ENDURING, ENDEARING NONSENSE by AndrewGreen Did you read and enjoy Lewis Carroll’s Alice inWonderland books as a child? Or better still, did you havesomeone read them to you? Perhaps you discovered themas an adult or, forbid the thought, maybe you haven’tdiscovered them at all! Those who have journeyed Throughthe Looking Glass generally love (or shun) the tales for theirunparalleled sense of nonsense . Public interest in thebooks–from the time they were published more than acentury ago–has almost been matched by curiosity abouttheir author. Many readers are surprised to learn that theMad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and a host of other absurdand captivating creatures sprung from the mind of CharlesLutwidge Dodgson, a shy, stammering Oxford mathematicsprofessor. Dodgson was a deacon in his church, an inventor,and a noted children’s photographer.Order now
Wonderland, and thusthe seeds of his unanticipated success as a writer, appearedquite casually one day as he spun an impromptu tale toamuse the daughters of a colleague during a picnic. One ofthese girls was Alice Liddell, who insisted that he write thestory down for her, and who served as the model for theheroine. Dodgson eventually sought to publish the first bookon the advice of friends who had read and loved the littlehandwritten manuscript he had given to Alice Liddell. Heexpanded the story considerably and engaged the servicesof John Tenniel, one of the best known artists in England, toprovide illustrations.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland andits sequel Through The Looking Glass were enthusiasticallyreceived in their own time, and have since becomelandmarks in childrens’ literature. What makes thesenonsense tales so durable? Aside from the immediate appealof the characters, their colourful language, and thesometimes hilarious verse (“Twas brillig, and the slithytoves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe:”) the narrative workson many levels. There is logical structure, in the relationshipof Alice’s journey to a game of chess. There are problems ofrelativity, as in her exchange with the Cheshire Cat: “Wouldyou tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?””That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
“There is plenty of fodder for psychoanalysts, Freudian orotherwise, who have had a field day analyzing thesignificance of the myriad dream creatures and Alice’sstrange transformations. There is even Zen: “And she tried tofancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle isblown out. . . ” Still, why would a rigorous logical thinker likeDodgson, a disciple of mathematics, wish children to wanderin an unpredictable land of the absurd? Maybe he felt thateverybody, including himself, needed an occasional holidayfrom dry mental exercises. But he was no doubt also awarethat nonsense can be instructive all the same.
As Alice andthe children who follow her adventures recognize illogicalevents, they are acknowledging their capacity for logic, inthe form of what should normally happen. “You’re a serpent;says the Pigeon and there’s no use denying it. I supposeyou’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!” “Ihave tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice. . . “But little girls eateggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.
” EthelRowell, to whom Dodgson taught logic when she wasyoung, wrote that she was grateful that he had encouragedher to “that arduous business of thinking. ” While LewisCarroll’s Alice books compel us to laugh and to wonder, weare also easily led, almost in spite of ourselves, to think asBibliography:FURTHER READING: Lewis Carroll. Alice’sAdventures in Wonderland ; Through the Looking-Glass,with an introduction by Morton N. Cohen, Bantam, 1981. Lewis Carroll: The Wasp in a Wig, A “Suppressed Episodeof Through the Looking-Glass, Notes by Martin Gardner,Macmillan London Ltd, 1977. Anne Clark: The Real Alice,Michael Joseph Ltd, 1981.
Raymond Smullyan: Alice inPuzzleland, William Morrow and Co. , 1982.