The Wonders of Wonderland

Last night as part of the Montreal Fringe Festival I went to see a dramatic version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was very well done, very true to the book, with clever costumes and a great deal of charm. The Lobster Quadrille was adorable. If you’re in Montreal it’s well worth seeing, and there are four more performances. (If you are Fringing in Montreal this week, I also recommend Paul Van Dyck’s The Harvester, an old fashioned SF short story in play form. It reminded me of Simak. Also Euripides Hippolytos, still awesome after all these years.)

The performance of Alice we saw was interupted three quarters of the way through by a fire alarm, and subsequently abandoned with the arrival of fire engines. The actors remained in character out in the street, which was delightful. It made me realise that the encounters Alice has in Wonderland are so random that a fire alarm and a fire engine don’t seem especially unlikely additions, and the theatre burning down is only another form of breaking the fourth wall to end the story.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written in 1865, and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871, which may be peanuts to Hippolytos but it’s still a respectable time for books to still be part of the life of a culture. It’s full of iconic images, and usefully iconic images, things which are part of our shared set of shorthand references. It’s still read, and adapted. There was a fairly recent movie, which I didn’t see but which I heard had problems because it tried to have a plot:

They tried to graft a standard Plot Coupon fantasy quest onto what was a surreal dreamscape lacking any narrative spine. Big mistake.

Lawrence Person review in Locus Online

The great thing about Alice is that it is indeed a dreamscape, a set of random encounters with strange creatures. She gets out of Wonderland (even in versions without a fire) by breaking the fourth wall and ceasing to take the world seriously. As long as she interrogates it as if it’s real, she is trapped there, when she dismisses it as nonsense, she escapes.

I didn’t like it as a child because it didn’t make sense. There’s a narrative about children going into fantasy worlds with which I was already familiar from Narnia by the time I read Alice, and it annoyed me that it didn’t follow it. It is indeed a dreamscape, it has dream logic, which is sometimes closer to nightmare logic. It grew on me later, but I’ve always thought of it as very early surrealism. Alice tries to be polite and make friends and make sense of what is happening, but she can’t because it doesn’t make sense. I have more time for this dream logic as an adult than I did when I was seven, when all I really liked was the poetry.

Thinking about last night’s performance so abruptly ended by the fire, I realised for the first time that the word “wonder” in “Wonderland” is not a casual one. Lady Charlotte Guest published a translation of the Mabinogion between 1838 and 1849. It was the first version of these medieval Welsh stories to appear in English, and it was a huge success. They were bestsellers. It’s difficult now to remember how very ignorant of the Celtic stories Europe outside the Celtic countries was before the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century revivals. The Celtic stories were very different from everything else in European culture, while fitting right into it, which is one of the reasons why they became so immensely popular so quickly. Before this Wales and Ireland and Scotland had been seen as primitive, after this they were also seen as romantic.

In the Mabinogion, as in Celtic stories generally, you get random wonders, and “wonders” is the word used for them in Guest’s translation. 

And he came towards a valley, through which ran a river; and the borders of the valley were wooded, and on each side of the river were level meadows. And on one side of the river he saw a flock of white sheep, and on the other a flock of black sheep. And whenever one of the white sheep bleated, one of the black sheep would cross over and become white; and when one of the black sheep bleated, one of the white sheep would cross over, and become black. And he saw a tall tree by the side of the river, one half of which was in flames from the root to the top, and the other half was green and in full leaf. And nigh thereto he saw a youth sitting upon a mound, and two greyhounds, white-breasted and spotted, in leashes, lying by his side. And certain was he that he had never seen a youth of so royal a bearing as he. And in the wood opposite he heard hounds raising a herd of deer. And Peredur saluted the youth, and the youth greeted him in return.

– Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of Peredur

The thing about these wonders is that they are just scenery. They’re not part of the plot. They are just amazing things people see as they wander around. The characters treat all the wonders absolutely seriously but without much curiosity. Even if they do interact with them, it’s never explained why they are there. Peredur goes on to have a conversation with the youth about which way he should go, but he doesn’t ask about the tree or the sheep.

I had a horrible time with wonders when I was writing GURPS Celtic Myth, because roleplayers always want to use everything for something. Everything has to have a purpose. If you’re writing a story you can say that Peredur kept riding past, but in a roleplaying game you can be sure the players will try to find out what happens if you pour water on the tree, and why it’s not consumed, and break bits off and carry them about in a bucket and generally poke at it. It’s human nature. Wonders give you a world with a very high weirdness quotient and a very low realism quotient. They existence of these things does odd things to plausibility. They mess with expectations. They are wonderful for atmosphere, but horrible for common sense.

I have no idea whether Carroll read Guest’s translations of the Mabinogion. It seems likely, because the wonders of Wonderland are wonders in precisely this Celtic sense—the baby that turns into a pig, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the fish footman, the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat—mostly Alice interacts with them until she is infuriated or until she infuriates them. She often ignores the strangest things about them, but sometimes she interrogates them. Carroll is parodying instructive children’s stories here and there, and he’s making other satirical points. But I wonder if he read Guest and said to himself “Nobody would react like that! A seven year old girl wouldn’t react like that!” Because what we have here is mostly Alice wandering through a world of fascinating but illogical wonders and poking at them.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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