Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

I am an Alice in Wonderland obsessed fan.  Not the Disney Alice or the Tim Burton Alice, but the real books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. 

When I was in third grade, I read them for the first time.  I was also in my very first school play, which happened to be Alice in Wonderland as well.  (I was the Cheshire Cat).  Valerie Dippery was Alice.  I was jealous beyond words (she really did look the part with her long, blonde, wavy hair.  I didn't, with my long, straight, brown hair.) but it was still a magical experience for me that encouraged me to continue acting throughout grade school, high school, and college. 

The books themselves are still my very favorites, almost thirty years later.  I have countless versions of them, illustrated in classical and luscious and bizarre ways, annotated, note-filled, dog-eared.  I have a copy of the original work, Alice's Adventures Underground, handwritten by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll - the pages are photocopies of the original in his handwriting with his own sketches).  I have books about the book.  I have one that postulates that Charles Dodgson was actually Jack the Ripper.  Strange, indeed.  If you walked into my house, you wouldn't notice any Alice things, but if you looked on shelves and in nooks and crannies, you would find many figurines, packs of cards, small treasures of Alice and the other characters.

One of the reasons that I love the books so much is that the entire things are satires of the English ruling class, court system, etc.  Dodgson brilliantly wrote scathing critiques of real people into his seemingly harmless, odd, bumbling characters.  There is so much underlying meaning in them that I find something new every time I read them.  One of the pieces that has remained a mystery to many is the Mad Hatter's question to Alice, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"  Most people brush off the nonsensical question even though it is naggingly unanswered, as we shrug off many of the other absurdities.  As readers, we are now far enough removed from Dodgson's England that we don't recognize most of the satire anyway.  I'm including myself here, I know about it because I have done extensive research for papers and a writing project that may one day find its way back into working order.

So why is a raven like a writing desk?  Originally, it is thought that Dodgson had no answer in mind.  However, in an 1896 version of Alice, he offered this solution: "Because it can produce very few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar (sic: it's raven backwards) put with the wrong end in front."

Aldous Huxley wrote "because there's a 'b' in 'both' and an 'n' in 'neither' in response to the riddle.  James Michie wrote "because 'each' begins with an 'e'".  David B. Jodrey, Jr., suggested, "both have quills dipped in ink".  Cyril Pearson wrote "because it slopes with a flap".  Another answer is "Poe wrote on both".  In chapter 39 of The Shining, Stephen King wrote, "The higher the fewer, of course!"

I have also read:
They both have 2 eyes (i's)
"A dark wing site" is an anagram for "A writing desk"
They both have legs.
A writing desk is used to correspond.  A raven responds with a caw, a caw-response.
Because the raven has a secret aerie and the writing desk is a secretary. (aerie = lofty nest of a large bird)
They are used to carry on work and work carrion.

There are several other good answers out there, and many that are a stretch.  Several of these are from research I did at www.lewiscarroll.org/bull.html a zillion years ago.  Just food for thought... I wish I could be so cryptic and satirical in an otherwise silly story that people would still be researching it over 100 years later.  Literary genius.  One of my biggest inspirations!

22 comments:

Piedmont Writer said...

What a fantastic post Lindsey. I never learned so much about Alice or Charles as I did tonight.

I must confess I never read the books, I wasn't into her, but I do remember somewhere back in the deepest corners of my mind that they were written on the commentary of the day.

Kristin Rae said...

Interesting. I always thought I wanted to be Alice at Disney World because I had long straight blonde hair. lol.

Did you read, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin? I'd be curious to know what you thought about it.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

Kristin - I heard about it shortly before your review of it on your blog... and bought it right after you wrote how much you liked it!

Haven't read it yet because I'm in the middle of two other books, but it's waiting for meeee... :)

Tamika: said...

Funny I'm reading your post because tonight I read Alice and Wonderland to my three year old! And the cheshire cat is her favorite!

Kristin Rae said...

Ahh. Well let me know when you do read it... I'm interested to know what you think about the Alice/Dodgson relationship.

Jemi Fraser said...

I think my head is spinning :)

I can't say I was ever a fan of poor Alice. I love fantasy, but when I read Alice, it struck me as false or thin or something. I should reread it again - I think I was 8 at the time??? - I'd probably enjoy it now. :)

KM said...

It's one of my favorite classic children's books, as well. But I like the Disney and Tim Burton versions, too. Is the Jack the Ripper one written by the same guy who wrote WICKED? I feel like I've seen that in a bookstore before.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

KM - It's called Jack the Ripper, Light Hearted Friend. It's by Richard Wallace and it's not fiction. It's full of research and actually tries to prove that Lewis Carroll WAS Jack the Ripper. The book is written sort of in circles and it's very repetetive... I had a hard time getting through it but some people have proposed that Alice and another Carroll book, Sylvie and Bruno, cleverly detail the JtR murders hidden in their stories. The possibility is not generally taken very seriously. The Wikipedia entry on the book sums it up pretty well:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_the_Ripper,_Light-Hearted_Friend

Stephanie Thornton said...

I did a report my senior year in high school on all the social commentary in Alice in Wonderland. It was great!

I've also like that Carroll came up with the word chortle- I smile every time I see it. Something between a chuckle and a snort.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Awesome! I've never seen any answers to that riddle, let alone so many good possibilities. Thanks for the fun post! :-)

Glynis said...

I am not a fan of Alice, I have childhood reasons. I was intrigued by your post though, fascinating. :)

Mary Aalgaard said...

Glad to meet you! Thanks for the insight on the author and books of Alice. I think I read Through the Looking Glass when I was younger. I think the riddle was not answered by the author so that he'd make others ponder and come up with those great answeres. I like the Poe one the best.

Well done!

Cynthia Reese said...

I didn't read Alice until I was about 13, and a curious thing happened as I read it -- I learned how to speak in an English accent. I loved the book, still do.

The Kiddo wants me to take her to see Tim Burton's version tonight (I have been resisting because she is overly sensitive about films and I'm thinking it's not going to be a good fit for an overly-sensitive 8 year old.) I read her part of the "real" Alice, but alas, the magic hasn't happened for her yet. Though, this morning, she DID ask why hatters were mad. That's progress, don't you think??

Wendy Ramer said...

My favorite answer of those you mentioned is "Poe wrote on both". Brilliant.

Talli Roland said...

I'm with Wendy: I liked the 'Poe wrote on both' answer.

What a fantastic post!

Lisa and Laura said...

Great post! Isn't it amazing how certain books can inspire us for an entire lifetime. It makes me feel all happy and gushy inside.

beth said...

OK, I loved this!!! I never knew an answer for the riddle, and now I have tons!

fairyhedgehog said...

I loved the Alice books but I had no idea of any deeper meaning to them. My sister and I used to quote bits of them to each other. I can see that we're not real Alice fans though! (Not in comparison.)

Palindrome said...

Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables, and Nancy Drew were my inspirations as a child. Such great inventive stories and ideas. Love 'em.

Medeia Sharif said...

I love his books. I recently downloaded an e-book with the original illustrations. Unfortunately, my childhood copy did not survive age or mold and my college copy did not have the illustrations.

Lola Sharp said...

Oh, I am a major Alice fan. If you walked into my (home) office, you would definitely notice some funky Alice stuff, and many versions of his books.
He was indeed a genius.
I'm on his crazy train with you, sister.

Happy Tuesday,
Lola

Lord Zoma said...

One is good for writing books, the other for biting rooks.

One has flapping fits, the other fitting flaps.

Because a writing-desk is a rest for pens, and a raven is a pest for wrens.

They both tend to present unkind bills.

They both have a flap in oak.