31

"Mad Hatter: 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'
...
'Have you guessed the riddle yet?' the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
'No, I give it up,' Alice replied: 'What’s the answer?'
'I haven’t the slightest idea,' said the Hatter"

We never find out in the book the answer, and we don't know if there actually is an answer (from the book).

However, the riddle must have come from somewhere, and maybe it does have an answer, or maybe it symbolizes something.

Does it have an answer?

  • 1
    Do you mean an answer from the author? – Valorum Jan 22 '17 at 17:44
  • 1
    @Valorum just a definite answer – Beastly Gerbil Jan 22 '17 at 17:45
  • 1
    Yes, but one from the author or just any answer? The answers below contain a wide range of possible answers written post-facto by other authors. – Valorum Jan 22 '17 at 17:46
  • 1
    @Valorum along the lines of Rand's answer is fine – Beastly Gerbil Jan 22 '17 at 17:48
  • 5
    I vote to migrate this to Puzzling :P – Mithrandir Jan 22 '17 at 18:04
31

Good question!

It's open to many possible interpretations. Lewis Carroll intended it to be little more than a joke, with no real answer, but his readers bugged him so much that eventually he proposed an answer, which he included in the preface to the 1896 (some sources say 1897) edition of Alice in Wonderland:

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 never put with the wrong end in front!' This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

(source for this quote; emphasis mine)

It's important to note that:

Originally, it was supposed to be a little funnier than that. Carroll spelled 'never,' as 'nevar' — 'raven' spelled backwards — but a proofreader erased the inverted pun before it was published.

(source)

But since the riddle as originally written was intended to have no answer, the solution provided by Carroll in later years is no more canonical than any other. So an answer to your question would be incomplete without mentioning some of the many other solutions which have been proposed over the years, several of which are (IMHO) better than Carroll's:

  • Because Poe wrote on both.

    –- Sam Loyd, Cyclopedia of Puzzles (1914)

  • Because it slopes with a flap.

    –- Cyril Pearson, Twentieth Century Standard Puzzle Book

  • Because there is a b in both, and because there is an n in neither.

    –- Aldous Huxley, “Ravens and Writing Desks”, Vanity Fair, September 1928

  • Because it bodes ill for owed bills.

    –- Francis Huxley, The Raven and the Writing Desk (1976)

  • Because one has flapping fits and the other has 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

(the above bullet points taken from this blog post)

9

The riddle has no (canonical) solution.

The author, after having been repeatedly questioned on the subject for nearly two years after the original work was published, eventually came up with an answer for the updated edition which they included in the preface, reproduced below from the 150th Anniversary edition. Note that there is no answer, merely one that the author devised post-facto

PREFACE TO THE EIGHTY-SIXTH THOUSAND

Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter's Riddle (see p. 59) 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, though they are VERY flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!" This, however, is merely an after-thought: the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: 150th Anniversary Edition


Various other wits have noted the lack of a true answer and offered their own opinions.

LEWIS CARROLL himself proposed an answer in the 1897 final revision of Alice's Adventures. "Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!" The early issues of the revision spell "never" as "nevar", ie "raven" with the wrong end in front.

Martin Gardner, in More Annotated Alice (1990) gave two possible answers, sent in by readers: "both have quills dipped in ink" and "because it slopes with a flap". In 1991, The Spectator held a competition for new answers, among the prize winners were: "because one has flapping fits and the other fitting flaps"; "because one is good for writing books and the other better for biting rooks"; and "because a writing desk is a rest for pens and a raven is a pest for wrens".

(Dr) Selwyn Goodacre, Editor, Journal of the Lewis Carroll Society, Swadlincote, Derbyshire.

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

The same 'Guardian Newspaper - notes and queries' page contains an extended quote from John Fisher's The Magic of Lewis Carroll.

JOHN FISHER, in his book "The Magic of Lewis Carroll" (Thomas Nelson 1973, Penguin 1975), quotes Carroll's own answer, supplied in a preface to the 1896 edition of "Alice in Wonderland": "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 be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: 'Because it can produce few notes, tho [sic] they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!' This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all." Fisher also quotes Sam Loyd's solution, in his posthumous "Cyclopedia of Puzzles", published in 1914: "The notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes." Fisher continues: "Loyd also reminded the world that 'Poe wrote on both' and that 'bills and tales are among their characteristics.'"

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

4

Lewis Carroll wrote charade based poems that had one-word answers. My theory is his answer was a charade, the first sentence being LETTER, the second sentence being backwards. Note that the subject Raven is "Nevar" backwards and a writing desk is "for words." He also did letters that skipped word riddles. After his answer just use the second word and it reads "however merely afterthought; riddle originally had answer all." So is the answer "One is nevaR backwards and one is forwords".

See my article here for more information.

  • 2
    Could you add some parts from your article here? Answers on Stack Exchange are usually encouraged to be self-contained and not rely on links and additional reading. – Gallifreyan Jun 2 '17 at 19:15

protected by Gallifreyan Aug 25 '17 at 11:54

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.