BY C.S. CLARK
Drop everything and read these books by Lewis Caroll now. See other entries in this series here.
We all know the story. But if you have not read the book, do so. If it is not too late, don’t spend $23 to see a computerized smile come flying at you in 3D and Johnny Depp in yet another role where you cannot help think pedophile. Instead, pick up a used copy of the book on Amazon for a penny (actual price) and go to the park and read it. Better yet, patronize your local library…and hope you don’t encounter that pedophilic character after all.
The story we know as Alice in Wonderland is actually an amalgamation of the two books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I originally considered writing about just one of the two, but each are not much more than 100 pages and the font is bigger then I’m sure the numbers on the phone the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” lady couldn’t reach, so I’m cool with treating them as one.
They are two separate stories, but they go so well together as one, so you should really read them both. I might argue the TTLG is better. It has a little more continuity of theme and some of the more memorable characters and verse. Regardless, though, it is not the story that makes the books so great. Both don’t really have any plot depth and have rather lackluster endings—they are children’s books when it comes down to it.
Kids are sure to love the fantastical world of Wonderland, but it is because of the wordplay that you, as a reasonably mature, literary-minded adult, should read and love the books. It is not the story that makes Carroll’s works great, but the delivery—not so much what happens in Wonderland, but how Carroll, through the peculiar personalities of his characters, relates what happens in Wonderland.
Carroll is a master of the absurd. It was probably all laudanum, but whatever. He can make the nonsensical beautiful. Take the poem of the Jabberwockey, which begins.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsey were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Alice says it best herself: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!” Such is the same with Carroll’s writing as a whole. There is so much nonsense, but you love it. A later explanation of the poem by Humpty Dumpty (a cameo I do not necessarily approve of) provides no more clarity. After relating that brillig mean 4PM, when you begin broiling food for dinner, and slithy is a portmanteau for lithe and slimy, Mr. Dumpty continues.
“Well, ‘toves’ are something like badgers—they’re something like lizards—and they’re something like corkscrews.”
“They must be very curious creatures.”
“They are that,” said Humpty Dumpty: “also they make their nests under sun-dials—also they live on cheese.”
You get the point.
You can try and make sense out of everything, and, sure, there is plenty of depth to be found: the religious overtones of the Walrus and the Carpenter parable; the whole world being the dream of the Red King, a dream within a dream; the potential social commentary on the charade of monarchial authority, the arbitrary rule of law, and the fruitlessness of martial conflict.
My take, though, is that trying to be too cerebral ruins the experience. Everything does not have to make sense. In Wonderland, logic and reason are at odds and oddity is the logical reason for everything:
“Crawling at your feet,” said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), “you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”
“And what does it live on?”
“Weak tea with cream in it.”
A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” she suggested.
“Then it would die, of course.”
“But this must happen very often,” Alice remarked thoughtfully.
“It always happens,” said the Gnat.
There are many reasons to like the books. Like it for your own reasons, but just give in to the whimsical absurdity and try not to make the text something it is not.
My favorite quote from my favorite character, the Duchess:
Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.