The “St. Ives” Riddle

I’m sure almost everyone has heard the “St. Ives” riddle in one form or another. It goes as follows:

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, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

There are a few variations to the above. This discussion is based on the above text as written so any criticism bringing in other versions or what have you is not relevant.

There are a few different answers for it. The general consensus seems to be that the correct answer is one. My assertion is that the general consensus is wrong. My reasoning generally parallels the reasoning that leads to the conclusion that one is the correct answer but the final conclusion differs.

First, the narrator is going to St. Ives. Normally, if you meet someone on the road, it’s because they are going in a different direction or are not going anywhere at all. (It seems that “meet” had a much tighter definition in the time when the riddle was first framed so this is actually reasonable.) In either of those cases, the only mentioned person or thing going to St. Ives would be the narrator. Thus, the answer is one, correct? After all, we know the narrator is going to St. Ives. Except that doesn’t fit. The rhyme specifically calls out “kits, cats, sacks, and wives” in the question. Note that it does not include the man or the narrator! That means that neither the narrator nor the man with the wives can be included in the answer.

The other assumptions I made to arrive at the above are:

  • The narrator is not a wife. That is a reasonable assumption but there is no actual evidence to support it. If the narrator happens to be a wife, that allows you to justify an answer of one. However, bringing in unstated information is generally not considered valid for a riddle since that would allow any random answers to be justified.
  • The second to last line is not there for mere decoration or to fill out the rhyme. That is a reasonable assumption since doing anything other than considering the entire text is cherry picking and that can be used to defend all manner of answers.

You could argue that everyone is going to St. Ives depending how you interpret “met”. Considering the age of this particular riddle, it’s reasonable to assume that “met” refers to oncoming traffic. If, however, we apply a looser modern interpretation of “met”, perhaps the narrator caught up with the man’s party, which is not unreasonable if he is travelling with seven wives. That would mean everyone is going to St. Ives. In that case, you would have to do the calculation and arrive at 2800 (the total number of kits, cats, sacks, and wives). Again, one suggested answer for this circumstance is 2801 but that’s not defensible at all, even if you do interpret things to include the narrator and the man. In that case, the answer would be 2802. However, as noted above, the question specifically enumerates the kits, cats, sacks, and wives so the man and the narrator should not be included. That means only 2800.

I should note at this point that there is a variation where the narrator only meets the seven wives and there is no mention of the man. In that case, if you count everyone and everything, then 2801 would be valid. However, as long as the man is mentioned, 2801 cannot be defended.

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