Mad Hatter: Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk? (The Answer)

Date: March / 11 / 2010 + Comments: 13

Mad Hatter Johnny Depp

In Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Hatter’s famous riddle: Why is a raven like a writing desk?, has no answer. In Tim Burton’s movie Alice in Wonderland, Johnny Depp while playing the Mad Hatter asks Alice the same question in three occasions.

From Chapter 7, A Mad Tea Party:

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.
Nor I, said the March Hare.

The Answer

When he wrote the book, Carroll had no answer for the riddle either, nor did he intend there to be one. However, over subsequent years, so many people asked him the answer that in the preface to the 1896 edition he 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, though 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.

Note that L.C. spells never as NEVAR, which is RAVEN written backwards.

It has been claimed that Carroll is satirizing philosophical paradoxes and riddles. As a logician he may be poking fun at our need for an answer to every question. In reality it is not a riddle at all, but a pseudo-problem masquerading as a riddle. He believed that most riddles are fallacious because they lead the reader to believe that such events are possible or even answerable.

More possible answers to the riddle

Carroll is not the only person to offer an answer after the fact, other solutions have also been given, the best known being:

Because Poe wrote on both.

Other suggestions include:

  • Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes. (Sam Loyd)
  • Because there is a “b” in both and an “n” in neither.
  • Because each one starts with “e”. (James Michie)
  • Because they both have inky quills.
  • Both have quills dipped in ink. (David B. Jodrey, Jr.)
  • Because it slopes with a flap. (Cyril Pearson, en su Twentieth Century Standard Puzzle Book)
  • They both have legs.
  • Because they correspond! A writing desk is used to correspond. And a raven responds with a caw, a caw-response. (Israel Cohen)
  • Because the raven has a secret aerie and the writing desk has a secretary. (again Israel Cohen)

Ultimately, it could be true to say that the real answer to the question is that there is no answer. Can you find one?

Maybe to find the real answer we have to investigate the things that start with the letter M, like Mad Hatter and Mercury.

Mad Hatter Johnny Depp smile

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Post author: Daniel Semper

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13 Comments »

  1. james says:

    I like to think that the point of the riddle is not to have a point or an answer, like thinking 6 impossible things before breakfast.
    When I hear of think of this riddel it makes me happy and think of colour such as in alice in wonderland.

    So I belive the riddle is not meant to be answered but more to spark insiration and creativity, which to me it does and always will.

  2. Caleb says:

    The riddle was made without an answer. That was the whole idea. The Mad Hatter is mad. It only makes sense that any riddles he comes up with are mad as well. People have come up with a few answers, but none of them are truly the answer, because the riddle was made to have no answer. It was an unsolvable riddle. That was the point. It introduced us to the Mad Hatters madness.

  3. david says:

    i think anyone seriously trying to come up with an answer is an idiot. the point is the hatter was insane and had a weird riddle he himself had stuck in his head that he came up with himself. he had no answer for it because it was just something crazy he thought of that burdened him. i cant believe this is such a serious topic to people. how can we walk on the moon but cant understand this? and we wonder why there are parts of the world we still havent explored.

  4. HeatherMarieB says:

    The Hatter is mad. Hence the term “Mad Hatter”. There for everything he says should be mad and sound off beat to most. I love this quote and I think it is very creative and different to say the least. We can understand this. We just choose not to. “Why is a raven like a writting desk? Have you solved the riddel yet?” Only the mad or those who are bonkers could truly comprehend this =]

  5. Kristine B. says:

    There is an answer for those who actually care to know…….the answer is: Because Poe wrote on both…..duh!

  6. Midtime says:

    I myself would liken it to the way great scientists liked to consider questions which no one had ever asked before (why does an apple fall? what do you see when you travel at the speed of light?). Philosophers, too; the difference with the Mad Hatter is that he is asking a question which not only does not have an answer we know about, but lacks any answer at all.

  7. Rick says:

    “Because you can ride neither of them like a bicycle!”

  8. SOURCEPLEASE says:

    Where exactly did you find the source for this article?
    I did some looking and found no evidence of a 1896 preface saying what you claim.

  9. Bob says:

    Answer: “Because they both parrot words they don’t understand”, said Alice. “You could just as easily ask”, said the Mad Hatter: “Why is a Tea Party Republican like a Raven, and get the same answer, which is no answer at all.”

  10. DonnieB says:

    I like the mad hatter and I think it is pretty cool that there’s not a answer to the riddle however last night I set in bed and tried to figure out the meaning and always came to no conclusion on it so I said screw it I’m tired but I know there is not a answer for it so oh well still I love this movie and this quote

  11. blank says:

    you should have a reason for nameing your blog what it is.I came to it to find out the real answer to the riddle, and what I found was the harry potter theme song played on wine glasses!
    -well, that was actually pretty cool.

    :)

  12. mark says:

    Why is a raven like a writing desk?
    …Both can be part of an unkindness.

  13. Mary Hammond says:

    Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because that which is never backwards is always forwards, and a raven is nevar backwards, and a writing desk is always for words. If you knew a little bit about Carroll’s habit of feeding out teasing clues bit by bit, you’d know that Carroll’s statement that the riddle was not intended to have an answer was very similar in form to other little games he played. For those of you who are not familiar with the statement, it’s in the form of “no meaning was originally intended, but if it was, hint, hint, and hint”. I’m paraphrasing here, but I truly believe that if Carroll hadn’t died so soon after making the statement, he would have given us more clues until someone finally came up with the answer. – Mary Hammond, author of The Mad Hatter, the Role of Mercury in the Life of Lewis Carroll

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