Stories for the Telling, Riddles for the Asking

Here's a few of my favourite stories.


There was once a general of war who was tired of fighting. He had spent his whole life perfecting his skill in all the arts of war, save archery. Now he was weary and wished to end his career as a fighter. So he decided that he would spend the rest of his days studying archery and he began to search far and wide for a master to study with.

After much journeying he found a monastery where they taught archery - he entered the monastery and asked if he could live there and study. He thought that his life was now over and the remainder of his days would be spent in study and meditation behind these monastery walls. He had been studying for ten years, perfecting his skill as an archer, when, one day, the abbot of the monastery came to him and told the former-general of war that he must leave. The former-general protested saying that his life in the world outside the monastery was over and that all he wished was to spend the rest of his days here. But the abbot insisted, saying that the general must now leave and go into the world and teach what he had learned.

The former-general had to do as he was told. Having nowhere to go when he left the monastery he decided to return to the village of his birth. It was a long journey and as he neared the village he noticed a bulls-eye on a tree with an arrow dead-centre. He was surprised by this only to notice more bulls-eyes on trees and, in the centre of each, an arrow. Then, on the barns and the buildings of the town he saw dozens, hundreds of bulls-eyes with arrows in the centre of each one.

The peace he had attained in tens years of monastic life had left him and he approached the elders of the town, indignant that after ten years of devoted study he should return to his own home and find an archer more skilled than he. He demanded of the elders that the master archer meet him by the edge of town in one hour. Waiting by the mill the general could see no one coming to meet him though he noticed a young girl playing by the river. The girl noticed him and came over.

"Are you waiting for someone," asked the girl looking up at the former-general.

"Go away," he said.

"No, no," said the girl, "you look like you're waiting for someone and I was told to come and meet someone here."

The former-general looked unbelievingly at the little girl and said, "I'm waiting for the master archer responsible for the hundreds of perfect shots I see around here."

"Then it is you i was sent to meet. I made all the shots," said the girl.

The former-general looked even more sceptical, convinced that this girl was trying to humiliate him. He said to the girl, "If you're telling the truth then explain to me how you can get a perfect shot every single time you shoot your arrow."

"That's easy," said the girl. "I take my arrow and I draw it back in the bow and point it very, very straight. Then I let it go and wherever it lands I draw a bulls-eye."

retold by chris cavanagh

The Ring

King Solomon once commanded his councillors to fashion him a ring and inscribe on it something that when read would turn his mood of joy to sorrow, and a mood of sorrow to joy. The councillors worried over this conundrum for some time and after much thought and work presented Solomon with a ring. Solomon took the ring and was pleased when he read the inscription: This Too Shall Pass.

retold by chris cavanagh

The Old Woman & The Pot

There was once an old woman who, one day, was feeling very sorry for herself. Her husband had recently died and she was also thinking of her many children, of whom two had also died. She tought what a terrible thing it was to outlive your children. Many of her children still lived and she knew that she had lived a good, if hard, life. But her self-pity was strong and she felt doubly bad for this indulgence. She decided to go to the market and, there, perhaps lose herself in the bustle and noise of the crowd. Once in the market her spirits did begin to lift when she noticed a pot-seller's table and remembered that she needed a new pot. On the front of the table was a nice, shiny new pot the esact shape and size that she needed.

She asked the price and the potseller said, "For that pot, four kopeks."

Yes, thought the woman. It is a lovely new pot and too expensive. She looked over the table and, to one side, saw another pot, a little smaller but still good for her purposes. It looked old but it would do.

"For that pot, five kopeks," said the potseller.

The woman was suprised and said, "But I don't understand. How could that pot be more expensive than this nice new one. I don't mean to embarass you but, that pot looks used."

"Ah!" said the potseller and he lifted his hand and struck the old pot hard with his finger. The pot sent a musical note into the market air that stopped all those around who heard it until the sound dissipated into the morning air. "You see, we who make pots know that you do not judge a pot by the way that it looks but by the note that it sings."

"Oh, yes," said the old woman, smiling. "I knew that. I just forgot it for a moment."

retold by chris cavanagh

The Cup

Once there was a university professor who decided that he wanted to study zen. He travelled to a local monastery. He was shown in to the abbotís study. The abbot was about to pour himself some tea. The professor stood before the abbot who looked up. The professor explained that he had been studying and teaching in the univeristy for many years and that now he wished to add to his knowledge and learning by studying zen.

The abbot nodded and began to our himself some tea. The professor watched as the teacup filled to the brim and, apparently failing to notice the full cup, the abbot continued to pour. The cup overflowed and still the abbot poured. The professor was reluctant to embarrass the abbot but finally said, "Master, your cup is full and overflowing. It can hold no more tea."

"Yes," said the abbot. "And how do you who come here with your cup so full expect to fill it with the teachings of zen?"

The professor nodded and smiled and bowed before the abbot.

