runes is also telling: he wrote a declaration of love for a girl in the school. In runes, he could both express his feelings and simultaneously keep them protected from potential mockery, rejection, or humiliation, much as Thror’s Map could also communicate its runic message safely only to those who needed to receive it. If students could identify with fantasy characters and their narratives through such interactive experiences, it might instill in them the pleasures of such reading and open up other realms of experience and ways of being, from both fantasy and reality.

Because I am a literature professor, I am particularly interested in language and narrative, so the way I taught the runes focused on them as an alphabet. But runes also have a decorative element, since they were mostly used for carving messages in stone, ivory, and wood, rather than for writing in books.  Teachers interested in providing more visual aids can look to the famous Franks Casket, an 7-8th century Anglo-Saxon whalebone box carved with images and runes telling stories from Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Germanic legend. Students might even make their own runic maps – like the one in The Hobbit – or design their own artwork with images and runes.

Class Two: Old English Riddles

Runes are not the only Old English influence on The Hobbit. On my second visit to the class, I taught students about Old English riddles. In The Hobbit, riddles figure prominently in Bilbo’s adventures and in his process of learning about the world: in order to escape Gollum’s clutches, he must solve and also offer a series of riddles, relying on his growing wit and wisdom of the world.  And yet the final “riddle” Bilbo offers Gollum, and which Gollum cannot answer (thus setting Bilbo free), is not truly a riddle at all, for he absent-mindedly asks, “What’s in my pocket?” Even before one presents the Old English sources for Tolkien’s riddles, this provides students an elementary lesson in genre. Teachers can ask students to discuss the difference between a true riddle and a mere question or guessing-game, using Tolkien’s riddles as examples.

Furthermore, the riddles provide an invitation to learn about figurative and metaphorical language. In my lesson, I began with Tolkien’s riddles, reproduced on the handout without their context and answers, because Tolkien’s riddles are a little more accessible to students than the Old English Riddles, although not unchallenging in themselves.  The students I taught had not yet reached Chapter 5 in the book, and so they got to “practice” on Tolkien’s riddles before moving on to their more ancient predecessors. Riddles such as this one –  “A box without hinges, key, or lid / Yet golden treasure inside is hid” – give teachers a relatively simple text with which to teach, implicitly, that metaphor works by making us see the similarities between two things we would not normally say are alike.  For example, this riddle claims that its answer is “a box,” even though no box could possibly be “without hinges, key, or lid.” But the way to solve it is to stop thinking about boxes at all, and to think about what has something like “golden treasure inside.” (Although, again, it’s not really made of gold and not really a treasure.)  My students didn’t get it at first because they were reading too literally – they kept guessing kinds of boxes or kinds of golden treasure – and so I kept emphasizing the answer was only like a box, but not really a box at all, and its “treasure” only seemed golden.  Once I got them to think in terms of similarity instead of equivalence, hands flew up. “An egg!” many exclaimed at once.  What the riddle had done was to teach them the difference between the “vehicle” (box and golden treasure) and “tenor” (egg and its yolk) of the metaphor without putting them off with such intimidating technical terms.

Only after securing the students’ confidence with Tolkien’s relatively simple riddles did I move on to the Old English Riddles.  Of the ninety-five Riddles that appear in the 10th century manuscript known as The Exeter Book, only a handful really work for teaching modern adolescents in a public school.  Most of them would be too opaque to students because they are explicitly steeped in an early medieval culture and worldview and refer to objects, ideas, and ways of living foreign to students.  Many others are too overtly Christian, and early medieval Christian at that.  And a small handful are sexual in tone.  The ones I teach are still difficult and potentially foreign to students, but I found that with some context students were able to solve them.  Handout 2 in the Appendix contains the riddles I used: these are Riddles 48, 49, 66, and 81, according to Craig Williamson’s numbering system.2 All the riddles are available, with the rest of the Exeter Book Riddles, online in Old and Modern English facing-page translations at the Kenyon College Anglo-Saxon Riddles web site.

