The Story Behind Lewis Carroll’s Unsolvable Riddle

Getty Images / iStock
Getty Images / iStock

In chapter 7 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice sits down for tea at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, flanked by the March Hare and the snoozing dormouse:

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. “No room! No room!” they cried out when they saw Alice coming. “There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

“Your hair wants cutting,” said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for quite some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

“You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice said with some severity: “It’s very rude.”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

Thanks to its fast-paced exchange of jokes and nonsense—and thanks to the long-lasting popularity of both the book and the numerous adaptations of it—the Mad Hatter’s tea party is one of the most famous scenes in all of children’s literature. Meanwhile the Mad Hatter’s riddle remains one of Lewis Carroll’s most enduring, and most notoriously unsolvable, puzzles.

A lecturer in mathematics at Oxford University’s Christ Church College, Lewis Carroll (the pen name of author, academic, and Anglican minister Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) composed dozens of riddles and logic puzzles throughout his lifetime, including several acrostic poems and a later set of seven verse brainteasers, “Puzzles from Wonderland,” published in 1870. But for some reason the Mad Hatter’s riddle remains a firm favorite—so why exactly is a raven like a writing-desk?

In the original story, after much deliberation, Alice gives up and asks the Hatter for the answer. “I haven’t the slightest idea,” he replies. But the fact that the Mad Hatter himself left his riddle unsolved has led to fans of the book (and fans of word games and logic puzzles) proposing countless potential solutions over the years since Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865.

One suggestion is that both ravens and writing-desks have “bills” and “tails” (or “tales,” in the case of a writer’s desk). Another points out that they both “flap” up and down (an allusion to the wooden rolling tops fitted to some old-style desks and bureaus). And both of them were famously used by Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem "The Raven" had been published 20 years earlier. Explanations like these (and the countless more like them) are all perfectly workable, but none satisfied Carroll himself—who finally admitted in the preface to an 1896 Christmas edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

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 be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: ‘Because it can produce 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.

While some researchers have claimed that Carroll originally spelled never "nevar," (raven backwards) before the joke was “fixed” by a helpful editor, it appears Carroll’s riddle was not intended to have an answer at all—but that’s not to say that it’s entirely without explanation.

Despite holding a lectureship at Oxford for more than 25 years, Carroll had numerous ties to the north of England. At the age of 11, his father Charles was made rector of the local Anglican church in Croft-on-Tees in North Yorkshire, and the church house remained the family home for the next 25 years. Two of Carroll’s sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, lived in Sunderland on the northeast coast of England (along with several of his cousins, nieces, and nephews) where Mary’s husband Charles Collingwood was reverend of a local Anglican church. And one of Carroll’s closest friends at Oxford University, the Dean of Christ Church College, Henry George Liddell, was a member of an established family and cousin of the Baron of Ravensworth, who had family and property across the northeast of England.

As a result, Carroll reportedly liked to spend as much time as possible in the north of England during university semesters visiting friends and family in the region, and, as it happened, inventing stories to entertain Henry Liddell’s young daughter, Alice.

It’s well known that a young Alice Liddell was the inspiration for the title character in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories; Carroll is often claimed to have made the story up during a boating trip down the river at Oxford not long after Alice and her sisters moved to the city with their father in 1856. But it’s possible that at least part of Alice in Wonderland—namely, the Mad Hatter’s fiendish riddle—was either written in the north of England, or written with Carroll’s ties to the northeast in mind. When visiting the Liddell family estate, Carroll would stay at an inn (now named the Ravensworth Arms) in Lamesley, close to the Liddells’ ancestral home at Ravensworth Castle in Gateshead. It’s believed that, at around this time, Carroll was working on the first draft of what would become Alice in Wonderland. If that’s the case, it may be that the “raven” in Carroll’s notoriously unsolvable Mad Hatter’s riddle is actually an allusion to the Liddells’ Ravensworth Estate, which essentially served as Carroll’s “writing-desk” while he worked on the book.

Carroll is known to have incorporated a number of people and places from his time in the north of England into his work: The beach at Whitburn, close to where his sisters Mary and Elizabeth lived in Sunderland, for instance, has long been presumed to have provided the inspiration for The Walrus and the Carpenter, while Carroll’s monstrous Jabberwock is believed to have been based on local legends like the Lambton Worm, a fierce dragon-like creature said to have once inhabited the hills and rivers around Durham. Could it be that the Ravensworth connection is just another example of Carroll taking inspiration from his time in the north, and that’s why a raven is like a writing-desk? It might not solve his most famous riddle, but it does at least provide a tantalizing explanation.

11 Amazing Hotels for Book Lovers

Planning a vacation? Escape reality—both literally and figuratively—by visiting one of these literary-inspired getaways. You'll have your nose buried in a book the entire time, but sightseeing is overrated anyway, right?

