Answers To “Why Is A Raven Like A Writing Desk?”

raven writing desk.png

In Chapter 7 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Adventures in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter asked this unanswered riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Several readers were perplexed (and I was one of them) and Carroll had continuously received letters requesting for a solution over the years. When I first read this riddle, the only answer I could think of is both have the “r” sound in the beginning.

Carroll wrote in the preface of the 1886 edition of Alice Adventures in Wonderland that he originally didn’t intend to provide a solution:

Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!” This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

Carroll intentionally misspelled never as nevar (raven spelled backward). However, in the next edition of the book, an editor who thought that he was clever enough to spot a basic spelling error “corrected” it. Later editions of the book also contain the “correction” and the original spelling was “nevar” restored. This made the second part of Carroll’s answer look so incomprehensible and silly.

Over the years, many people have tried to come up with their own solutions. Puzzlist Sam Loyd in Cyclopedia of 5,000 Puzzles (1914) provided four solutions:

  • Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes.
  • Poe wrote on both.
  • Bills and tales are among their characteristics.
  • Because they both stand on their legs, conceal their steels (steals), and ought to be made to shut up.

Aldous Huxley in “Ravens and Writing Desks”, Vanity Fair, (September 1928), gave these nonsensical answers: because there’s a in both and because there’s an in neither. A similar answer was provided by James Michie: because each begins with e.

From Francis Huxley’s The Raven and the Writing Desk (1976):

  • Because it bodes ill for owed bills.
  • Because they each contain a river—Neva and Esk.

The following are more answers from different people.

Because it slopes with a flap. – Cyril Pearson

Because without them both Brave New World could not have been written. – Roy Davenport

Because one has flapping fits and the other fitting flaps. – Peter Veale

Because one is good for writing books and the other better for biting rooks. – George Simmers

Because a writing-desk is a rest for pens and a raven is a pest for wrens. – Tony Weston

Because “raven” contains five letters, which you might equally well expect to find in a writing-desk. – Roger Baresel

Because they are both used to carri-on decomposition. – Noel Petty

Because they both tend to present unkind bills. – M.R. Macintyre

Because they both have a flap in oak. – J. Tfebbutt

MY PERSONAL view is that it was a joke at the expense of the Establishment and red tape. There is a saying that if the ravens leave the Tower of London, the monarchy will fall. What would happen if the government were unable to write and keep records? – Andrew Small

Because outstanding bills are found on both of them. – David Tucker

THE RAVEN flaps its wings, and the lid of the writing-desk flaps, up and down. – Ian Gowans

If you look up this riddle on the internet you will find that it is a riddle without an answer. You will also find that a lot of people have tried with spectacular lack of success to say funny or intelligent things about it. I have just added to the number. – David Isaacs

Now, my answer?

Because they are difficult to catch. Ravens can fly, so catching one can be troublesome. And catching a thrown desk is not easy and can be dangerous to your health. Quite wordy, I know, but that’s the best I could come up with.

Do you have your own answer?

References

Martin Gardner, Annotated Alice (1960)

Any possible solutions to the Mad Hatter’s conundrum: Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

About Edmark M. Law

My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. I blog at learnfunfacts.com. You can find me on Twitter @EdmarkMLaw and Facebook. My email is learnfunfacts@gmail.com
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38 Responses to Answers To “Why Is A Raven Like A Writing Desk?”

  1. Jack Shalom says:

    They both have quills?

    Liked by 5 people

  2. My favorites are the pun answers. Ha! Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Garfield Hug says:

    A good brain work out for me ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  4. superwifeandmummy says:

    Plagued me since childhood, this riddle. Several years later when Google took over the world, I looked it up and found the Lewis Carroll quote you referenced and thought, meh.
    Then I never thought about it until now! Still kind of annoys me, I have to say- there must be ONE PROPER ANSWER! Aaaarrgghh!
    But great post 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many were disappointed with Lewis’ answer. Though in fairness, he didn’t intend to give a solution to this riddle.

      I think that the beauty of this riddle comes from the fact that many people have given their own unique interpretations of the riddle. I think that the Mad Hatter will approve most of the answers we have come up with, especially those that didn’t make any sense. 🙂

      Like

  5. Benjay says:

    These kinds of open-ended riddles were common proto-literate devices.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like David Tucker’s ‘outstanding bills’ answer. 😄

    But enjoy, even more so, the continuing determination to find the ‘true’ answer. The Hatter is definitely not the only Mad one. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jfrels says:

    Now if someone could tell me what a blue corn moon is.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Both depend on trees for their existence and both occur as part of your consciousness.
    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Brilliant post. Erudite and thought provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Here’s one — Because both show no feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thunder Poet says:

    Absolutely genius. Good to see how so many people can come up with such great answers…..
    You, too. 😄😁

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Irene says:

    Ha! So interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for sharing this. I will not try to solve this riddle and can move on in my life!

    Like

  14. Lilly Moore says:

    Oooh, I love this! I’d always wondered what the real answer was.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jennifer says:

    In typical me fashion, I overthink it and would have to venture that they are alike in that one cannot exist without the other. Without quills we wouldn’t have the (original) ability to write with a pen and without trees (from which a desk is made) birds would have nowhere to rest/perch/build nests and therefore would have probably fallen to evolution. but that’s a long shot answer. 😊

    Like

  16. macbick says:

    I have no answer to offer. My clever streak has run dry, if it was ever very wet to begin with, that is. I simply wish to express my thanks for your entertaining post and its unusual subject matter. I needed a break from adulting today. This provided a wonderful diversion.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. lynelleg says:

    Thank you for checking out my blog today. I look forward to having a read through more fun facts on yours

    Liked by 1 person

  18. this has consumed me for years. thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. dorothyanneb says:

    Love this, and all the research you have shared! Just finished re-reading the Annotated Alice and am gobsmacked at how much I missed when reading it as a child.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Lewis Carroll’s two books have always been two classical favorites of mine. Yet my favorite work of Carroll’s comes in neither of the two books. Rather, it comes in a letter Lewis Carroll wrote to all children, great or small, who loved his books. It was an Easter letter, and I encourage everyone to read it! Here is a link: http://www.classicreader.com/book/3461/6/

    Regarding the riddle, I am content to leave it as its creator did, without answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. toseealife says:

    In the Ever After High books, Raven Queen says she gives the Mad Hatter a different answer every time, and her current answer was “Both don’t have gills.” I thought it was interesting that if you start thinking about what both a raven and a writing desk don’t have, you have an infinite amount of answers to the riddle.
    Which given the way things run in Wonderland, seems fitting to me. It makes it more wondrous.
    But I can easily believe Lewis Carol had no answer since the riddle is supposed to have no definite answer because it’s nonsense.

    Like

  22. Elle says:

    I never knew so many people have tried to solve an unsolvable riddle Such interesting answers, but I think I like your answer best~! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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