Secret knowledge: poems and songs in novels

When I was a kid and reading Redwall for the very first time, I was entranced by the poem that old Methuselah discovers graven into the wall behind Martin’s tapestry. I was bewitched when the mouse discovers that the poem is a riddle, and utterly enraptured by the slow unfolding of the meaning as Matthias and Methuselah follow the poem’s directions and discover hidden things – rooms, carvings, history – in, around, and about their beloved Redwall Abbey.

If you’ve read any of Brian Jacques’s Redwall books, you already know that the riddle-poem is a characteristic trait of the series. Poems – riddles, songs, games – may be inscribed on a wall, on a map, in a chronicle of the Abbey. Poems wait to be deciphered. They are secret knowledge, hidden in plain sight, overlooked, concealed just out of mundane reach, waiting for the right time – the right character and the right situation – to reveal their secrets to the worthy.

It’s not just in Brian Jacques’s novels that this aura of mystery – and delight in discovery – centred around poems is found. Other authors do similar things with their novels. Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, for instance, has Magids who try to guide worlds into the direction they are Intended to go. Here is one Magid’s description:

Some of [the deep secrets] are things you more or less know already. If I were to tell you some, you might laugh – I know I did – because a lot of the secrets are half there in well-known or childish things, like nursery rhymes or fairy stories. I kid you not! One of our jobs is to put those things around and make sure they’re well enough known for people to put them together in the right way when the time comes. Or again… some of the secrets are only in parts. These are the dangerous secrets. I’ve got the memorized parts of at least seventy of them. If another Magid has need of my piece of secret, he or she can come and ask me, and if the need is real enough, then I put my part together with his or hers. It acts as a check. We only do that in an emergency.” (Will, p. 174)

Naturally, toward the end of the novel, there is a desperate need and a frantic piecing-together of one of the deep secrets, which has been concealed for hundreds of years in a children’s chant. In Deep Secret, poems – secret knowledge – is indirectly hidden: everybody knows it, and nobody believes it is important. It is culturally hidden, so to speak: dismissed as childish nonsense. This poem has no physical form but lives orally.

In the Redwall books, a riddle-poem is often physically concealed. Martin’s riddle was carved into the wall behind his tapestry. Other riddles are written on unused maps or in old books, typically neglected; in one instance, the book containing the necessary poem-riddle-instructions was used as a bedpost!

Even Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay uses a poem – a song, a riddle – as a vehicle for secret knowledge. The song that Katniss recalls her father singing says what nobody is allowed to say aloud: that life is intolerable and the only way to be free is to die. Secret knowledge? Perhaps not. But it is necessarily hidden: the Capitol would deem this song, and others like it, as rebellious; the Capitol needs to keep the people of the Districts from seeing things as they truly are. The song’s despair could be as potent as hope for a future free of Reapings, because people who do not fear death (i.e. resist as though they have nothing to lose) are as dangerous and hard to control as people who believe in the possibility of effecting immediate change. Katniss’s song puts the truth of District life to music, and into the homes across the other Districts and the Capitol. Her hidden knowledge is immensely potent.

It’s not just in fiction, either. At several points in public schooling in Canada it becomes fascinating knowledge, bandied from child to child or teen to teen, that the elementary school chant “Ring around the rosies” –

Ring around the rosies,

a pocket full of posies.

Ashes, ashes, [or atischoo, atischoo]

we all fall down.

– is actually about the Black Death. Symptoms, popular “cures,” death itself: they’re all there in a playful song that children join hands and skip in a circle, singing. Is this an attempt at humour to fend of the unbearable? Maybe.

I think it is also an expression of the human desire for mystery in the ordinary. Of the longing for secret knowledge, the possession of which proves the possessor special or chosen, the only person clever or wise or determined enough to figure out.

The use of poems as riddles or modes of hidden knowledge can be taken too far, perhaps, but it is also true that reading literary, situational, or verbal puzzles can be a delight. Some puzzles in books are not solvable by the reader; the story’s protagonist must find physical clues in their surroundings; or the answer can only be uncovered if the reader has access to specialized knowledge, such as jargon or outdated words. Others are: puns and linguistic/verbal/written clues challenge readers. I was delighted the first time I figured out part of a riddle in a story on my own – and delighted again, the second and third time I solved even part of a puzzle.

This isn’t a bad introduction to poetry, either. True, most poem-riddles are fairly flat. Their metre may be good, but their meaning is more puzzle or code than nuanced portrayal. But, speaking as a reader who memorized poems (riddles, songs, and otherwise) from my favourite series and can still recite today what I read in elementary school, love of the characters transferred to love of the poems, songs, and riddles they encountered, which transformed into a love of poetry, songs, and puzzles for their own sake.

And seriously, what high school student hasn’t stared an assigned poem and wished someone would just hand over the key to the code so that this dratted poem would make sense? And later discovered the exhilarating rush of understanding when a passage that once was a set of incoherent and indecipherable phrases has become so familiar that the ideas and emotions behind the words form a complete whole that resonates throughout their being?

  • Good one 😉

  • Yash

    You know, I haven’t come across riddle poems before. I mean, I probably have but none that I remember right now … guess I should get started on Redwall. Really, it’s about time I returned that book to you.
    As for poems that say something about the plot, The Infernal Devices has poetry all. over. And it was fun to see how the poems apply to so many characters. Also, there’s an Irish cook who sings gruesome ballads that always have something to do with what Tessa’s feeling/going through. It’s pretty funny. (Well, annoying for Tessa, fun for me.)
    Also, if you were ever a fantasy character you would be a roving reporter who has an uncanny memory for poetry. Obviously, poetry in this world would have to do with spell-making. Oh, wait, I think I just got the plot of my short story! 😀

  • I loved the Redwall books! I can’t remember them in this much detail but I think the riddle element definitely was part of what appealed – similar to mystery books but a different angle. I have used short riddles sometimes to get kids thinking at the start of a lesson – they get really into it!

    • Janet

      What a lovely way to teach! One of my teachers used to pose conundrums to us – amazing how a scenario seems utterly impossible before you get that little shift in perspective that puts all the clues together.
      I agree about similarity to mystery books. Riddles have the suspense without the necessity of a villain in hiding. Definitely part of the appeal!

  • REDWALL!!!!!! Those books influenced me so much in my reading and writing life.
    And there’s nothing I like better in a book, especially MG and fantasy, than to come across a page with a ton of white space and a nice, big poem or riddle smack dab in the center.
    I definitely use secret knowledge in my own writing, because it’s something I adore in my own reading.

    • Janet

      You’re so right! White space is part of the mystery, I think – a visual cue that this is something extraordinary.
      Best of luck with your writing!

  • Oooh, I always loved when Trixie and Honey (From the Trixie Belden Mystery series) or Nancy Drew and/or Frank and Jo Hardy and all their friends would find clues like that. In the Mystery of the Old Clock there is a poem for Nancy to decode fairy quickly. Trixie and Honey often have riddles and old song lyrics, and Frank and Jo…well they get riddles pretty quickly into the series as well. Always felt that gave it a bit more mystery.

  • Great post! I’d never really thought of the poem/riddle connection. I’m terrible at figuring out riddles, so riddles in books always annoyed me, but you’re right, it is about finding the key to unlock the meaning, which is what reading is all about. Huh. Lots to think about.