To Dance

Word came to the Jews of a small Russian town that a much beloved and very wise Rabbi was to pay them a visit. The whole town prepared. The wise men and the talmudic students polished their questions. Foods were prepared for a feast.

The Rabbi arrived in the town which was fairly vibrating with anticipation. All the townspeople gathered in the village square. Some of the talmudic students were so eager and worried that their questions might go unasked and unnoticed that they simply blurted them out. Very quickly there was a clamour of voices directed at the Rabbi.

The Rabbi raised a hand and quickly all were silent. He held his hand steady and all listened. The breeze stirred the leaves of trees. Birds chirped in the warm sunlight. The Rabbi began to hum a tune. He closed his eyes and swayed back and forth. First the children followed suit, humming the gentle melody and swaying on their feet. Soon all the villagers were humming and swaying. The Rabbi began to dance, first in slow, measured steps and then quicker and quicker until he was spinning around the square. The villagers all joined in until the square was a mass of dancing and spinning and singing people. The joy of the dance and the song reached out and touched the trees and the birds, the sunlight and the clouds in the sky. The entire earth seemed to be vibrating in time with the dancers.

Hours passed before the dance was done. All sat in the square, tired and still. They looked to the Rabbi who said, "I trust that I have answered your questions."

Heaven and Hell

There was once a samurai who wanted to learn the difference between heaven and hell. He sought until he found a master from whom he thought he could learn. He stood before the Master and asked him what was the difference between heaven and hell. The Master took the samuraiís sword and, turning it to the flat of the blade, struck the samurai on the head. The samurai was surprised at this but chose to ignore it. He thought that the Master had failed to understand his question. He once again asked the Master about the difference between heaven and hell. Again the Master struck the samurai on the head. The samurai staggered back and puzzled over this. He approached with his question for a third time and, before he could utter a word, the Master struck him a third time. The samurai was now so enraged at this behaviour that he grabbed his sword from the Master, raised it over his head and was prepared to bring it down on the Masterís head when the Master raised one finger and the samurai paused.

"That is hell," said the Master.

The samurai was instantly so overcome by the courage of this frail old man - to have risked his life for the sake of a strangerís question - that he fell to his knees and bowed before the Master.

"That is heaven," said the Master.

The Lock

Once there was a Sufi who was captured by the police and accused of theft. Despite his protests of innocence he was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail. He had a loving wife who visited him every day. One day she was allowed to bring him a carpet on which he could pray. Three times a day he would unroll the carpet and, kneeling and bowing down, would pray. Weeks and months passed in this manner. One day the intricate pattern of the carpetís weaving caught his notice. There was something unusual about it. Still, day after day, he prayed and gradually the intricate detail of the carpet began to make sense to him. As the days passed and he continued to pray, the pattern resolved until one day it was clear to him. The pattern in the weaving was the design of the lock on his prison door. Using his new knowledge he picked the lock and escaped.


(I found the following riddles in some 18th and 19th Century children's books. For the answers click on the word "answer".


Hick-a-more, Hack-a-more
On the King’s kitchen door
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men,
Couldn’t drive Hick-a-more, Hack-a-more
Off the King’s kitchen door


Little Nancy Etticoat
In a white petticoat
And a red nose
She has no legs nor hands
And the longer she stands
The shorter she grows


In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk;
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.


Twice six is six and so
Six is but three.
three is just five, you know.
What can we be?
Would you want more of us;
Nine is but four of us,
Ten is but three.


‘Tis true I have both face and hands
And move before your eye;
Yet when I go my body stands,
And when I stand I lie.


As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives;
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?


I have a little sister, they call her Peep, Peep;
She wades through the waters deep, deep, deep;
She climbs the mountains high, high, high;
Poor little creature, she has but one eye.


Two legs sat upon three legs,
With one leg in his lap;
In came four legs,
Ran away with one leg.
Up jumps two legs,
Catches up three legs,
Throws it after four legs
And makes him bring one leg back.


I am a vehicle that’s wondrous large
But neither coach, nor wagon, ship nor barge;
Whether sitting, standing, lying;
With you I’m miles uncounted flying;
You hear not a breath while, mute as death,
My journey I pursue;
With a mighty swift whirling,
I’m constantly twirling,
But ‘tis all unfelt by you.

Some travel with me who never can see,
nor believe I convey them a yard;
And for years I have taken them.
Nor ever forsaken them,
And yet claim’d no reward.
And, gentles, against or with your will,
Or sleeping or waking, I’ll carry you still.


White bird, featherless,
Flew from Paradise,
Pitched on a castle wall;
Along came Lord Landless,
Took it up handless,
And rode away horseless to the King’s white hall.


What is the difference between Noah’s ark and Joan of Arc?


Which travels more quickly - heat or cold?


Why is a mouse when it spins?


If a tailor and a goose were on top of the Parliament Buildings what would be the quickest way for the tailor to get down?


As long as I eat I live, But when I drink I die. What am I?



First you throw away the outside
Then you cook the outside
Then you eat the outside
Then you throw away the inside