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J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit contains many lovely riddles, posed in-universe by Gollum and Bilbo to each other. Most of them are original compositions by Tolkien himself, as he explained in one of his letters. One of these is the "fish-riddle", asked by Gollum, which goes as follows:

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

The answer is, of course, fish.

I first came across this riddle in the Childcraft series, which is sort of an encyclopedia created for children. In Volume 1 of the series, titled Stories and Poems, this riddle appears alongside several others but with a small change (emphasis mine):

Alive with breath;
As cold as death.
Never thirsty, ever drinking;
All in mail never clinking.

Considering the care with which the Childcraft series is made, I find it hard to believe that this change is just a typo, and not a deliberate choice on the part of the editor. But, I personally find that "Alive without breath" is more descriptive of a fish, because one typically doesn't imagine gills as lungs.

So, is there a strong justification for the change in the first line of the riddle compared to Tolkien's original? Does this riddle appear in the modified form in any other prominent places, like popular compilations of nursery rhymes/riddles?

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  • I apologize in advance for asking what might be the silliest wording-choice question ever to do with the master wordsmith J. R. R. Tolkien.
    – user5387
    Aug 13 '20 at 19:45
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    When I asked. Google books came up with only one instance of your version, in a 1995 prose paraphrase. Aug 13 '20 at 23:15
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    My guess as to what happened is that the compilers of Childcraft looked breathe up in the dictionary, and found the definition "(of a fish) draw in water with dissolved oxygen through the mouth and force it out through the gills." So they decided to "fix" the riddle. Ironically, I think that by any metric they made it much worse.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 14 '20 at 13:02

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