1. GLADSTONE'S LIBRARY // HAWARDEN, WALES

In the tiny village of Hawarden, in Flintshire, Wales, travelers can spend the night in an historic residential library, surrounded by tomes collected by one of the UK’s most famous prime ministers. William Gladstone, who served a record four terms as head of Her Majesty’s government, lived in nearby Hawarden Castle after retiring from government service. The bibliophile amassed more than 30,000 books, and housed them in a building he envisioned as becoming a place where people could someday sleep, eat, and study.

After Gladstone's death in 1898, the town’s residents raised money to build a permanent home for the collection. In 1902, Gladstone’s Library opened as a national memorial to its namesake; today, visitors can sleep in one of its 26 guest rooms, dine in an onsite cafe, and—most importantly—browse the library’s 250,000 titles until 10 p.m. (The library closes to the public at 5 p.m.)

2. HEATHMAN HOTEL // PORTLAND, OREGON


Heathman Hotel

Thanks to a partnership with bookseller Powell Books and nonprofit Literary Arts, Portland’s historic Heathman Hotel is home to a cataloged lending library of more than 2700 signed titles. It’s billed as the country’s largest independent hotel library, and it's also one of the world’s largest autographed libraries; titles include signatures from Nobel Prize and Pulitzer winners, U.S. Poet Laureates, former U.S. presidents, and more. Four days a week, an in-house librarian hosts a wine social in the Heathman's mezzanine library, home to more than 2000 of the collection's books. Guests sip local vintages, browse through titles, and select works to check out and read in their rooms.

3. THE JEFFERSON // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Jefferson, Washington D.C.
The Jefferson, Washington D.C.

The Jefferson in Washington, D.C. draws inspiration from the life of Thomas Jefferson, and adds a luxurious twist. Its toile draperies pay homage to the president’s Virginia plantation, Monticello; a Michelin-starred restaurant, Plume, serves food inspired by Monticello’s gardens; and Quill, a lounge and cocktail bar, is adorned with 18th-century maps that trace Jefferson’s trips through Europe's wine country. The hotel’s crowning glory is its Book Room, modeled after Jefferson’s personal library. Guests can peruse titles reflective of Jefferson’s era or his favorite pastimes, or select works signed by famous authors, like Dave Barry and Ron Chernow, who’ve stayed as guests.

4. WONDERLAND HOUSE // BRIGHTON, ENGLAND

Wonderland House
Wonderland House

Vacationers can pretend they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole at Wonderland House, a six-bedroom hotel in Brighton, England that celebrates Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Carroll himself used to spend his summers in the seaside resort town, and is said to have drawn inspiration from his surroundings.) Each guest room contains whimsical furnishings and decorations that reference Alice—there are kettles, clocks, mirrors, and teacups galore—and the Mad Hatter-themed kitchen comes complete with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and all the fixings for a raucous tea party.

5. THE COMMONS HOTEL // MINNEAPOLIS

Guests at The Commons Hotel in Minneapolis can snuggle up with a good book, delivered right to their rooms by a resident book butler. Choose from a selection of titles, or ask the butler for a recommendation. If you feel like mingling with other bibliophiles, The Commons is located just steps away from the University of Minnesota, and is close to one of the nation's largest independent arts organizations, the Loft Literary Center.

6. THE STUDY AT YALE // NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT

The Study at Yale
The Study at Yale

Located on Yale University’s Art Campus, The Study at Yale is a boutique hotel that captures the Ivy League’s collegiate spirit. Photos of Yale’s campus by Michael Marsland, Yale’s photographer, line the walls; the living room/lobby has a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with titles curated by New York City’s Strand Book Store; rooms are furnished with cozy leather reading chairs; and eight “Study” suites contain designated study areas, complete with stocked bookcases.

7. THE LIBRARY HOTEL // NEW YORK CITY


The Library Hotel

New York City’s Library Hotel celebrates its proximity to the New York Public Library’s majestic flagship location, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, by loosely modeling itself after the renowned center of knowledge. The hotel houses more than 6000 books, distributed throughout private rooms and public areas, and each of its 10 guest floors is inspired by one of the Dewey Decimal System’s 10 major categories—philosophy, religion, math and science, technology, etc.

Individual hotel rooms are decorated to reflect genres or topics within these groups, meaning that guests can sleep in zoology, mythology, astronomy, and even erotic literature-themed suites. When they're not reading, guests can relax at the rooftop watering hole, the Writer’s Den & Poetry Garden, which by night turns into Bookmarks Lounge and serves literary-themed drinks.

8. THE LIBRARY // KOH SAMUI, THAILAND


Courtesy of The Library

Come to The Library—a boutique hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand's second-largest island—for its minimalist aesthetic, beachfront views, and blood-red swimming pool; stay for its amazing library, which includes a huge selection of books, DVDs, and CDs, and an iMac computer corner.

