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.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. Herman Melville's mother changed the spelling of their last name.

Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an "e" to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. "It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century," Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.

2. Herman Melville struggled to find employment.

Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

3. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a three-year voyage. 

Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.

Herman Melville's home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MassachusettsDaderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance." He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.

5. Herman Melville fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.

While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.

Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."

6. Moby-Dick was a flop.

Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel's style was like "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise."

7. Herman Melville was very fond of his chimney.

Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney's stonework, which are still visible today.

8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.

Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it's the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it "eminently adapted for unpopularity."

9. Herman Melville's last major work was discovered by accident.

The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale "not distinguished." Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.

10. You can see Herman Melville's personal collection of knick-knacks.

Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There's a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.