On the “golden afternoon” of 4th of July, 1863, Lewis Carroll composed a nonsense tale to delight Alice Liddell, the daughter of his friend and colleague Henry Liddell, and her two sisters, Lorina and Edith. It was a delightful day, which they spent rowing along the Isis of Oxford.
Three years later, this spontaneously composed fantasy was published under the title, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In 1871, it was joined on the nation’s bookshelves by the sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. In the wake of these two novels, a phenomenal tradition spread through popular culture which, to this day, captivates both adult and child audiences alike. Reimaginings and interpretations of the text are common, such as Tim Burton’s 2010 film, which grossed over one billion US dollars worldwide. Why is it, 150 years after the publication of the original tale, we’re still so captivated by this ludicrous story of the girl who fell down the rabbit hole?
Perhaps the answer lies in its revolutionary status in the genre of children’s literature. The novels are credited with the transition of youth literature from primarily didactic to the imaginative and surreal, encouraging children to stretch their minds rather than create interior moral boundaries. The books are based on a dichotomous foundation of nonsense and logic, challenging the reader’s perception of the normative world about them. One of the most interesting aspects of the stories is the recurrent theme of language as an insuffi cient tool for communication; Liddell, a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, saw the inconsistencies of language – as opposed to the clear and set principles of maths and science – as intriguingly fl awed. The March Hare’s protestations in Chapter Seven that “You might just as well say… that ‘I like what I get’ is the same as “I get what I like!”
This can be read as an inverse relationship; a seemingly contradictory, bewildering set of relations which mathematics and logic have subdued, tamed and explained much more simply than linguistic schools. We may consider the depth of the two tales’ bibliographical aspects surprising, given their classifi cation as examples of “literary nonsense”, but, with closer examination, it may be realised that the warping of reality into a creative, rather than educational, format makes perfect sense.
Carroll’s self-selected editors were children themselves; George MacDonald’s sons and daughters and their thrilled reception of Carroll’s ludicrous tales were highly formative in his decision to carry Alice forwards to publication. His love and genuine respect for children as human beings in their own right – rather than the half-formed creatures the rest of Victorian England perceived them to be – explains why Carroll thought it essential not to create a version of reality that was palatable and instructional – unlike the majority of his contemporary children’s writers – but a version of reality that was interesting.
He sought not to explain the world to young people in a manner which would ensure their thoughts and behaviours corresponded with societal demands, but to intrigue and perhaps even baffl e them with its ludicrous nuances, pointing out that just because that’s the way things are, it doesn’t always mean that’s the way they should be. In doing this, Carroll cultivated independent, holistic, lateral thought in his readers – young and old alike – creating a generation of change agents and discouraging passivity, something that I, and millions of his other readers, will be eternally grateful for.
The truth behind Carroll’s looking glass is that we are confi ned only by our own limitations, just as Alice herself suggests in the very first chapter of her adventures, as she wonders if the mysterious magic of Wonderland will shrink her down to nothing, “going out altogether, like a candle”. If we reject and fight these limitations, thrust upon us by society, we can only grow in strength and wisdom.