Alice in Wonderland (1)

I have always loved Lewis Carroll’s two Wonderland books and I recently bought myself a copy of “The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” by Martin Gardner:

Each page of the book has a very wide margin, so that, as you read the original text of the story from 1865, there are explanations and expansions of the most interesting points.

The text of the book begins, for example, with quite a famous poem:

“All in the golden afternoon,

Full leisurely we glide:

For both our oars, with little skill,

By little arms are plied.”

But “Annotated Alice” tells us that events took place on Friday, July 4th 1862, and that in the boat for the three mile trip were Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, Lorina Liddell, Alice Pleasance Liddell and Edith Liddell. The two other Liddell sisters, however, were not present. They were Rhoda Liddell and Violet Liddell, who are mentioned only once in all of Carroll’s works.

The stories told during that golden afternoon include a second poem, this time about the Jabberwocky:

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.”

But did you know that “brillig” means “the time of broiling dinner”, that “slithy” was an amalgam of “slimy” and “lithe”, that “toves” are a species of badger, that “gyre” means “to scratch like a dog” and that “gimble” is “to screw holes” in something (hence “gimblet”) ?

Are you aware that “mimsy” is “unhappy”, that “borogoves” are an extinct kind of parrot, that “mome” means “grave and serious”, that a “rath” is a species of land turtle and that “outgrabe” means “squeaked”? Or at least, that is what Lewis Carroll said about those four lines and 23 words. Thanks to “Annotated Alice”, it makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it?

And what did Carroll write about the Red Queen?

Well, according to “Annotated Alice”, he said that:

“I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion — a blind and aimless fury.”

Only sixty or seventy years later in the Oz books would L. Frank Baum achieve such a frequency of decapitations. And the Queen of Hearts’ dress is exactly the same pattern as the Queen of Spades’ dress. Was the illustrator, Tenniel, trying to establish a link between her and Death?

Arthur Rackham produced an illustration called “The Queen Never Left off Quarrelling”:

The Queen is perhaps even fiercer in black and white:

But in colour, she is magnificent:

Another favourite poem of mine is:

“Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Agreed to have a battle;

For Tweedledum said Tweedledee

Had spoiled his nice new rattle”

Here they are:

But “Annotated Alice” tells us that there may be a connection between this conflict and a famous musical battle between George Frederick Handel and Giovanni Battista Bononcini which, at the time, had been described as:

“Strange all this difference should be

Twixt tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.”

And did you know that apparently at the time, during the 1860s, the drawings of the two boys were thought to  resemble strongly John Bull in Punch magazine?

And are the two boys identical or are they a mirror image of each other? Perhaps they have their names on their collars, and that’s the difference:

More extra details about your favourite Alice in Wonderland characters next time!


Filed under History, Literature, Personal, Writing

16 responses to “Alice in Wonderland (1)

  1. What a treasure, John. Wonderful illustrations. I think you would enjoy this post:

    • Thanks a lot, Derrick. that is very kind of you. Thanks very much for the link which I followed and duly found the cleverest man in the world, Mordred. I couldn’t even begin to create a puzzle as complex and as smart as that one. I’m still working at the level of “Who won the FA Cup in 1936?” (Arsenal)

  2. This is unique. Frankly I never thought so deeply into the Alice characters.

    • I think the fact that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician of a very high intelligence means that surreptitious references are almost inevitable. Sometimes people think that a certain person or incident even has a number of different allusions. This was quite easy in Victorian England where there were so many different churches, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Unitarians, non-Conformists and so on.
      Nowadays there are lots of groups worldwide who still examine the two main books and put forward their ideas in articles in their monthly magazines.

  3. Oh wow. Your dissertation on the characters in Alice in Wonderland I found to be fascinating. I have always enjoyed this movie, this story, and to hear your version of things puts a new twist on things. I remember reading the book when a young girl. The imagination within the story kicked mine into high gear. Great post, John. I really enjoyed it!! xo

    • Thank you so much for those kind words.
      The next step, Amy, is either to read the book again, or to get the cartoon film by Walt Disney, which seems to me to be the most faithful to the plot of the book.

  4. Excellent illustrations! As a young girl, I enjoyed reading illustrated books. They brought the story to life.

    • Yes they certainly do.
      When Carroll first published the book in 1865, they were put on sale and some were given away by the author. Then he found out that Tenniel, the illustrator, did not like the illustrations even though he had done them himself.
      Carroll therefore withdrew the book from all bookshops and got back most of the ones he had given away. A few months later Tenniel was happy with his improved illustrations and a new book was published.
      The moral of the story is “If you ever see a copy of the first edition with the poor illustrations in a second hand bookshop priced $20, buy it !!

  5. I have read and liked all the Oz books but somehow I could never appreciate Alice in Wonderland. But your post has inspired me to read it. I am reading Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. After that I think I will read Alice in Wonderland. Thank you.

  6. How fabulous and how it all makes sense now! I don’t know if you were still teaching when the (not so new) new curriculum came our, but Jabberwocky was used to investigate word classes as part of the writing aspect. I never knew their true meaning – until now! Thank you for enlightening me John!

    • To be honest, I don’t know if they are proper meanings, or just words made up by Lewis Carroll but at least you know that, whatever the case, there is some sense intended for the reader to understand.

  7. Chris Waller

    Fascinating. I read them when much younger and became aware, as an adult, that there was a deeper meaning to the story but I had no idea that the metaphors and allegories were so intricately woven. I heard something on Radio 3 a few weeks ago about the battle between Handel and Bononcini but once again I had no idea that Carroll was alluding to this.

    • No, I don’t think that anybody would recognise the allusions that Carroll filled the book with. I myself would have guessed that Bononcini was a racing driver or possibly a tennis player.
      Most interesting though, is the idea that throughout both books, Alice, a ten year old girl, is the person giving the orders and generally being the one in charge in virtually every situation. That would have been a rather shocking and completely unknown thing in the middle of the 19th century, and it was actually the reason that the real Alice adored the books.
      Carroll is the Dodo in the first book, and possibly others that I have forgotten, and in the second book he is the Knight, weak, old and useless. That is why the ending is so very, very, poignant, as he continues falling off the horse and Alice waves to him for one last time before they part. She is going off to become an adult woman, while he, I suppose, will just wait for the Grim Reaper. Funnily enough, this was exactly the same ending as the Avengers TV series with Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee .

  8. Pingback: Alice in Wonderland (4) | John Knifton

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