During a tea party in the 1865 book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter asks, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
At first, it was meant as an unanswerable riddle.
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
The author, Lewis Carroll, answered the riddle in an updated preface to the book. He said that a raven is like a writing desk “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!” This means that both ravens and desks produce notes.
However, there is more to this riddle and answer.
In this article, I’ll answer the most common questions about “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk? (Origin)
In the classic novel, Alice is unable to answer the Mad Hater’s riddle.
In the original version of the book, the Mad Hatter confesses that the riddle does not have an answer.
This is obvious from the following passage from the book:
“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.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.
Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”
It’s no wonder that this impossible riddle quickly became one of the most famous and frustrating in history.
Here is a video clip of the riddle scene from Disney’s animated version of the story:
Carroll never intended for there to be a solution, but he later supplied one in an updated preface of the book.
Riddle-obsessed fans read the following in the 1896 edition:
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!’
It’s rumored that Carroll intentionally and cleverly spelled the word “never” as “nevar,” in an early draft of the preface.
As you might have observed, “nevar” spells raven backward.
Unfortunately, a proofreader may have mistakenly corrected Caroll’s literary “Easter Egg.”
Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk? (Answer Explained)
Simply knowing the answer to the riddle doesn’t mean it makes any sense.
Therefore, let’s break down Carroll’s answer.
For me, it’s easier when you split the answer into three distinct parts:
- “Because it can produce a few notes”
- “Tho they are very flat”
- “And it is never put with the wrong end in front”
“Because It Can Produce a Few Notes”
Both a raven and a writing desk can produce notes. A raven makes a “croak” sound while a desk produces written notes.
A writer literally writes notes or letters on a writing desk.
What I love about Carroll is his youthful playfulness with words. Every riddle hides another wordplay riddle.
His riddles (and their answers) usually mean several things all at once.
“Tho They are Very Flat”
The notes produced by a raven are both flat in that they lack any significant variation in pitch or timbre.
A handwritten note on a writing desk is also flat.
Whereas flat means sound when applied to a raven’s “note,” it means the geometrical shape of the note when applied to the writing desk.
“And It Is Never Put With the Wrong End in Front”
This part of the riddle answer offers several meanings.
The most important is a reference to the reverse spelling of the word “nevar.” Read backward, this purposely misspelled word is “raven.”
The “wrong end in front” means the word written backward, which never happens (except, of course, in her updated preface).
A writing desk is also never “put” or placed with the wrong end facing the writer.
That would make a writing desk virtually unusable.
However, there are also other possible meanings. A raven is typically depicted with its head pointed up or down, looking in a forward direction.
When you look at a writing desk, the front is the area where you place your paper or notebook to write on it.
Therefore, Carroll may also be saying that both a raven and a writing desk are typically viewed in a forward direction.
Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk? (Other Answers)
Just because Caroll himself provided an answer to his riddle doesn’t mean many others haven’t also offered other solutions anyway.
Here are some of the best answers I’ve read.
Some come from Straight Dope, others from Quora, and other researched sources.
Quills, Cages, and Captivity
Noel Bird of Boreen Point, Australia pointed out the association between the writing desk’s quill and a raven:
“The answer lies in the quill: both may be penned, but they can never truly be captive.”
The feathered quill was a writing desk’s most important tool. After all, it allowed the writer to actually write or “pen” a note or letter.
A raven can be penned or caged.
Therefore, both a quill and a raven can “be penned but never truly be captive.”
In other words, both a quill and a raven are free.
A quill is free because of the writer’s creativity. A raven is free because of the bird’s inherent spirit.
Pens, Ink, and the Written Word
Connor Cochran also suggested a connection with quills:
A comment concerning Lewis Carroll’s infamous “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” riddle. The best answer I ever heard — and remember that feather pens were a common writing tool of the day, and that writing desks had inkwells — was, “Because they both come with inky quills.”
According to Merriam-Webster.com, A quill is “one of the large stiff feathers of the wing or tail.”
Such as a raven’s wing or tail.
A quill or “feathered pen” was, indeed, a popular writing utensil at the time.
So, it makes sense that Caroll would have had the quill of a raven and writing desk in mind.
Poe and Puzzles
One of the most famous answers to the riddle comes from mathematician, chess player, and puzzle inventor, Sam Loyd.
Loyd gave two answers to the word puzzle.
Here is the first:
“Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes.”
His answer is a lyrical riddle in and of itself.
Both a raven and a writing desk produce notes but neither kind of note is particularly musical.
His second answer to the riddle is both more concise and compelling: “Because Poe wrote on both.”
This is, of course, a clear reference to the famous writer, Edgar Allen Poe.
Poe wrote on writing desks and wrote “on” the subject of ravens. In fact, one of his most famous writings is a poem titled, The Raven.
Other Absurdist Answers
There is no right or wrong answer, so you can really answer with anything.
No matter how absurd.
- Neither are made of jello.
- My English teacher says so.
- Both make great beds.
- You can fly on one and the other one is a bird.
Since the question is nonsensical, the answers don’t need to make sense, either.
That’s part of the fun.
Conclusion: Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?
Carroll’s “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” has baffled riddle-lovers for generations.
The point of the riddle is that the question is absurd, and there is no correct answer. So feel free to get creative!
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Alice of Wonderland