Solutions to a famous raven riddle

“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.


Thirty-odd years after he composed his two Alice books, Lewis Carroll was prompted by the public’s curiosity to offer a solution to the Mad Hatter’s riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk ?”

In his Preface to the 1896 Edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the revered author (who in his other life was a noted logician) wrote :

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.

Over the years, in many a homely parlour and scholarly symposium, other answers have been given, and solutions devised. Here is a handful of them, including an ingenious “scientific” explanation wherein one Fernando Soto, a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, has gaily hung some yellow bunting over the proceedings. But to commence, consider two Q responses to the Mad Hatter :

Because with some skill it will emerge from the wood.

Because it supported that noble effort, To Kill A Mockingbird.

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 without them both Brave New World could not have been written.

.   – Roy Davenport

Because one has flapping fits and the other has fitting flaps.

.   – Peter Veale

Because they both have a flap in oak.

.   – J. Tebbutt

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 they are both used to carri – on de – composition.

.   – Noel Petty

Because they both stand on their legs, conceal their steels (steals), and ought to be made to shut up.

.   – Sam Loyd, op. cit.

It can be found in a class with a Writing Master.

.   – Fernando J. Soto
.              Nest of the Writing Master
.                  (Emberiza citrinella)



nevar is “raven” spelled backwards ; but as Dennis Crutch of Jabberwocky journal has pointed out, the editors made a supposed correction to the author’s original statement and wrongly altered the word to “never”

As reported in The Annotated Alice (Martin Gardner, ed.), the solutions offered by Messrs. Davenport, Veale, Simmers, Weston and Petty were entries submitted in a competition held by The Spectator magazine in the Summer of 1991

Brave New World : […rave N…]

flapping fits : Doubtless there were eight of them and they were agonising

Because they both stand &c... : This answer shows a high-handed and aggressive persistence worthy of the Duchess herself

steels : steels are the pair of metal supports that prop up the flap of the desk when required

Writing Master : i. e. the Yellowhammer or Yellow Bunting (Emberiza citrinella), also known as the Master Scribbler or Scribbling Lark. The Webster’s Dictionary of 1913 has this entry : “Writing lark (Zoöl.), the European yellow-hammer ; — so called from the curious irregular lines on its eggs. [Prov. Eng.]”

The Raven and Writing Master are both in the biological class of Aves ; and a writing-desk may be said to furnish a class of “Aves” (Latin, “Hellos”) in the greetings of the letters composed on it.

These are “Lessons In Interface Consistency and Analogical Reasoning From Two Cognitive Architectures”, as someone once said (and it wasn’t the Gryphon nor the Mock Turtle).


^      ^      ^      ^      ^      ^

(Raven art by Larry Vienneau, Jr.)





1 Comment

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One response to “Solutions to a famous raven riddle

  1. Dawn writes :

    Fabulous post! I can sleep now, knowing all the possible solutions to this riddle.


    A fair few I omitted, Dawn, but rest assured (with pleasant dreams indeed) that there can be Part Two of this item some time down the road.




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