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.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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

Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40)

- Keurig K-Cafe Special Edition; $190 (save $30)

- Ninja OS301 Foodi 10-in-1 Pressure Cooker and Air Fryer; $125 (save $75)

- Nespresso Vertuo Next Coffee and Espresso Machine by Breville; $120 (save $60)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75)

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $80 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10)

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $16 (save $11)

- HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

- Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31)

- TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

- Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

- Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30)

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening; $40 (save $20)

- Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity; $50 (save $10)

- Marvel's Avengers; $25 (save $33)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

- BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

- The Sims 4; $24 (save $20)

- God of Warfor PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

- Days Gonefor PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

- Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250)

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $335 (save $64)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $120 (save $79)

- Seneo Wireless Charger, 3 in 1 Wireless Charging Station; $16 (save $10)

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

- DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

Headphones and speakers

Beats/Amazon

- Beats Solo3 Wireless On-Ear Headphones; $120 (Save $80)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earphones; $175 (save $75)

- JBL Boombox; $280 (save $120)

Movies and TV

HBO/Amazon

- Game of Thrones: The Complete Series; $115 (save $89)

- Jurassic World 5-Movie Set; $23 (save $37)

- Deadwood: The Complete Series; $42 (save $28)

- Back to the Future Trilogy; $15 (save $21)

Toys and Games

Amazon

- Awkward Family Photos Greatest Hits; $15 (save $10)

- Exploding Kittens Card Game; $10 (save $10)

- Cards Against Humanity: Hidden Gems Bundle; $14 (save $5)

- LOL Surprise OMG Remix Pop B.B. Fashion Doll; $29 (save $6)

- LEGO Ideas Ship in a Bottle 92177 Expert Building Kit; $56 (save $14)

Furniture

Casper/Amazon

- Casper Sleep Element Queen Mattress; $476 (save $119)

- ZINUS Alexis Deluxe Wood Platform Bed Frame; $135 (save $24)

- ROMOON Dresser Organizer with 5 Drawers; $59 (save $11) 

- AmazonBasics Room Darkening Blackout Window Curtains; $26 (save $5)

- Writing Desk by Caffoz; $119 (save $21)

- SPACE Seating Office Support Managers Chair; $112 (save $116)

- Rivet Globe Stick Table Lamp; $53 (save $17)

- Christopher Knight Home Merel Mid-Century Modern Club Chair; $188 (save $10)

- Walker Edison Furniture Industrial Rectangular Coffee Table; $121 (save $48)

Beauty

Haus/Amazon

- MySmile Teeth Whitening Kit with LED Light; $21 (save $12) 

- Cliganic USDA Organic Lip Balms Set of Six; $6 (save $4)

- HAUS LABORATORIES By Lady Gaga: LE RIOT LIP GLOSS; $7 (save $11)

- Native Deodorant for Men and Women Set of Three; $25 (save $11) 

- BAIMEI Rose Quartz Jade Roller & Gua Sha; $14 (save $3)

- Honest Beauty Clearing Night Serum with Pure Retinol and Salicylic Acid; $20 (save $8)

- WOW Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo and Hair Conditioner Set; $30 (save $5) 

- La Roche-Posay Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser; $15 (save $5)

- wet n wild Bretman Rock Shadow Palette; $9 (save $6)

- EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Face Sunscreen Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid; $25 (save $6)

Clothes

Ganni/Amazon

- Ganni Women's Crispy Jacquard Dress; $200 (save $86) 

- The Drop Women's Maya Silky Slip Skirt; $36 (save $9)

- Steve Madden Women's Editor Boot; $80 (save $30)

- adidas Women's Roguera Cross Trainer; $40 (save $25)

- Line & Dot Women's Elizabeth Sweater; $74 (save $18)

- Levi's Men's Sherpa Trucker Jacket; $57 (save $41)

- Adidas Men's Essentials 3-Stripes Tapered Training Joggers Sweatpants; $28 (save $12)

- Timex Men's Weekender XL 43mm Watch; $32 (save $20)

- Ray-Ban Unisex-Adult Hexagonal Flat Lenses Sunglasses; $108 (save $46) 

- Reebok Men's Flashfilm Train Cross Trainer; $64 (save $16)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. Here are 10 facts about the celebrated author.

1. Louisa May Alcott had many famous friends.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller.

Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. Louisa May Alcott's first nom de plume was Flora Fairfield.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. Louisa May Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. Louisa May Alcott wrote about her experience as a Civil War nurse.

In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. Louisa May Alcott suffered from mercury poisoning.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women to help her father.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. Louisa May Alcott was an early suffragette.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in an 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. Louisa May Alcott pretended to be her own servant to trick her fans.

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. Louisa May Alcott never had children, but she cared for her niece.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she had named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. Fans can visit Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women . Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.