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Presumably everyone in the English-speaking world knows of Alice in Wonderland and thus of Lewis Carroll. But if you have never read the books themselves, or have not been back to them for a long time, these few notes may be useful.
With Carroll, there is a massive temptation to get sidetracked discussing the man rather than the works—for he was a thoroughly interesting person—but that is not to our purpose here, nor is a recounting of how the stories came to be (a familiar tale anyway), interesting as that too is. So I will stick to the books and, as always, will write as if you were not familiar with them.
Alice is so well-known an image that it is easy to forget that she is given to us in two quite distinct books, not a single Wonderland book. The original, the one that established her and Carroll’s fame, was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; the successor, like and yet very unlike, was Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there. A great number of the best-liked and best-remembered Alice images, which too many people vaguely associate with Wonderland, are actually from Looking-Glass Land: Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, The Walrus and the Carpenter, plus the White Knight, the Red Queen and all the chess-piece characters.
Perhaps the single most important thing to convey about such well-established works is that there is a great deal more in them than what they are too commonly taken for, which is sheer delightful nonsense. There is no harm, and often great good, in sheer delightful nonsense, as L. Frank Baum’s Oz books demonstrate in excelsis; but neither is there harm, and often even greater good, in apparent nonsense that turns out to have a wonderfully clever sense to it after all.
Much of the cleverness of the Alice books is now invisible, owing mainly to two causes: one, what we now call in jokes—for many of the references you need to be English, for a fair part of those you specifically need to be from Oxford, and for even a good part of those you need to have been in Carroll’s immediate circle of friends—and two, the passage of time, in that so much has changed since Carroll’s day that what were once obvious, commonplace references (not just words and phrases but poems and even political affairs) are now obscure or simply meaningless. There is no remedy for those problems save knowledge gleaned from relevant investigation, which is why I so strenuously recommend Martin Gardner’s edition of the two books, published as The Definitive Annotated Alice, in which much that would otherwise be obscure is made clear.
Beyond that which Carroll deliberately put into the tales there is what he may have put in unknowingly. There seems an unscratchable itch in some brains to not leave well enough alone; we cannot read and enjoy Alice, we must have a psychoanalytic explanation of the meaning or meanings of all the unusual things—which is virtually everything—that Alice finds in the strange worlds she visits. Those who fancy that such stuff is interesting, or in fact anything but swill, are welcome to their opinion, which is obviously not mine.
It helps to recall that Carroll was immensely fond of logic and of witty logical problems. Much of the strange passages in Alice have beneath them a bedrock of logic. Consider, as but one example, this passage from Through the Looking Glass, as Alice is shown the sleeping Red King (a chess figure) by Tweedledee (of Tweedledum and Tweedledee—you see how much of Carroll is become a part of the heritage of all English speakers?):
He’s dreaming now, Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?
Where I am now, of course, said Alice.
Not you! Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!
If that there King was to wake, added Tweedledum, you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!
I shouldn’t! Alice exclaimed indignantly. Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?
Ditto, said Tweedledum.
Ditto, ditto! cried Tweedledee.
He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn’t help saying Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.
Well, it’s no use your talking about waking him, said Tweedledum, when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real.
I am real, said Alice, and began to cry.
You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying, Tweedledee remarked: there’s nothing to cry about.
If I wasn’t real, Alice said—half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—I shouldn't be able to cry.
I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears? Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.
Of that passage—which (as Gardner points out) parallels the famous, or notorious, position of Bishop Berkeley on reality and Sam’l Johnson’s equally famous or notorious rejoinder—Bertrand Russell remarked A very instructive discussion from a philosophical point of view, but if it were not put so humorously, we should find it too painful.
Then there is the passage in which the White Knight proposes to comfort Alice by singing her a song:
Is it very long? Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.
It's long, said the Knight, but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it—either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else—
Or else what? said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.
Or else it doesn’t, you know. The name of the song is called ‘Haddock’s Eyes’.
Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it? Alice said, trying to feel interested.
No, you don't understand, the Knight said, looking a little vexed. That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man’.
Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?’ Alice corrected herself.
No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ‘Ways and Means’: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!
Well, what is the song, then? said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
I was coming to that, the Knight said. The song really is ‘A-sitting on a Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.
Now that is formal logic served up with an apple in its mouth! Those familiar with programming computers in higher-level languages will see there a clear delineation of the difference between a datum, the symbolic name of that datum, the address at which the datum is stored, and the symbolic name of that address. Philosophers will see meta-languages and the self-referential problems being side-stepped with them, an effort going back to the classical Greeks. The whole thing looks to the casual reader a total nonsense, but it's not: the song is A-sitting on a Gate; the song is called ‘Ways and Means’, but what it is called is not what its name is (as, for example, the once-popular song named In Other Words is usually called Fly Me to the Moon); the proper name of the song is ‘The Aged Aged Man’; but—and here we go beyond commonplace usage but not at all beyond logic—the name of the song has its own nickname, ‘Haddock’s Eyes’. Confused? Carroll wasn’t.
Both the books share this quality: they are, both literally and figuratively, dream-like. Few have captured the essence of dreaming as most people really experience it—a thing very different from the usual literary presentations of it as relatively lifelike—so well as Carroll. Things and situations drift and transmute with little or no logic save that peculiar logic of the subconscious, which is (and modern neurology seems to support this on a scientific basis) more or less playing random-association games. That is true of both books, but it is markedly truer of the second (which, as you may have gathered from the references to chess pieces, is actually laid out, in concept and exactly in narrative, as a more or less playable chess game). Look, for instance, at this:
Then I hope your finger is better now? Alice said very politely, as she crossed the little brook after the Queen.
