Thirty White Horses
DESCRIPTION: "Thirty white horses Upon a red hill, Now they tramp, Now they champ, Now they stand still."
EARLIEST DATE: 1849 (Halliwell) (but see NOTES)
KEYWORDS: riddle animal
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Opie-Oxford2 229, "Thirty white horses" (1 text)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #704, p. 275, "(Thirty white horses)"
NOTES: Chances are, if you've met this riddle, it's from Tolkien's The Hobbit (p. 85 in my edition, in the chapter "Riddles in the Dark"; he uses a slightly different form of the text). But it is much older (even Gollum calls it a "chestnut"). Tolkien's use of an item from oral tradition is not coincidence; Tolkien uses familiar riddles to imply the common ancestry of Gollum and Bilbo.
The answer is "the teeth" or "the teeth and gums."
The Opies refer this to a riddle in the Holme manuscript, "Four and twenty white Bulls sate upon a stall, forth came the red Bull & licked them all." I suppose they're related, in that the answer is the teeth (plus, in this case, the tongue). But I wouldn't consider it exactly the same (apart from the fact that neither gets the number of teeth right: A person with wisdom teeth will have 32 teeth; one whose wisdom teeth are out will have 28).
The "Thirty white horses" form goes back at least to Halliwell.
Duncan Emrich seems to think there is an American version of this; he quotes almost exactly this form on page 168 of Folklore on the American Land. But he cites no precise source, simply crediting much of the chapter to the research of Archer Taylor.
I do not know how old riddles of this type are, but Englsih riddles of recognition based on such cryptic descriptions are effectively as old as English as a written language. Riddles of similar style are found in the Old English "Exeter Book," written probably between 950 and 1000 C.E., one of the four great collections of Anglo-Saxon verse. - RBW, (BS)
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