Charles Dodgson, better known as his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, hated the very books that made him famous for precisely that reason. An extremely shy and private mathematician and logician. he despised getting fan letters and hated, even more, when he was recognized by strangers because of having penned Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. And yet these books, Wonderland, in particular, have had a huge impact on the culture and have become a kind of modern mythology. Even those who have never read the books, know the stories, the characters and even some of the quotable lines. The books have inspired over thirty films and innumerable merchandising. Yet why is this? Unlike so much of children’s literature, Alice never changes, does not go through any character arc, and simply reacts to a very bizarre and unreasonable world around her. Perhaps that is why the director Tim Burton said he never felt an emotional connection to the books (Making me wonder then why he adapted the material into his own dreadful version).
Alice in Wonderland, along with a few other classics, is one of the books I read yearly. I cannot recall a time in my childhood when I was not aware of this book or did not love it, though my mother had a disdain for it (She found it bizarre and ugly). Perhaps, being a shy and introverted person myself, I got that part of Lewis Carroll. I could see how he is Alice in so many ways because the world was overwhelming and frightening to him A stutterer, he dreaded having to go to any social engagement where he would have to make small talk (something any introvert dreads dearly). When one looks at photographs of Carroll, one sees an awkward young man who is deeply uncomfortable being in front of the camera. There is always a nervous look to him with his gentle eyes and soft, intelligent smile. Those who knew him said that he did not form close friendships very easily. His shyness made him appear distant and aloof. Because of this, many never experienced his wit and cleverness.
As I read and study the lives of the great children’s authors, it is amazing to me how many of them were indeed shy, reserved, introverted people. Some, like Edward Lear and Kenneth Grahame, preferred places to people. Others, like Carroll and J.M. Barrie, preferred the company of children to adults (Something which has brought controversy to both men both during and after their lifetimes). James Joyce even referred to him as “Lewd Carroll.” Certainly, Carroll had many friendships with young girls over the years of his life. He would carry a black bag filled with toys and gifts to strike up such friendships. His room at Christ Church resembled a nursery with all of its music-boxes, dolls puzzles, stuffed animals, and wind-up toys. In Oxford, he was seen as a sort of Pied Piper figure. He would write that “Children are three-fourths of my life.” Virginia Woolf once wrote of him that at the very core of this man was “childhood. It lodged in him whole and entire.” Much of his relating to children came from being an older brother who delighted in entertaining and playing with his 10 brothers and sisters. He often performed magic or puppet shows for them in the toy theatre he built, as well as telling them stories and drawing the pictures to go along with them.
It is this strong connection Lewis Carroll has to children that translates so well in Alice in Wonderland. What child does not feel as Alice does (confused, puzzled) by the adult world where it appears as if grown-ups can change the rules on a whim with no reason or explanation given. What child is not both fascinated and frustrated by the world around them?
As a child, I loved how Alice in Wonderland began:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations.”
I love how the adventure that will become Wonderland begins with a bored child. This is the essence of childhood: boredom leading to imagination and creativity and the creation of a magical, wondrous world. If Alice had been entertained (in this day and age, on her smartphone taking selfies to post to social media) then there would have been no adventure, no wonderland. Everything hinges on a moment of having nothing to do, being bored, and, thereby being present enough to notice the white rabbit in the first place. How many children today would never, ever see the white rabbit because they were on technology?
As an adult, rereading the book for the umpteenth time, I still feel a sense of joy at how Carroll begins his marvellous tale. A common object (a white rabbit) made uncommon (waistcoat and pocket-watch) just as C.S. Lewis made a common street-lamp magical by putting it in snowy Narnia. Having been a shy, introverted boy, I used to love spending time alone in the woods behind our house. Because of the books I read (from Beatrix Potter to Kenneth Grahame to A.A. Milne), I believed that animals could indeed dress and talk as we do and that I just had to be there in the woods at just the right moment to catch them doing so. Because of this, I was aware of the natural world and paid a great deal of attention to animals. Whenever I saw a rabbit in the overgrown fields in the wild, I would attempt to follow the rabbit in the mere hopes that I, too, would find the rabbit hole to another, more magical world (yes, reading also convinced me that there were portals to other realms if one just found them).
No matter how many times I have re-read Alice in Wonderland, the story has remained fresh and imaginative and inventive and has not lost any of its magic. I am drawn in by Lewis Carroll’s playful language that’s filled with hidden jokes (often related to mathematics and the world of Oxford). Although John Tenniel’s illustrations for the original printing of Alice in Wonderland remain my favourite. I both collect and enjoy reading copies of the story with the many artists who have illustrated this classic work ever since, including my most recent version with artwork by Andrea D’Aquino. I love how her fusion of watercolours and collage bring a new life and vitality that matches the vigorous topsy-turvy world of Wonderland.
