Saturday, June 8, 2013

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

I grew up in a home with a French-Canadian mother and an English-Canadian father.  This created a lot of ‘good-natured’ tension around the dinner table, especially when it became clear that I got my sense of humour and sensibilities from my Dad.  He and I have the same type of wit which, it wasn’t until I was working retail in a bilingual environment, that I heard described as an “English sense of humour.”  I’m still not entirely sure what defines an English sense of humour, but all my French friends agree that I have one when I ask.

In retrospect, I think that sense of humour explains why one of my favorite books of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.  For the uninitiated, Alice is about a little girl who follows a white rabbit into Wonderland (where silliness prevails), and later goes through the looking glass in her parlor into a land where everything is in reverse.  Carroll wrote these stories while in Oxford, and for the daughters of a family friend.

Now, I have been reading this book almost every year since I was 11.  I first discovered it while my Dad was serving in Bosnia, and it added a bit of levity to what was an extremely stressful time in my life.  I couldn’t put my finger on why I loved the book so much then, and it wasn’t until this reading that I finally caught wise.  What was different?  This time, I read the introductory essay in my edition (by Roger Lancelyn Green) and it all made sense.

According to Green, what makes this work to accessible to both adults and children, and what has made it an enduring classic, is that it is completely logical.  Carroll (according to Green) wrote pure silliness, but never departed from sensible logic, making a set of completely impossible and ludicrous happening sensible.  It’s an amazing feat.  Want an example?  One of the first things Alice encounters when she enters Wonderland is a collection of animals (mice, crabs, pelicans, a dodo) swimming in a puddle of her tears.  Upon exiting the water, they look for a way to get dry:

At last the Mouse, who seemed to be a person of some authority among them, called out ‘Sit down, all of you, and listen to me!  I’ll soon make you dry enough!’  They all sad down at once, in a large ring, with the Mouse in the middle…
‘Ahem!’ said the Mouse with an important air. ‘Are you all ready?  This is the driest thing I know.  Silence all round, if you please!  “William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpations and conquest.  Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria ----“ ‘
‘Ugh!’ said the Lory, with a shiver…
‘I proceed.  “Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, declared for him; and even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable ---“ ‘
‘Found what?’ said the Duck.
‘Found it,’ the Mouse replied rather crossly: ‘of course you know what “it” means.”
‘I know what “it” means well enough, when I find a thing,’ said the Duck: ‘it’s generally a frog, or a worm.  The question is, what did the archbishop find?’

That passage, in my mind, is a piece of silly genius.  Since when is a mouse the most preeminent animal in a group?  And the political history behind William the Conqueror is indeed dry to most people (especially children), but the play on words between a dry concept and getting dry is well done.  Finally, the question of what ‘it’ is – the Mouse is trying so hard to be correct in his form, but his audience is taking him quite literally, reducing his efforts to the pedantic.  

And the entire book is written in this kind of vein.  I say again – genius.

The other thing worth mentioning about Alice is the contribution that the books, and Carroll, made to our literary tradition and the English language.  This book, whether you know it or not, introduced a set of ideas, poems, and words into our every-day life that are hard to ignore.  One of the most famous poems in the work is the Jabberwocky.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, I strongly encourage you to check it out, and reread it multiple times.  The other famous poem from this work is The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Both have contributed to our collective language; as one example of many, the Jabberwocky introduced the word ‘chortled’ to our language, and The Walrus gave us the immortal lines: “The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things / Of shoes and ships and sealing wax / Of cabbages and kings.”  You might not have known where they came from, but I guarantee you’ve heard them, and you’ll notice them now in the future if you stumble across them.

So, final verdict?  Oh my god, read this book.  Come to it was a sense of whimsy and a light heart, but also looking for the logic behind Carroll’s words and thoughts – even in the most nonsensical passage, there is an intrinsic logic that, once found, enriches the text immensely.  This is a book that I come back to regularly because of its ability to impart silliness into a life that is so often focused on serious and pressing things - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass lets the reader (me, at least) step out of the real world, and into the light-hearted world of Carroll’s characters.  

This is a long review, I know, but I want to leave you with one last passage from the book:

[Said Alice to the Cheshire Cat] ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where ---‘
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘--- so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’


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