Monday, December 3, 2018

Riddles and Ravens

Following on from the item about movie riddles, here is an item about what is regarded as one of the most famous literary riddles in literature. It is also seen as the most frustrating, because it came without an answer. 

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter poses this puzzle to Alice: 

‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ 

The Hatter doesn’t have the 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 waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.’ 

The thing is, though, that the story never intended to provide an answer. 

Nonetheless readers’ desire for closure was so intense that Carroll was forced to dream up an answer that appeared in the preface to the 1897 edition: 
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, 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.” 
Carroll was fond of wordplays and jokes, as evidenced by the Alice stories, but the proofreader denied him his final bit of humour. The sentence, as written by Carroll, read 'Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!' Note that Carroll spelt the word "nevar".  The word “nevar” - ‘raven’ spelt backwards – was changed back to ‘never’ by the proofreader. 


(It has also been suggested that a raven is like a writing desk in that Poe wrote on both).

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