Did you read and enjoy Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books as a child? Or better still, did you have someone read them to you? Perhaps you discovered them as an adult or, forbid the thought, maybe you haven’t discovered them at all! Those who have journeyed Through the Looking Glass generally love (or shun) the tales for their unparalleled sense of nonsense . Public interest in the books–from the time they were published more than a century ago–has almost been matched by curiosity about their author.
Many readers are surprised to learn that the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and a host of other absurd and captivating creatures sprung from the mind of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy, stammering Oxford mathematics professor. Dodgson was a deacon in his church, an inventor, and a noted children’s photographer. Wonderland, and thus the seeds of his unanticipated success as a writer, appeared quite casually one day as he spun an impromptu tale to amuse the daughters of a colleague during a picnic.
One of these girls was Alice Liddell, who insisted that he write the story down for her, and who served as the model for the heroine. Dodgson eventually sought to publish the first book on the advice of friends who had read and loved the little handwritten manuscript he had given to Alice Liddell. He expanded the story considerably and engaged the services of John Tenniel, one of the best known artists in England, to provide illustrations. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through The Looking Glass were enthusiastically received in their own time, and have since become landmarks in childrens’ literature.
What makes these nonsense tales so durable? Aside from the immediate appeal of the characters, their colourful language, and the sometimes hilarious verse (”Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe:”) the narrative works on many levels. There is logical structure, in the relationship of Alice’s journey to a game of chess. There are problems of relativity, as in her exchange with 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. ” There is plenty of fodder for psychoanalysts, Freudian or otherwise, who have had a field day analyzing the significance of the myriad dream creatures and Alice’s strange transformations. There is even Zen: “And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out…” Still, why would a rigorous logical thinker like Dodgson, a disciple of mathematics, wish children to wander in an unpredictable land of the absurd?
Maybe he felt that everybody, including himself, needed an occasional holiday from dry mental exercises. But he was no doubt also aware that nonsense can be instructive all the same. As Alice and the children who follow her adventures recognize illogical events, they are acknowledging their capacity for logic, in the form of what should normally happen. “You’re a serpent; [says the Pigeon] and there’s no use denying it.
I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg! ” “I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice… “But little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know. ” Ethel Rowell, to whom Dodgson taught logic when she was young, wrote that she was grateful that he had encouraged her to “that arduous business of thinking. ” While Lewis Carroll’s Alice books compel us to laugh and to wonder, we are also easily led, almost in spite of ourselves, to think as well.