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Why is a raven like a writing desk?


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Answered 2012-04-05 15:50:52

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.

"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."

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 he spells "nevar" as "raven" written backwards - a joke which overenthusiastic copy editors "corrected" in later editions.)

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 there is a 'b' in both and an 'n' in neither," "because they are both nouns," and "because they both have inky quills."

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.

Ultimately, it could be true to say that the real answer to the question is that there is no answer.

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