Oh, much better! cried the Queen, her voice rising into a squeak as she went on. Much be-etter! Be-etter! Be-e-e-etter! Be-e-ehh! The last word ended in a long bleat, so like a sheep that Alice quite started.
She looked at the Queen, who seemed to have suddenly wrapped herself up in wool. Alice rubbed her eyes, and looked again. She couldn’t make out what had happened at all. Was she in a shop? And was that really—was it really a sheep that was sitting on the other side of the counter? Rub as she would, she could make nothing more of it: she was in a little dark shop, leaning with her elbows on the counter, and opposite to her was an old Sheep, sitting in an arm-chair, knitting, and every now and then leaving off to look at her through a great pair of spectacles.
It is regrettable that length prohibits full presentation of the rest of that remarkable scene, in which Alice sees things on the shop shelves but which she cannot make out when she tries to look closely, and in which eventually the shop turns into a rowboat with Alice and the Sheep in it. But that is the very stuff of dreams, and Carroll has caught it as few before or since.
Both tales are, we are led to believe, dreams from which Alice eventually wakes; but the second tale, the more constructed one—consider its design as a playable chess game—has more overt references, some of which I have illustrated above, to the philosophical questions of dream and reality, of epistemology generally, and is more thought-provoking for adults. The first book, the original Wonderland book, strikes me as more a series of ideas that were popping into Carroll’s head (which, however, was richly furnished with raw materials) just as he told it, a sort of stream of consciousness tale; the second book, the Looking-Glass book, is also dreamlike, but the transitions more deliberate and thought-out. The two slightly differ in flavor but are equally delightful.
Carroll was also extravagantly given to puns and similar word-play, and is often, beneath a calm and sober narrative, being uproariously funny. Here is yet another famed scene (Carroll is in this respect like Shakespeare: his works appear to be made entirely of famous quotations stitched together), occurring right after Humpty Dumpty has taken his cosmically required fall—Alice and the White King are speaking:
I’ve sent them all! the King cried in a tone of delight, on seeing Alice. Did you happen to meet any soldiers, my dear, as you came through the wood?
Yes, I did, said Alice: several thousand, I should think.
Four thousand two hundred and seven, that’s the exact number, the King said, referring to his book. I couldn’t send them all the horses, you know, because two of them are wanted in the game [the steeds for the White Knights]. And I haven’t sent the two Messengers, either. They’re gone to the town. Just look along the road and tell me if you can see either of them.
I see nobody on the road, said Alice.
I only wish I had such eyes, the King remarked in a fretful tone. To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!
All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. I see somebody now! she exclaimed at last. But he’s coming very slowly—and what curious attitudes he goes into! (For the Messenger kept skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)
Not at all, said the King. He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes.
(Better yet: when able readers manage to recover sufficiently to pick themselves off the floor and recover their breath and wipe enough of the tears from their eyes to carry on, we discover that the two messengers bear the quite Anglo-Saxon names Haigha and Hatta, which—when pronounced correctly, Haigha being hayor—make us aware that they are our old friends from the last book, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, just slightly transmuted.)
Well, look—if this hasn’t been enough to send you running for copies of those books, nothing will be. End of thesis.
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The Hunting of the Snark is a tale in verse—An Agony in Eight Fits; normally I don’t deal in evaluations of verse (having, among other disabilities for such a task, insufficient knowledge), but this little delight should not go unnoted here. (It has tenuous connections, mainly in vocabulary, with the famous poem Jabberwocky in Through the Looking Glass.) Many of the curious words and images in The Hunting of the Snark (think Boojum) have, like those in the Alice tales, entered the common conceptual vocabulary of English speakers. The Snark would be better known did it not forever have to stand in the shadow of the Alice books.
(There is also a definitive Definitive Annotated Hunting of the Snark, again by the delightful Martin Gardner.)
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Standing above the mass of too-often-superficial Carroll material on the web is the Lewis Carroll Home Page (hosted by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America), a fine starting point for solid Carroll information; there is also a page from a corresponding U.K. organization, The Lewis Carroll Society. A utile newcomer is Edward Wakeling’s The Real Lewis Carroll (A site for people interested in accurate information about Lewis Carroll)
The Author’s Calendar is its usual reliable self in providing a Carroll page with full biographic information, plus some nice discussion of the works. The Victorian Web also has good Carroll resources. And Lenny de Rooy has a pleasing site specifically about the Alice books.
An interesting sidelight on Carroll is available at the page Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – photographer, which displays a number of Dodgson’s photographs, including several of Alice Liddell, the real Alice.
(The diligent investigator will soon grasp that there is a massive correction underway of the curiously mythic image of Lewis Carroll, which has till recently much overshadowed realistic information and opinions about Charles L. Dodgson.)
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If you would like to stretch your mind while seeking some understanding of the complex things going on beneath the surface of the Alice tales, I much recommend a strange little book entitled The Raven and the Writing Desk by Francis Huxley. It is, I suppose, something like Zen: Huxley seeks to give us enlightenment on Carroll by using Carroll's own wild methods of concealed logic and wordplay. The enterprise is bold and entertaining.
A largely biographical book that also gives the reader insights into the works is Inventing Wonderland by Jackie Wullschläger, which looks at not only Carroll but Edward Lear (of the nonsense verses), J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows), and A. A. Milne (Pooh). Wullschläger does a good job of showing how those several authors go together and also what distinguishes them, and the era and outlooks they jointly embodied. (Note that the Looking for Lewis Carroll site has reservations about Wullschläger's analyses.)
Much fuller lists—I mean much fuller—can be found at the Lewis Carroll Home Page site’s list of Lewis Carroll Reference Books and not one but two other fine lists at the Lewis Carroll Society: General Reading and Specialist Reading.
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This page was last modified on Monday, 19 April 2021, at 3:43 pm Pacific Time.