This is my entry to the 15th Fortnightly Challenge: Stories.

You are a human inhabitant on a distant planet. You live there, along with a large population of an alien species known as the sorns.

Your planet is at war with Earth, and the sorns have just taken a distinguished hostage. Knowing they need something from Earth to win this war, the sorns have demanded it, promising to release the prisoner in return.

The human diplomat from Earth refuses and says, "These describe you. If you figure out how, I suppose we'll give you what you want," and gives the sorn diplomat a sheet of paper, which has some sentences scribbled on it.

Being the only human on their planet, and the only person who grew up on earth, the sorn diplomat quickly contacts you, supposing that the paper contains a riddle related to human culture. He gives you a copy of the paper:

Oh, Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!

Technically, I am unarmed. But no one should ever underestimate the harm that fingernails can do. Especially if the target is unprepared.

If it's not baroque, don't fix it.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Things never happen the same way twice.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

If you tell the truth you do not need a good memory!

If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also.

Et tu, Brute?

Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.

He who jumps for the moon and gets it not leaps higher than he who stoops for a penny in the mud.

We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.

The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.

Be careful of love. It'll twist your brain around and leave you thinking up is down and right is wrong.

Now, don't be angry after you've been afraid. That's the worst kind of cowardice.

A man with a club is a law-maker, a man to be obeyed, but not necessarily conciliated.

Let's face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short.

May the hair on your toes never fall out!

'Fairy Tales always have a happy ending.' That depends... on whether you are Rumpelstiltskin or the Queen

We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones.

Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no need of change.

Always winter but never Christmas.

Oh, that clock! Old killjoy. I hear you. "Come on, get up," you say, "Time to start another day." Even he orders me around. Well, there's one thing. They can't order me to stop dreaming.

It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.

The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.

Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy. Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we're related for better or for worse...and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Thus fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself.

Thus, with a kiss, I die.

Alone-- it is wonderful how little a man can do alone! To rob a little, to hurt a little, and there is the end.

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.

I profess not to know how women's hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration.

Listen to me! You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!

Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine.

The sorn diplomat said that the prisoner might be compelled to divulge some information about the paper, but for the most part, decrypting the paper falls to you.

Can you figure out what it says about the sorns?
Also, can you figure out what it was that the sorns wanted from Earth?

To respond to portions of the answer by Gareth McCaughan:

I did base the story on characters and places in the book you attributed them to, but most of the "plot" of the story is just flavortext to set up why the puzzle is here. You are quite close to the second answer, and about that, I will provide a hint.

Hint 1 for question 1

It involves using the first of the first two letters of the title.

Hint 1 for question 2

Many people think they know where it is, but they are wrong; only one person knows where it actually is.

As a side note, this is my first puzzle, so I would appreciate any feedback that you would be willing to give about the quality of the puzzle, whether it's too hard/easy, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ Looks like we're all still stuck. Any hints on question 1? $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan
    Sep 12, 2016 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ Is Hint 1 for question 1 supposed to say "the first of the first two", or was that an unintentional typo? It seems to me that "the first of the first two" is the same thing as "the first". $\endgroup$ Sep 20, 2016 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ @GentlePurpleRain It was intentional. What exactly it means, is for you to find out. $\endgroup$
    – ash4fun
    Sep 20, 2016 at 20:27

1 Answer 1


Not remotely an actual answer, just saving others some work. (It might turn into an actual answer if inspiration strikes.) No spoilers because I haven't solved anything.

As you might guess from recognizing some of them, every one of the lines on the piece of paper is a quotation. Most are from famous literary works of the sort one might read at school. [EDITED to add: I swear that when I wrote this I was unaware that the author of the question is in high school :-).] A couple are from Disney movies (and aren't, so far as I know, quoting). Here's the list in order:

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew, (Aslan), 1955
  2. Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire, 2010
  3. [movie], Beauty and the Beast, (Cogsworth), 1991
  4. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, (Gandalf), 1954
  6. C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, (Aslan), 1951
  7. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, (Marcellus), c. 1599-1602
  8. Mark Twain (= Samuel Clemens), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884
  9. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, (Jekyll), 1886
  10. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, (Caesar), 1599
  11. Homer, The Iliad, c. 760-710 B.C.
  12. Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, 1883
  13. Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, 1877
  14. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (Aslan), 1956
  15. Rick Riordan, The Battle of the Labyrinth, 2008
  16. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book, 1894
  17. Jack London, The Call of the Wild, 1903
  18. George Orwell (= Eric Blair), Animal Farm, (Major), 1945
  19. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, (Thorin Oakenshield), 1937
  20. Jane Yolen, Briar Rose, 1988
  21. Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, (Nemo), 1869
  22. H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895
  23. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950
  24. [movie], Cinderella, (Cinderella), 1950
  25. L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908
  26. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 1955
  27. Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters, 2006
  28. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
  29. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719
  30. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, (Romeo), c. 1591-1595
  31. H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, 1897
  32. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, 1851
  33. Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, 1820
  34. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, (The monster), 1818
  35. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726

I've indicated who says the relevant words where I know. In some cases I've carelessly trusted memory and/or deduction rather than checking, so don't trust that too much. Thanks to GentlePurpleRain for improving the formatting and adding dates.

There are all sorts of things to try with this. I haven't tried any of them yet.

I suppose I might as well also make explicit that the Sorns are a race of Martians in C S Lewis's "Out of the Silent Planet", whose protagonist is named Elwyn Ransom. (This book was the first of a trilogy, all featuring Ransom, but I don't think the sorns appear in the other two.)

Since the question is about how the sorns are being described by this cryptic document, it may be relevant what they're like in Lewis's book. They were one of three intelligent species on Mars (the others being called hrossa and pfifltriggi; there were also beings called eldila, roughly corresponding perhaps to angels in human tradition). They were very large, maybe 3x the size of a tallish human. Of the three kinds of sentient Martian, they were in some sense the scientists, philosophers, theologians, historians, etc. They are portrayed as noble and wise.

In the book, Mars and Earth are not in any usual sense at war. Ransom's name is derived from "Ranulf's son" and has, so far as he knows throughout that book, nothing to do with ransoms in the hostage-related sense. (A sort of connection emerges in the second book, but that seems unlikely to be in any way relevant here.)

Some things I conspicuously don't understand (but which probably also don't matter):

  • In the framing story, why am I supposed to be on the sorns' side in their war with earth?
  • And why on earth would the humans be prepared to give the sorns the thing they need to win the war, just because they managed to figure out what the paper said about them? (Or is it about the specific sorn diplomat engaged in the hostage negotiations?)
  • Why would the prisoner be able to divulge information about the paper, when it was given to the sorns by the human diplomat they're negotiating with?
  • How can I (now meaning me, not "the person called 'you' in the story) be "quite close to the second answer" without having actually figured out any aspect of the puzzle?

Perhaps the answer to the second question is the one in the title of this puzzle: the sorns want a ransom, and perhaps specifically the sorns want Ransom, i.e., Elwyn Ransom from Lewis's book. (As they kinda-sorta do in the book itself.) I don't see how this fits with the hint, though, nor is it clear how Ransom would help them win their war. (Maybe there's a reference here to the third book of Lewis's trilogy, in which Ransom does kinda-sorta go to war and is generally more impressive than he is in the first book.)

  • $\begingroup$ Three bits of Tolkien too, which kinda goes along with the Lewis. $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan
    Sep 6, 2016 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ Let's move this discussion to chat. $\endgroup$ Sep 6, 2016 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ When I created the story, I overestemated how obscure Malacandra was. What I intended was that the first part would be solved first, and I would kind of guide whoever was solving it toward the book, and then look really clever for putting the answer in the title without them noticing. Oh well... :-( $\endgroup$
    – ash4fun
    Sep 7, 2016 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ I had quite a few ideas about what the story should be, and looking at it now, it is a rather incoherent hodgepodge, so please excuse me for that. You have practically guessed in the chat, so if you want, I'd be willing to post the answer I intended in spoilers after the question. I don't expect you'll guess it, as it really isn't that great. The second question was really just an afterthought; the puzzle was meant to be figuring out what's behind the quotes. $\endgroup$
    – ash4fun
    Sep 7, 2016 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Wait, you think (1) I've practically guessed it but (2) I won't guess it because it isn't that great? I take it we're just talking about the second question here -- it doesn't feel as if we've got anywhere towards finding out "what's behind the quotes" yet. $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan
    Sep 7, 2016 at 13:31

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