Again, I emphasized how Tolkien knew these texts as a scholar – as someone who studied and worked hard at learning – and how ancient his influences were.  And once more, I read the Old English aloud to students.  This time, instead of individual words, they heard whole poems and could follow along in the translation or else look at the Old English.  I pointed out how Old English poetry uses alliteration instead of rhyme, using words that sound alike in their beginnings instead of their ends, and doing so in the same line.  If you’re not comfortable reading the Old English – and you don’t have a local medievalist to do it – you can use Michael Drout’s podcasts on his web site Anglo-Saxon Aloud. The sounds and the poetic form help suggest to students that these are beautiful and ancient works of literature as well as fun games; and that the two categories are not mutually exclusive. And again, the students seemed to get a kick out of the strangeness of a language that is called “Old English.”

We worked one by one through the Riddles. I started with Riddle 66, which is potentially the simplest and the one with the least need for cultural context.  In Williamson’s translation it reads:

I saw a creature wandering the way:
She was devastating—beautifully adorned.
On the wave a miracle: water turned to bone.

Recalling the box that’s not really a box, I reminded students that the answer is not really a “creature” or a woman. I prompted them to think about what it means that water is “turned to bone.”  Again, hands shot up:  “Ice!” they exclaimed.  “Now,” I asked them, “what kind of ice is beautiful and can be found ‘wandering the way’?”  A few minutes later students came up with icebergs.  They seemed thrilled when I reminded them that they’d just solved a riddle over a thousand years old.  After all, who isn’t intrigued by ancient mysteries?

We then went through the remaining Riddles. I gave them a few clues before asking them to solve each one.  Riddle 81 (fish and river), I told them, has an answer in the form of a pair of things; it must be in the form of X and Y, and all the clues must make sense for both parts of the answer.  For Riddle 48 (fire), I told them to think about how cooking was done before electricity.  To solve 49 (illuminated manuscript), they have to remember that feathers were once used to make pens and that these Riddles were written before the printing press.

Once their task was set for them, the class that was once unruly settled down dutifully to figure out the Riddles.  I circulated to help the students with the trickier bits, always prompting them to think less literally – creatures aren’t really creatures, birds aren’t really birds, warriors aren’t always warriors, and so on.  As with the runes, the students seemed to enjoy the problem-solving aspects of the form.  While I sometimes want to undo older students’ assumptions that poems are things to be “solved,” I think that introducing eighth graders to poetry through the Old English Riddles, whether they are reading The Hobbit or not, is a great way to help them see that poetry can be playful, clever, and fun, but also requires some work by the reader.  And for some students, the sense that they were in some way communicating with people from a thousand or more years ago was somewhat thrilling.  Enthusiasm is only a start for instilling in students a desire to learn, but it might provide the spark; two students even said they wanted to be medievalists – “just like you and J. R. R. Tolkien” – when they grow up. Another said he wanted to study “all the languages in the world” so that he could “read this stuff.”  And these were the so-called “at risk” students.

Just a brief encounter with the language and literature of the past in its original form – or close to it – and a presentation of it all as a game to be played and a puzzle to be solved at the very least piqued their curiosity, and, I hope, got them to exercise some important thinking skills. You can replicate this experience in your classroom, with or without The Hobbit; although, as I think I’ve suggested here, the novel provides accessible context for understanding the past and its potential for inspiration.  In my presentations I was able to draw on my expertise to hook the students with the strange, harsh beauty of Old English:  I could read words and verse aloud and translate it for them.  If you have not studied Old English, don’t worry about not being able to do that yourself.  Working with widely available translations of the riddles in print and on the web and with the runes as an alphabet alone rather than as word-characters, you can still get students writing letters and stories in runes and jumping out of their seats to give the answers to the riddles.  If you have the time and inclination, you could teach yourself to pronounce Old English aloud, by using Peter Baker’s An Introduction to Old English online and the sound files to which he links. You could play the sound files and podcasts from the web for your students if you have an internet-linked classroom or an MP3 player.  Or, if there’s a medievalist in the English department at a local university – better yet, a specialist in Old English literature – get in touch with them and ask them to visit your class, read Old English aloud, and teach the students about riddles and runes.  Chances are your local medievalist would be more than happy to have the chance to inspire young students with the wundor (wonder) of their field.

