Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Poe and Lewis Carroll: "Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?"

In Chapter 7, the Hatter gives his famous riddle without an answer: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Although Carroll intended the riddle to have no solution, in a new preface to the 1896 edition of Alice, he proposes several answers: "Because it can produce a few notes, though… they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!" (Note the spelling of "never" as "nevar"—turning it into "raven" when inverted. This spelling, however, was "corrected" in later editions to "never" and Carroll's pun was lost.) Puzzle expert Sam Loyd offered the following solutions:

Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes

Poe wrote on both

They both have inky quills ("inkwells")

Bills and tales ("tails") are among their characteristics

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

Many other answers are listed in The Annotated Alice. In Frank Beddor's novel Seeing Redd, the main antagonist, Queen Redd (a megalomaniac parody of the Queen of Hearts) meets Lewis Carroll and declares that the answer to the riddle is "Because I say so." Carroll is too terrified to contradict her.

April 18, 1997

Dear Cecil:

This is something that drives me crazy every time I hear it: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Is there really a hilarious answer to this seemingly impossible riddle? Or is the hilarious part that there really isn't an answer? Also, where did this riddle originate?

— Mary, via the Internet

Dear Mary:

This riddle is famous, although it's the rarefied kind of fame that entails most people never having heard of it. It comes from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Alice is at the tea party with the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and the Dormouse, when apropos of pretty much nothing the Hatter pops the question above. Several pages of tomfoolery ensue, and then:

"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."

At this point most of us are thinking: Ho-ho, that Lewis Carroll, is he hilarious or what? But inevitably you get a few losers who say: Well, OK, but I still want to know why a raven is like a writing desk. One sighs wearily. Guys! It's a joke! The answer is that there isn't any answer!

Oh, they say. (Pause.) But why is a raven like a …

Lewis Carroll himself got bugged about this so much that he was moved to write the following in the preface to the 1896 edition of his book:

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.

Did this discourage people? No. They figured, that dope Carroll, he's too dumb to figure out his own riddle, setting aside the halfhearted attempt just quoted. So they ventured answers of their own, some of the more notable of which are recorded in Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice and More Annotated Alice:

•Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes. (Puzzle maven Sam Loyd, 1914)

•Because Poe wrote on both. (Loyd again)

•Because there is a B in both and an N in neither. (Get it? Aldous Huxley, 1928)

•Because it slopes with a flap. (Cyril Pearson, undated)
Not bad for amateurs. But the real answer, to which the careers of Poe and Carroll bear ample testimony, is that you can baffle the billions with both.

Postscript: In 1976 Carroll admirer Denis Crutch pointed out that in the 1896 preface quoted above, the author had originally written: "It is nevar put with the wrong end in front." Nevar of course is raven spelled backward. Big joke! However, said joke didn't survive the ministrations of the proofreaders, who, thinking they understood the author's intentions better than the author, changed nevar to never in subsequent editions. The indignities we authors suffer! Sure, we make up for it in money and groupies, but still, if in some book (e.g., one of mine) you come across a line that really clanks, be assured: It was funny before.


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