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Instructions for Cryptic Crosswords
In a cryptic crossword puzzle each clue has two parts: one half is a traditional style crossword clue, and the other half is an anagram or other form of word play. Part of the challenge is to figure out which half is which and where one leaves off and the other begins.
Here's an example. The clue is "Kin of Legolas, singing, surrounded by Wargs(9)" (the number 9 at the end is the number of letters in the word). If you are imagining a group of elves huddled in the forest, singing bravely while wild wolves peer out hungrily from the darkness, you are entirely on the wrong track!
It usually helps to ignore any first impressions you get from the clue. Here, the traditional portion of the clue is "Kin of Legolas", and the answer is WOODELVES. The wordplay comes when you surround the letters in the word ODE (which is a sort of "singing") with the letters in WOLVES (which are "wargs") between the O and the L: WO-ODE-LVES. See? "ODE surrounded by WOLVES" (or since that would be easy, and therefore not so much fun, "singing, surrounded by Wargs").
Two clues instead of just one! What more could you ask?
Here is another example: "Ancient evil ruler is crazy, knighting a farm cow (5,4,2,6)" (four words; five, four, two and six letters respectively). The traditional clue portion is "ancient evil ruler" and the answer is WITCH KING OF ANGMAR, which is an anagram of "knighting a farm cow". The word "crazy" in this case indicates that an anagram is involved. Again, the surface meaning of the sentence is intended only as a distraction. If it suggests Caligula's appointment of his horse to the Senate of Rome, so much the better!
There are often one or more words (in this case the single word "is") linking the two halves of the clue. Such words are never added merely to dress up the clue: they always (and grammatically!) describe the relationship between the traditional clue portion and the wordplay. The answer (WITCH KING OF ANGMAR) "is" an anagram ("crazy") version of "knighting a farm cow".
By the way, that business we did in the first example, giving clues ("singing", "wargs") instead of the actual words (ODE, WOLVES) won't ever happen with an anagram. Everybody agrees that that would make it just too difficult. Where the wordplay is an anagram, all of the scrambled letters will appear in the clue.
Cryptic crosswords almost always use words as clues for their common abbreviations without any special indication (and this puzzle is no exception). So, in an extreme case you might find "Fourth Age Sun God married current retired steward (7)". The traditional clue here is just "steward" and the answer is FARAMIR. The wordplay goes like this: FA (abbreviation for "Fourth Age") + RA (the Egyptian sun god) + M (abbreviation for "married") + I (abbreviation for "current") + R (abbreviation for "retired").
Sometimes the two halves of a clue will both be conventional crossword clues. Here is an example: "Holds a bridge gaming convention? (5)". The answer is TROLL, and the clues are "holds a bridge" (which is, after all, what trolls are most famous for) and "gaming convention", since "to troll" is a traditional way, or a "convention", for fishing -- or we could say for "gaming", since fish are a sort of game.
Here, as in American style crosswords, a question mark means that there is something fishy about the clue. In this case the dictionary insists that "gaming" refers only to playing games of chance and cannot mean "fishing". That's no fun, so we use it anyway, but add the question mark in order to be completely fair.
Every now and then it is possible to come up with a clue in which both the conventional clue and the wordplay are identical (but, of course, must be read in different ways). Then the clue is given only once, but with an exclamation point to make sure everyone knows how clever the puzzle-maker is! Try: "Misguided boor confronted with Elvish treasure! (7)". The answer is BOROMIR, which is an anagram ("misguided") form of BOOR, followed by MIR, an Elvish word meaning "jewel", which is a kind of treasure!
As in this last example, there are often several sorts of wordplay combined in a single clue.
You may want to start by checking out some of the excellent cryptic crossword sites on the internet. You will find many more examples, as well as tips for solving these puzzles. Search for "cryptic crosswords" or follow one of these links to get started:
One last hint: to figure out every last clue, you should know that one of my favorite pastimes (for more than thirty-five years now) is the study of the Elvish languages. Almárëa nai tiëlya! (Good luck!)