9. BOOK AND BED // TOKYO

Sleep with books instead of stuffed animals at Book and Bed, a Tokyo hotel with 30 tiny beds hidden inside a giant bookshelf. The hotel lacks basic creature comforts, like private bathrooms, and the bookshelf's 1700 Japanese and English titles aren't technically for sale, but the entire setup has novelty to spare. “The perfect setting for a good night's sleep is something you will not find here," Book and Bed's website acknowledges. "There are no comfortable mattresses, fluffy pillows nor lightweight and warm down duvets. What we do offer is an experience while reading a book (or comic book)."

10. THE BETSY // MIAMI BEACH

The Betsy, South Beach
The Betsy, South Beach

At The Betsy, a glamorous Georgian- and Art Deco-style hotel located on South Beach's Ocean Drive, visitors can hit the beach and the books. Owner Jonathan Plutzik's late father was Hyam Plutzik, a three-time Pulitzer finalist for poetry, and The Betsy reflects his literary legacy. Guest rooms have small libraries, and the hotel places bookmarks on guests’ pillows, inscribed with Plutzik's poetry. The Betsy also hosts regular arts and cultural events, and has a special Writer's Room reserved for artist residencies.

11. SYLVIA BEACH HOTEL // NEWPORT, OREGON

Oregon's Sylvia Beach Hotel is named after Sylvia Beach, the renowned American publisher/expat who, in 1919, founded Paris's Shakespeare and Company bookstore, publisher of James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses and hangout for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The hotel is perched high on a bluff overlooking central Oregon's Nye Beach, and each of its 21 rooms is named after a famous author—Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. To encourage guests to unplug—and take advantage of the third-floor oceanfront library—there are no TVs, phones, or Wi-Fi.

10 Classic Books That Have Been Banned

iStock
iStock

From the Bible to Harry Potter, some of the world's most popular books have been challenged for reasons ranging from violence to occult overtones. In honor of National Book Lovers Day, here's a look at 10 classic books that have stirred up controversy.

1. THE CALL OF THE WILD

Jack London's 1903 Klondike Gold Rush-set adventure was banned in Yugoslavia and Italy for being "too radical" and was burned by the Nazis because of the author's well-known socialist leanings.

2. THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Though John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, about a family of tenant farmers who are forced to leave their Oklahoma home for California because of economic hardships, earned the author both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, it also drew ire across America because some believed it promoted Communist values. Kern County, California—where much of the book took place—was particular incensed by Steinbeck's portrayal of the area and its working conditions, which they considered slanderous.

3. THE LORAX

The cover of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Google Play

Whereas some readers look at Dr. Seuss's Lorax and see a fuzzy little character who "speaks for the trees," others saw the 1971 children's book as a dangerous piece of political commentary, with even the author reportedly referring to it as "propaganda."

4. ULYSSES

James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses may be one of the most important and influential works of the early 20th century, but it was also deemed obscene for both its language and sexual content—and not just in a few provincial places. In 1921, a group known as The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully managed to keep the book out of the United States, and the United States Post Office regularly burned copies of it. But in 1933, the book's publisher, Random House, took the case—United States v. One Book Called Ulysses—to court, and ended up getting the ban overturned.

5. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German World War I veteran—wrote the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which gives an accounting of the extreme mental and physical stress the German soldiers faced during their time in the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book's realism didn't sit well with Nazi leaders, who feared the book would deter their propaganda efforts.

6. ANIMAL FARM

The cover of George Orwell's Animal Farm
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The original publication of George Orwell's 1945 allegorical novella was delayed in the UK because of its anti-Stalin themes. It was confiscated in Germany by Allied troops, banned in Yugoslavia in 1946, banned in Kenya in 1991, and banned in the United Arab Emirates in 2002.

7. AS I LAY DYING

Though many people consider William Faulkner's 1930 novel As I Lay Dying a classic piece of American literature, the Graves County School District in Mayfield, Kentucky disagreed. In 1986, the school district banned the book because it questioned the existence of God.

8. LOLITA

Sure, it's well known that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is about a middle-aged literature professor who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl who eventually becomes his stepdaughter. It's the kind of storyline that would raise eyebrows today, so imagine what the response was when the book was released in 1955. A number of countries—including France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa—banned the book for being obscene. Canada did the same in 1958, though it later lifted the ban on what is now considered a classic piece of literature—unreliable narrator and all.

9. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has practically become a rite of passage for teenagers, but back when it was published in 1951, it wasn't always easy for a kid to get his or her hands on it. According to TIME, "Within two weeks of its 1951 release, J.D. Salinger’s novel rocketed to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Ever since, the book—which explores three days in the life of a troubled 16-year-old boy—has been a 'favorite of censors since its publication,' according to the American Library Association."

10. THE GIVER

The newest book on this list, Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giverabout a dystopia masquerading as a utopiawas banned in several U.S. states, including California and Kentucky, for addressing issues such as euthanasia.

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