The Mad Hatter’s Riddle

Lewis Carroll’s famous riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” turns out to have a simple solution after all! Shutterstock

27 June 2018 – In 1865 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which his Mad Hatter character posed the riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Somewhat later in the story Alice gave up trying to guess the riddle and challenged the Mad Hatter to provide the answer. When he couldn’t, nor could anyone else at the story’s tea party, Alice dismissed the whole thing by saying: “I think you could do something better with the time . . . than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”

Since then, it has generally been believed that the riddle has, in actuality, no answer.

Modern Western thought has progressed a lot since the mid-nineteenth century, however. Specifically, two modes of thinking have gained currency that directly lead to solving this riddle: Zen and Surrealism.

I’m not going to try to give even sketchy pictures of Zen or Surrealist doctrine here. There isn’t anywhere near enough space to do either subject justice. I will, however, allude to those parts that bear on solving the Hatter’s riddle.

I’m also not going to credit Dodson with having surreptitiously known the answer, then hiding it from the World. There is no chance that he could have read Andre Breton‘s The Surrealist Manifesto, which was published twenty-six years after Dodson’s death. And, I’ve not been able to find a scrap of evidence that the Anglican-deacon Dodson ever seriously studied Taoism or its better-known offshoot, Zen. I’m firmly convinced that the religiously conservative Dodson really did pen the riddle as an example of a nonsense question. He seemed fond of nonsense.

No, I’m trying to make the case that in the surreal world of imagination, there is no such thing as nonsense. There is always a viewpoint from which the absurd and seemingly illogical comes into sharp focus as something obvious.

As Obi-Wan Kenobi said in Return of the Jedi: “From a certain point of view.”

Surrealism sought to explore the alternate universe of dreams. From that point of view, Alice is a classic surrealist work. It explicitly recounts a dream Alice had while napping on a summery hillside with her head cradled in her big sister’s lap. The surrealists, reading Alice three quarters of a century later, recognized this link, and acknowledged the mastery with which Dodson evoked the dream world.

Unlike the mid-nineteenth-century Anglicans, however, the surrealists of the early twentieth century viewed that dream world as having as much, if not more, validity as the waking world of so-called “reality.”

Chinese Taoism informs our thinking through the melding of all forms of reality (along with everything else) into one unified whole. When allied with Indian Buddhism to form the Chinese Ch’an, or Japanese Zen, it provides a method that frees the mind to explore possible answers to, among other things, riddles like the Hatter’s, and find just the right viewpoint where the solution comes into sharp relief. This method, which is called a koan, is an exercise wherein a master provides riddles to his (or her) students to help guide them along their paths to enlightenment.

Ultimately, the solution to the Hatter’s riddle, as I revealed in my 2016 novella Lilith, is as follows:

Question: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Answer: They’re both not made of bauxite.

According to Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition, bauxite is “a white, red, yellow, or brown amorphous claylike substance comprising aluminium oxides and hydroxides, often with such impurities as iron oxides. It is the chief ore of aluminium and has the general formula: Al2O3 nH2O.”

As a claylike mineral substance, bauxite is clearly exactly the wrong material from which to make a raven. Ravens are complex, highly organized hydrocarbon-based life forms. In its hydrated form, one could form an amazingly lifelike statue of a raven. It wouldn’t, however, even be the right color. Certainly it would never exhibit the behaviors we normally expect of actual, real, live ravens.

Similarly, bauxite could be used to form an amazingly lifelike statue of a writing desk. The bauxite statue of a writing desk might even have a believable color!

Why one would want to produce a statue of a writing desk, instead of making an actual writing desk, is a question outside the scope of this blog posting.

Real writing desks, however, are best made of wood, although other materials, such as steel, fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP), and marble, have been used successfully. What makes wood such a perfect material for writing desks is its mechanically superior composite structure.

Being made of long cellulose fibers held in place by a lignin matrix, wood has wonderful anisotropic mechanical properties. It’s easy to cut and shape with the grain, while providing prodigious yield strength when stressed against the grain. Its amazing toughness when placed under tension or bending loads makes assembling wood into the kind of structure ideal for a writing desk almost too easy.

Try making that out of bauxite!

Alice was unable to divine the answer the Hatter’s riddle because she “thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing desks.” That is exactly the kind of mistake we might expect a conservative Anglican deacon to make as well.

It is only by using Zen methods of turning the problem inside out and surrealist imagination’s ability to look at it as a question, not of what ravens and writing desks are, but what they are not, that the riddle’s solution becomes obvious.