List of Resources and Bibliography


  • Baker, Peter S. Introduction to Old English. 2nd Ed. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Hasenfratz, Robert, and Thomas Jambeck. Reading Old English: An Introduction. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2005.
    In Chapter One, you’ll find a handy chart of runes and other letter forms. This is the version on which I based Handout 1 (see Appendix).
  • Krapp, George P., and Elliot V. K. Dobie. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. Vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931-53.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937, repr. 1997.
  • Williamson, Craig. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  • —. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Web Sites

  • Baker, Peter. Old English at the University of Virginia. http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/index.html. Accessed December 15, 2007. Includes the electronic version of the first edition of Baker’s textbook, as well as additional resources for studying Old English language, literature, and culture.
  • —. Readings from A Guide to Old English. http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/Guide.Readings/Guide.Readings.html. Accessed December 15, 2007. A page of .wav sound files of readings in Old English by Peter Baker.
  • Becker, Alfred. The Franks Casket. http://www.franks-casket.de/. Accessed December 15, 2007.
    This website provides a detailed introduction to this Anglo-Saxon artifact, and includes images, transcriptions, and translations of the runes and images appearing on the sides and lids of the whalebone box.
  • Drout, Michael D. C. Anglo-Saxon Aloud. http://fred.wheatonma.edu/wordpressmu/mdrout. Accessed December 15, 2007.
    Click on the “Riddles” category in the left column and you can play and download MP3 files of Prof. Drout’s readings. Use the “Previous Entries” link at the bottom to move back through all 95 Riddles.
  • Eckhart, Douglas, ed. Maps of Middle Earth. http://www.douglas.eckhart.btinternet.co.uk/maps.html. Accessed December 15, 2007. This site provides images of all the major maps of Middle Earth drawn by Tolkien and his son, Christopher Tolkien. If the site ceases to exist or moves and the link is no longer good, a Google web or image search for “Thror’s Map” will likely turn up other options.
  • Klein, William F. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. http://www2.kenyon.edu/AngloSaxonRiddles/. Accessed December 15, 2007. This website provides electronic versions of the Old English Riddles, as edited and translated by Craig Williamson in A Feast of Creatures (see books, above). Click on the “Texts” link to get to the Riddles themselves. It also provides introductory, bibliographic, and pedagogical information, as well as an Old English glossary for the Riddles.
  • Smith, Dan. Dan Smith’s Historical Runes. http://www.acondia.com/fonts/runes/. Accessed December 15, 2007. Here you can download the rune fonts you’ll need to make handouts with runic writing. It also provides additional web sites and a brief bibliography related to runes and Tolkien.


  • Handout 1
  • Handout 2



1 The corresponding words and their translations are taken from Hasenfratz and Jambeck, An Introduction to Old English: A Reader and First Primer. See List of Resources and Bibliography.

2 In the Krapp and Dobie numbering, 50, 51, 68-69, and 85; see List of Resources and Bibliography. The different numbering systems have resulted from the ambiguities in the original manuscript. These ambiguities make it possible to argue that what one editor sees as two separate riddles actually comprise one riddle. Williamson and Krapp and Dobie are the two most common editions of the Riddles, but they offer slightly different ways of editing them.  It’s important to figure out what system a given edition is using so that you don’t end up accidentally assigning your students one of the sexually suggestive riddles! The Kenyon site uses Williamson’s versions.

Original Citation: The Once and Future Classroom, Volume VI, Issue 1, Spring 2008

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies