Alice's Adventures and The Looking Glass

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Here's glory for you! And by that I mean, 'Here's a nice knock-down review for the Library!'

Here's two works of inspired genius written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. The first of the two, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was originally published in 1865; Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1871. Dodgson's Wonderland initially drew its inspiration from an actual and less-fantastic event, which was more or less a picnic and boat ride gone awry. On that day, Dodgson and others had their boat ride on the river Thames interrupted by heavy rain, which almost sank the whole lot of them. Among the small group were three of the young Liddell sisters, daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Most importantly, one of the sisters was Alice Liddell, Dodgson's chief inspiration for writing the book. Some weeks later, on a more dry and therefore more enjoyable day-out, Dodgson created the basic plot for Wonderland as a story to entertain Alice. He based the story on the previous picnic, inserting Alice as the main character and the others as additional characters. Through further circumstances he eventually filled out and refined the story and had it published, with John Tenniel illustrating the wonderfully bizarre character designs.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, we first come upon Alice and her sister sitting by the riverbank. Suddenly, Alice spots a white rabbit quickly running past her, which then takes out a pocket watch and hurries off. Deciding to chase it, Alice begins the now classic journey down the rabbit-hole. And what she finds down the rabbit-hole is a world full of odd rules, items, and characters.

In the story she comes across the now classic hookah-smoking Caterpillar, which seems to offer only circular and contradictory conversation (a theme which will become familiar throughout the story, to Alice's dismay). Further on, she meets the Cheshire-Cat who reassures (!?) her that, "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." To drive the point home, it eventually vanishes from sight, leaving behind only a grin. As the story progresses, she eventually comes across the Hatter's tea party, the Queen of Hearts' game of croquet (complete with flamingo-mallets, hedgehog croquet balls, and many commands of off-with-someone's-head), and a trial that makes the concept "kangaroo court" seem quite tame in comparison: "'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first--verdict afterwards.'" Such is the world of Wonderland, in all its glorious nonsensical logic! Reading Wonderland, we follow Alice as she explores this new world. It should be said that there's no typically grand plot involved: e.g. girl enters new world/reality; girl meets and travels with companions; girl and group battle evil queen; girl saves alternative world; girl goes home. Rather, Dodgson is content to tell a story that needn't have the usual trappings and moralizing. His aim is creativity.

Through the Looking-Glass is Alice's further adventures in another reason defying reality. Deciding to see what's on the other side of the mirror, Alice explores the world of the Looking-Glass House, where things seem to work conversely.

In this story too, we find the odd assortment of oddities. The world itself is basically one gigantic chess game, in which are the usual pieces and then some. Finding herself playing as a white pawn, Alice progresses from square to square, meeting along the way more pieces and characters. She finds flowers that speak; one offers her a good reason why they can do so: their beds are hard. Now that's flower logic! Not to be outdone, she and the Red Queen run as fast as they can just so they can remain in place--huh? Equally mystifying is the wooded area where things have no name, including poor Alice. Of course, we cannot forget about Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with their contrary opinions. Then there's the White Queen who best remembers "things that happen the week after next." Alice also has to contend with the master linguist Humpty Dumpty, who works his words for all their worth. Meeting these various characters corresponds to her moves in the game, with her final goal in mind: Queen Alice. The plot shares the same eccentric structure with Wonderland. However, it's not like the plot in either is cast aside in favor of randomness. The structure that Dodgson works with is tasked with the job of sparking creativity and self-sufficient thought in the reader's mind.

Both books are written in a playful tone and style that anyone can enjoy, regardless of age. For example, we find the layout of a sentence written to match the shape of a mouse's tail, and another sentence printed in a minuscule font to represent the voice of the Gnat. The paragraphs and sentences are short, yet packed full of head-spinning ideas (kind of like when Alice's head is filled with ideas she can't fully grasp after reading the poem the Jabberwocky). Dodgson's style is almost formal, yet not completely so. It's a nice reflection of the state of the English language back in the late 1800s, or at least in certain circles in England at that time. We notice it in Alice's keen mind, always spotting odd reasonings and contradictions. Of course, it helps that Dodgson himself was an Oxford man, who was very proficient in mathematics and logic.

While some of the Alice lore tends to emphasize the pure weirdness for the sake of weird, or others filter it through a chemically hallucinogenic mindset (hello Jefferson Airplane!), Dodgson's stories can be read in a philosophical, logical, or scientific point of view. The Wachowski brothers lifted some of the philosophy from these two stories when they crafted their Matrix trilogy. Linguistic-semioticians concerned with the meanings of words have cited Humpty Dumpty's use of words. Logical rules can be found in the conversation at Hatter's tea party, as they make use of converse statements to show that Alice doesn't exactly mean what she says. There's also the amusing conceptual confusion when the King argues that if there's a head, you can cut it off. However, the executioner argues that you need a body before you can cut off a head! Ideas like these have resulted in books such as The Philosopher's Alice by P. Heath. In The Limits of Science by P. Medawar, he uses some lines from the Looking Glass to indirectly explain his own ideas about scientific methods and aims. Yet, for all the weighty stuff mentioned here, we don't have to be masters of methodologies to enjoy these two stories. Dodgson loved to poke fun at logical reasoning in his works, deflating pretentious thought (such as mine). And the fact that Dodgson was able to craft these with such depth and dexterity that, say, both an 8-year old Japanese girl and a 58-year old man from MIT's linguistics department could enjoy these works is a testament to his abilities as a story teller.

I highly recommend that anyone who hasn't read these works to go and find them. What you find will be a world full of weird and wonderful things, all making you think: "curiouser and curiouser!"