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 b in both and because there’s an n 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?
Martin Gardner, Annotated Alice (1960)