ENDURING, ENDEARING NONSENSE
by Andrew Green
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
Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass,
with an introduction by Morton N. Cohen, Bantam, 1981.
Lewis Carroll: The Wasp in a Wig, A "Suppressed Episode of Through the
Looking-Glass, Notes by Martin Gardner, Macmillan London Ltd, 1977.
Anne Clark: The Real Alice, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1981.
Raymond Smullyan: Alice in Puzzleland, William Morrow and Co., 1982.