Captain Wedderburn’s Riddles

There’s an album I have a bit of sentimental attachment to, Road Rage by Great Big Sea. It’s the album my parents bought at the very first concert I ever went to, and the band covers both my Irish and Newfoundlander heritages very satisfyingly. Also, they’re just kind of objectively awesome.

Anyway, the eighth song is a pretty little folk number called Captain Wedderburn. It’s not my favorite by a long shot, but it’s softer and sweeter than the others so it’s a nice change of pace. In the song, the titular Captain Wedderburn wishes to bed a lovely noble maid. BUT! Before she will have sex with him, she has RIDDLES.

Now, my dear good man, she said
Do not be perplexed
Before that you might bed with me
You must answer questions six.
Six questions you must answer me,
And I will ask them all
And you and I in the bed might lie
Roll me over next to the wall

I heartily approve of this set-up; getting sex for riddle answers is very charming and fairy-tale, and it’s nice to see a girl have fun with standards. I am strongly in favor of removing all the obnoxious social shame and stigma that comes with sex in our culture, but sometimes it seems like maybe when you strip all that away there’s a lingering emptiness, and I think riddles are just the thing to fill it.

Setup: A+

This is where things start to fall apart, as so many riddle-centric stories inevitably do. I think like everyone else who ever reads this blog, I spent a lot of my childhood reading books of riddles and looking up riddles and in general enjoying the solace of feeling smarter than all the friends I didn’t have. This means, unfortunately, that as an adult I’ve been more or less ruined for all riddles. With that in mind, I do try to judge each one fairly (unless they involve either spelling or ice) but these ones are especially disappointing.

What is rounder than a ring,
And higher than the trees?
And what is worse than a woman’s curse,
And what is deeper than the sea?
What bird sings first, which one best?
Where does the dew first fall
And you and I in a bed might lie
Roll me over next to the wall

So far so good, right? I mean, pretty classic, old-fashioned riddle format. Fairly promising. Now, the answers:

The earth is rounder than a ring,
And heaven is higher than the trees,
The devil is worse than a woman’s curse,
And hell is deeper than the sea
The lark sings first, and the thrush sings best,
And the earth is where the dew falls
And you and I in a bed might lie
Roll me over next to the wall

Is it just me, or are these answers exceptionally boring? Let’s take them one at a time:

1. Rounder than a ring: Earth. Really? Under what definition of round? Because the last ring I saw didn’t have, like, mountain ranges on the surface.
2. Higher than the trees: Heaven. Yawn.
3. Worse than a woman’s curse: The devil. Double yawn.
4. Deeper than the sea: Hell. YAWN TIMES INFINITY. What the hell, boring straightforward religious answers?
5. Which bird sings first: The lark. Okay, we’ve moved from sunday school to 1st grade life science I guess. Can anyone confirm whether a lark sings particularly early?
6. Which bird sings best: The thrush. Is this true? Does anyone know? How can it possibly sing better than this bird?
7. Where the dew falls: The earth. This is like the mother of all smartass vague answers. I hope the Captain puts a little more effort into the actual lovemaking, for our young maid’s sake.

Riddles: C

Those of my readers who posess rudimentary quantitative reasoning and/or reading comprehension skills may have noticed that the specified number of riddles was six, but the actual number is seven. I cannot express how truly crazy this drives me. Every single time I hear this song, I carefully count along, WITH MY FINGERS, just in case there’s any chance whatsoever that I’ve somehow miscounted every time I’ve ever heard this song, and every time it comes back seven. Some of them blend together a bit, but there are clearly seven separate answers. Unbelievable.

Counting: D-

Finally, is it just me or is “roll me over next to the wall” one of the less appealing code phrases for sex? It is like he is pushing her aside so he can read his book or something. I don’t know, maybe it is just because it reminds me of how I have always used my own bed as a general storage area, and frequently have had to just sort of shove everything against the wall if I want to use it at all.

Euphamisms: C-

Overall: C+. A kind of fun idea, but only if you don’t think too hard!

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Captain Wedderburn’s Riddles

  1. Jake

    For those of you keeping score at home, the bird that sings best is the Montezuma Oropendola.
    [audio src="http://www.xeno-canto.org/sounds/uploaded/NHJILLHRNZ/MOORsong.mp3" /]
    QED.

  2. YES. Shortly before my last semi-inamorata and I parted ways (I wonder why), I made her play a “yes and no” puzzle until she said, “No, no, I’m not guessing! I don’t want to do this anymore!”

    “You’re so close!” I wheedled. “You can’t give up now. Aren’t you curious what the answer is?”

    “No,” she said.

    Dizzy, confused, I said, “Um, okay, well, then, you come up with a puzzle, and I’ll guess.”

    To be fair to her, the answer involved spelling, sort of. Well, it involved phonemes. It was pretty dumb.

    But she was so close!!

    Anyway, since it’s on one line, I guess “which bird sings first, and which sings best” is supposed to be one riddle? Reading it, I was assuming it would have one answer–which bird sings first AND best. And I guessed ‘lark’ because of Romeo and Juliet, “It was the nightingale, and not the lark!” I think the lark is supposed to be a harbinger of morning. Rooster also arguably ‘sings’ first, although probably not prettily.

    Actually, I kind of thought all of that was one riddle, and the answer would have been ‘extremely fat, high-flying, spiteful, scheming lark. In a bush.’

  3. If you look at the original Child ballad that this folk song derives from, you gain a bit more historical perspective. Plus, better riddle answers!

    “Death is greener than the grass,
    Heaven’s higher than the trees,
    The devil’s worse than woman’s wish,
    Hell’s deeper than the seas,
    The cock crows first, the cedar buds first,
    Dew first on them does fall,
    And we’ll both lie in one bed,
    And you’ll lie next the wall. ”

    I find this GBS version charming for the same reason you give: the woman’s sweetly sly responses – she’s frank about her sexuality AND wants a reasonably intelligent lover, so she sets him a mental task to accomplish first. After all, she can always brush him off by being picky about the answers (which she doesn’t, you’ll note). And I love the tenderness in “he takes her by the slender waist / for fear that she might fall”. Finally, the last line which you find slightly offputting? Let me recontextualise that for her: it’s protection and security. (Ok, so you can also view it as sexist, like the guy walking on the outside of the sidewalk to keep the puddle splashes and trampling horse-flung mud and worse from his lady love’s gown, but I love the chivalry in it!) He sleeps on the outside, while she’s safe between his body and the wall.

    • Alison

      Ohhhhh, “And we’ll both lie in one bed, And you’ll lie next the wall” makes much more sense! Thanks, I just honestly hadn’t made that connection. Chivalry is sometimes annoying, but not when riddles are involved!

      • Love this song and love your analysis, it’s like acknowledging that someone is a bot of a dork but so pretty and sweet you love them anyway.

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