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The Story Behind Lewis Carroll’s Unsolvable Riddle

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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.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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LaGuardia Airport Is Serving Up Personalized Short Stories to Passengers
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In between purchasing a neck pillow and a bag full of snacks, guests flying out of the Marine Air Terminal at New York City's LaGuardia Airport can now order up an impromptu short story. As Hyperallergic reports, Landing Pages is an art project that connects writers to travelers looking for short fiction written in the time it takes to reach their destination.

The kiosk was set up as part of the ArtPort Residency, a new collaboration between the Queens Council on the Arts and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which sponsors different art projects at the Marine Air Terminal for a few months at a time.

Artists Lexie Smith and Gideon Jacobs set up the inaugural project at the terminal earlier this month. To request a story from Landing Pages, travelers can visit the kiosk and leave their flight number and contact information. While the passenger is in the air, Smith and Jacobs churn out a custom story, in the form of poetry, illustration, or prose, from their airport terminal workspace and send it out in time for it to reach the reader's phone before he or she lands.

The word count depends on the duration of the flight, and the subject matter often touches upon themes of travel and adventure. As Smith and Jacobs continue their residency through June 30, the pieces they complete will be made available at Landingpages.nyc and in hard copy form at the airport kiosk.

Landing Pages isn't the first airport service to offer à la carte short stories. In 2011, a French startup debuted its short story-dispensing vending machine at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport. Those stories come in three categories—one-minute, three-minute, and five-minute reads—and are printed out immediately so travelers can read them during their flight.

[h/t Hyperallergic]

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