D’Aquino’s bright and beguiling images match Carroll’s vivid wordplay and creativity.
Returning again to Wonderland this year, I marvelled at how Lewis Carroll creates a new kind of fairy tale, as he writes, “In a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy lore, I sent Alice straight down a rabbit hole . . . without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” He invented a new, more modern fairy tale because, like any great storyteller, he had an eager audience (both the Liddell girls and his friend Robinson Duckworth) who enjoyed and wanted to hear more of his tale. As Carroll put it, they were all “hungry for news of fairyland” and they “would not be said ‘nay’ to: from whose lips ‘Tell us a story, please,” had all the stern immutability of Fate!”
The child in me still loves that, like any great fairy tale, Alice unlocks the door to this new world with a golden key, which seems fitting in any great fairy story. And, as any great fairy tale that came before it, Alice in Wonderland is a fantastical tale rooted in the real world. He has populated this new fairyland with characters who become as real to us as our neighbours and friends: the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, or the Caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe on a large mushroom.
Even in my adulthood, my attention and imagination are grabbed and not let go throughout this entire wild ride that is Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Yet the older I get, the more I find pleasure in the wisdom of Lewis Carroll that I missed as a child. Take Alice’s interactions with the Cheshire Cat, which not only plays on words and ideas but contains within its absurdity, real philosophical truths.
“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.”
“I don’t much care where -”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
As a child, I found that conversation confusing and baffling. I, like Alice, wanted answers to questions that didn’t often have them. But the nonsense perspectives of the Cheshier Cat or the Caucus Race or the Mock-Turtle all reveal the ludicrousness of the adult world (such as politics) that often seem to be nonsensical and irrational. Victorian England is on display in the fantastical, eccentric, and weird world Lewis writes about. He also patchworked his world from that around him: the dormouse was based on Dante Gabriel Rossett’s pet wombat that Carroll encountered whenever he visited Rossetti at his Oxford home, or that the Mad Hatter was modelled on a Theophilus Carter (known as a mad hatter around Christ Church because he was never seen without his top hat and he was always espousing eccentric ideas), to the Dodo himself (based on the one Carroll saw in Oxford’s Ashmolean collection).
Outside of Alice Liddel and Oxford, one of the most critical influences on Wonderland was Lewis Carroll’s friendship with another minister and author of fairy tales, George MacDonald. After he had written Alices Adventures Underground, which was the original title, and illustrated the work with his own artwork, Carroll gave the manuscript to MacDonald who read the story to his own daughters. The whole family enjoyed the tale and George first encouraged Lewis to expand it and then to get it published. It was only after MaDonald’s suggestion, that he did lengthen the story and filled it with characters, such as the Mad Hatter, that we could not imagine not being there to begin with. Even Alice’s cat is based on the MacDonald’s real-life cat Snowdrop. The two men’s friendship was filled with mutual admiration, encouragement, and inspired each other’s writing.
The more I learn about the inspirations of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece and of his life, I find that gaining understanding does absolutely nothing to detract from my adoring this great work of literature. I love how it creatively and imaginatively portrays a child’s approach to not only the world around them but themselves. Alice, at one point, asks, “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” And that is, indeed, the puzzle of the story. A girl trying to begin to understand that great question we all ask ourselves and will continue to do so throughout our lives: Who am I? It is that question that lies at the very heart of Wonderland.
In a letter that Carroll wrote to one of his child-friends, Janet Merriman, he penned these words:
The `Why?’ cannot, and need not, be put into words. Those for whom a child’s mind is a sealed book, and who see no divinity in a child’s smile, would read such words in vain: while for anyone that has ever loved one true child, no words are needed. For he will have known the awe that falls on one in the presence of a spirit fresh from GOD’s hands, on whom no shadow of sin, and but the outermost fringe of the shadow of sorrow, has yet fallen: he will have felt the bitter contrast between the haunting selfishness that spoils his best deeds and the life that is but an overflowing love–for I think a child’s first attitude to the world is a simple love for all living things: and he will have learned that the best work a man can do is when he works for love’s sake only, with no thought of name, or gain, or earthly reward.
This letter reveals that Carroll, like so many of his age, had an idealization of childhood that saw it as a time or purity, innocence, and a spirit of creativity that was free from selfish gain. Like so many of the great children’s authors (Lear, Barrie, Grahame, and Milne) never lose that sense of childhood wonder, even when their worlds (either in childhood or adulthood) are so filled with tragedy and loneliness. Many seek that time of innocence because they felt disconnected, isolated, and are filled with adulthood fears, self-doubts, and a deep longing and nostalgia for the childlike in an ever-changing society that they were outside of in so many ways. Is it any wonder then that Lewis Carroll would write in one of his letters that, “Imagination is the only weapon against reality”?