Beginning It All: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The original plan for these rereads, after Oz and Narnia, was to try to explore the history of children’s literature in some sort of linear fashion. That didn’t happen for any number of reasons, one of which was that I started these rereads by immediately skipping Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. I could give you a profound or witty or academic reason for this, but the truth is, although I’ve generally tried to make these rereads more or less complete, I did not want, under any circumstances, to reread Caroll’s later books: Sylvie and Bruno/Sylvie and Bruno Completed. They are just terrible. Until I realized that I might just have something to say about them after all.

But first, one of the most influential works of children’s literature: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The beginning of this book is probably so well known that it hardly needs a recap: Alice, bored to death by her sister’s book (which contains absolutely no pictures or conversations), sees a white rabbit with a pocketwatch and follows him down a rabbit hole.

Which is when things get really weird.

The genesis of the story is almost as well known: Dodgson told an early version to young Alice Liddell. (She, in turn, would later meet Peter Llewelyn Davies, who helped inspire Peter Pan. The two bonded immediately over the hell of being inspirations for major children’s fantasy books.) Liddell liked the story enough that she wanted a copy. Dodgson then shared the story with other children, including the young children of fairy tale writer George MacDonald, who urged him to expand it. Dodgson not only did so, but submitted the book for publication, with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, under the name of Lewis Carroll. (That name itself is a linguistics joke, a foreshadowing of the rest of the book.)

This is one example where an illustrator, more than a writer, helped to account for the book’s initial popularity. Tenniel was not just a well known cartoonist for the popular magazine Punch, but also a perfectionist who tossed the book’s first print run out the window because he thought the print quality sucked. This expense was at least somewhat offset by having his name on the inner pages, which helped sell books, and by his illustrations, which helped heighten the sense of absurdity and dream given in the text. Even without the text, the illustrations are well worth looking at, for their detail and humor: my favorite is probably the one with Alice holding an angry flamingo (seen above), but the Duchess and her peppery cook are a close runner up.

As amusing as the illustrations are, however, they probably would have been forgotten had it not been for the text. And despite the number of times I’ve read it, and how often many of its lines are quoted, I found I’d still managed to forget bits of it. For instance, just how quickly it gets going. The White Rabbit, for instance, appears in the second paragraph, which happens to be the second sentence of the book; his watch appears in the third sentence/paragraph, and by the fourth paragraph the book is off and running, with absolutely no other introduction to Alice apart from letting us know that she doesn’t like boring books. This is a text that does not like to waste a single word.

We do pick up a few pieces of information about Alice here and there as the book continues: she has a cat named Dinah; she’s taken lessons in various subjects, including French, none of which have sunk in very well; her hair is straight; and she does not want to be her poky friend Mabel. And she is naturally curious, and, when not terrified or puzzled, opinionated. The Tenniel illustrations show her with a very wide skirt and neat shoes and hair.

That’s about it. In short, for one of the most famous characters in children’s literature, Alice is almost—dare I say it—bland.

This is important, since so many children’s fantasy books were later to model themselves on aspects of Alice—its episodic nature, the journey into a dream or fantasy world, the safe return home. But perhaps the most influential was the model of creating a completely ordinary, relatively uninteresting child surrounded by offbeat, strange, quirky and humorous characters, a model authors from L. Frank Baum to J.K. Rowling would later use to great success when creating their own magical universes.

These children are for the most part ordinary looking, neither pretty nor ugly. (Harry Potter and his scar stand out a little here.) They are polite, although they will stand up for each other when needed. They are of average intelligence, and not particularly interested in lessons. And they all want something important: either to get home, or to find a home.

Their very blandness allows many childhood readers to identify with them, since so much can be read into that blandness. But more importantly, it allows the author to keep the focus on the magical world, its bizarre characters, and wordplay. Alice doesn’t, after all, need to learn anything during her journey, or overcome a bad habit or personality flaw. This in turn also means that Carroll and his followers could mostly avoid sticking morals into his book and thereby alienating kids who want to be entertained, not taught. (Carroll still inserted morals through the Duchess of Wonderland, but she’s not really meant to be taken all that seriously.) Alice has her flaws, certainly—she really needs to work on her math, to begin with—and the characters in Wonderland never hesitate to point these out. But the plot doesn’t depend on these flaws.

All that said, Alice does have one unique characteristic: she loves conversations, to the point where she has several lengthy conversations with herself, and gives herself excellent advice—even if she doesn’t always follow it. It’s a trait that serves her well in Wonderland, where, when not running absurd races or attempting to play croquet with flamingos, everybody, but everybody, wants to engage in lengthy conversations or arguments. Or, alternatively, cut off someone’s head. Alice can jump right in, even when it annoys her: “It’s really dreadful,” she muttered to herself, “the way all these creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!”

Or, as the Cheshire Cat suggests, perhaps she already is.

The text later outright states that Alice has only been dreaming, and given the way the book echoes a dream landscape, I’m inclined to agree. Even forgetting about the great fall through the tunnel, with its sense of falling further into sleep, once in Wonderland Alice does find things appearing and disappearing quite in the way things disappear and reappear in dreams, where whatever caused your problem—say, a lake of your own tears that turned you, a Dodo, and several other very innocent animals indeed quite, quite wet—disappears as soon as your problem disappears—say, once you become quite, quite dry, after running around in a race that makes absolutely no sense and then encountering a poem shaped just like a tail and some terrible puns. Not to mention the baby who shifts into a pig and then is never mentioned nor seen again, or the way Alice finally reaches the goal of her dream—well, one of her goals—only to find it dominated by a woman who continues to shout “Off With Her Head!” and to find herself completely distracted from her original plans, limited though those plans were.

On the other hand, for all that Alice comes across as one of the only two sane characters in the book—well, three, if we count her sister—and the other sensible creature, poor little Bill the Lizard, spends most of the book getting violently abused (poor Bill) I can’t help noticing that Alice also accepts the world she is in, mostly without question, except for the bit where she is questioning whether she is Alice, or Ada, or Mabel. (Poor Mabel.) Oh, certainly she asks questions of nearly everyone she meets, but she never questions their actual existence—even when she comes across a Fish Footman and a Frog Footman, a Cheshire Cat who disappears, a baby who turns into a pig, and cards attempting to play croquet. Oh, yes, this is all very much the way people accept do accept the oddness of dreams while they are dreaming. But Alice’s ability to participate in these conversations suggests that she is, perhaps, ever so slightly mad.

Or perhaps she has just stumbled into a fairy land. Alice herself, after all, says that she is in a fairy tale, and certainly, Alice in Wonderland draws much of its inspiration from traditional folklore and fairy tale: the talking animals, the dark passage to an enchanted garden (an ancient motif), the dangers of eating food and drink in the fairy world. The idea of having to shrink down to a smaller size to enter an enchanted area—or grow suddenly large with the help of a potion—was hardly new either. And English folklore is riddled with tales of people who fell asleep beneath a tree, or on a rock, or on a hill, only to find themselves somewhere else. It’s a possibility, at least.

The book, of course, has other delights beyond its cartoon illustrations and references to folklore: nonsensical characters, nonsensical conversations, and really bad puns:

“I had NOT!” cried the Mouse, sharply and very angrily.

“A knot!” said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. “Oh, do let me help to undo it!”

(In defense of the book, when I was six, I thought this was hilarious. I read it over and over and over and even quoted it at people who, I must say, were not very appreciative. As a mostly-grownup I want to go back in time and hit my six year-old self on the head.)

And one obvious mathematics joke, when the Mock Turtle describes the different branches of Arithmetic as “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.” This also made me laugh VERY VERY HARD when I was six, although adults were considerably less appreciative. These days, I can’t help wondering, on this reread, if Carroll consciously or unconsciously was thinking of the ongoing multiplication of houses and people and factories and industries in general, in an unconscious foreshadowing of a later Oxford don known for writing the occasional silly verse.

Speaking of the Mock Turtle, one sidenote: Alice’s conversation with the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon is quite clever and very well done and illustrates the main problem with doing these rereads out of order: this is at least the fifth children’s book in these rereads that has an minimum of one chapter devoted to fish puns, and I gotta say, they’ve all been progressively less amusing. It’s not quite as bad as the endless cannibals, but it’s getting close. (The guilty authors: L. Frank Baum, Edith Nesbit, Pamela Travers, Edward Eager, and now Lewis Carroll.) I suppose Lewis Carroll should get some credit for starting the trend, but it’s also a trend I wish he hadn’t started. Find another porpoise for writing, everybody. Moving on.

Anyway, still speaking of the Mock Turtle, the book, oddly, reads both shorter and longer than I remembered: shorter in part because it is a very short book (a novella by today’s standards) and because so much of it so well known; longer because, to my surprise, I had completely forgotten the Mock Turtle and Gryphon section. In my vague and incorrect memory, Alice went directly from playing croquet with flamingos (sidenote: kids, if you must try this at home, use plastic flamingos. Safer for everyone) to the trial scene. As it turns out, she actually takes a few detours along the way—a chat with the Duchess, who away from pepper turns out to be overly friendly and fond of morals, and then to the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon.

Why I forgot this I don’t know, especially since the Mock Turtle and Gryphon section includes the mathematics joke I quoted at everybody above, and also a couple of the best poems in the book. With one exception—a poem written to look like a long tale—these are simple parodies of long since forgotten poems, such as Isaac Watts’ “How doth the little busy bee,” all poems taught to children to teach them morals. I like to think of kids shrieking in laughter to hear the alternate versions.

The poems aren’t the only places where Carroll pokes mild fun at some of the didactic children’s literature of the time. These stories were all well intentioned, but the lessons learned from these tales actually slow Alice down on her journey. Alice hesitates to drink the bottle clearly labeled “DRINK ME,” for instance, because of all the stories she has read about careless little children who drank poison and died. And the Duchess, for all her morals, never actually seems to follow any of them, even apart from her complete lack of interest in her son.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that so much of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is spent attacking didactic children’s literature, since the book, along with its sequel (next post) and works by George MacDonald were to completely transform the world of children’s literature, from its didactic teaching to pure fun. Frankly, without this book, I would not have these reread posts. But Lewis Carroll admittedly had no way of knowing this; he turned back to his mathematics and teaching, until inspiration hit him again, and he decided to send Alice on another trip.

Mari Ness has mostly grown out of her fondness for puns. She lives in central Florida.


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