Carroll and Poe; Ravens and Crows

What is the difference between a raven and a crow?

Actually, ravens have one more pinion feather on each wing, so the difference between a crow and a raven is just a matter of a pinion!¹


And we cannot forget the Mad Hatter’s famous raven riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” This poser inevitably (and famously) goes unanswered: after all, it was a very odd tea party, and the conversation shifted rather swiftly to the issue of how best to butter one’s pocket watch. And so — as Martin Gardner notes in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition² the Hatter’s riddle became the subject of endless “parlour speculation”, in Carroll’s own time and evermore. David B Jodrey’s answer — “both have inky quills” — is typical of the reader submissions in The Annotated Alice, while that genius Aldous Huxley suggested that “there’s a ‘b’ in both and an ‘n’ in neither, thereby proving that his humour wasn’t always political.

Carroll himself always asserted that the raven/writing desk riddle was wholly rhetorical: he never wrote it with an answer in mind. The point was that the two incongruous items were not at all alike. However when pressed, he would say of a raven that “it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front”. That is, a raven’s song is musically flat [like the surface of a writing desk]; and ‘raven’ is ‘nevar’ spelled backwards, with the wrong end in front (although in the original publications, an overzealous — and presumably humourless — editor changed Carroll’s intentional misspelling of ‘nevar’ back to ‘never’, thereby ruining the pun. And the moral of that is ‘Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves’).

Speaking of ‘never’, let us not forget that Carroll’s riddling raven wasn’t the only one to feature in 19th Century pop-culture. All hail the gothic masterpiece of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven!³ For in response to the raven/writing-desk issue, American puzzle fiend Sam Loyd made a simple and logical observation: “Poe wrote on both”.

And the moral to THAT is, if you love trivial minutiae and Alice in Wonderland, read The Annotated Alice.  Also, that one thing always leads to another: I started out with RSSed online graphic art, and ended up thumbing through classics.

¹ I’ve always loved this pun, and yet can’t remember where I heard it first (hints, anyone?).

² I had to make sure I wasn’t just imagining this, which meant finding my copy of The Annotated Alice. Which these days means several minutes fossicking through my newly colour-coded bookshelf. But once located, I immediately, instinctively opened the book to the relevant page. We can put this down to 1 part coincidence, and 4,000 parts Loving The Book And Knowing It Like The Back Of My Kid-Gloved Hand. It’s Chapter 7: The Mad Tea-Party/ Note 5, by the way.

³ In high school, when I presumably had nothing better with which to occupy my limited powers of recall, I memorised my two favourite poems: The Jabberwocky (from Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There), and The Raven. And on poetry day, when I finally had a use for this oddity, they wouldn’t let me recite the latter: it’s 18 verses long.

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