Go ask Alice. I think she’ll know

Lewis Carroll’s fabulist masterpiece is 150 years of age this year.

In June, we had the pleasure visiting Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire. An enthusiastic verger ushered us to the choir stalls. One carving therein depicts a griffin catching a rabbit who escapes down a hole. Is this where Alice, in pursuit of the White Rabbit, fell “down, down, down “to the centre of the earth, landing “bump, bump, bump?”. “Young Charles Dodgson would have played in these very stalls”, she told us. “Just imagine”. Charles’ dad was canon, and the lad would have hung out here, amidst ornate misericord carvings replete with fabulous creatures. On another misericord, a small character resembles what you would look like if you go eating mushrooms:

“One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small; and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall. And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall, Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Call Alice. When she was just small”.

The mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece. The polymath Anglican deacon may not have approved of the ambiance and the subtext of Grace’s soaring rant, but he would have appreciated where she was at:

“When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead, And the White Knight is talking backwards, and the Red Queen’s off with her head. Remember what the dormouse said: Feed your head! Feed your head!”

Ripon Cathedral Alice

Which brings me back to Alice’s 150th birthday.  And as a tribute to the anniversary of the publication of Alices Adventures In Wonderland, I cannot hope to do better than Peter Craven in his masterful tribute in this weekend’s The Australian. Craven traces the bloodline, the DNA even, of Carroll’s creation. Gilbert & Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, Saki, James Joyce, TS Elliot, the Goons, Monty Python, “the great source of nonsense high and low”,he writes, “where language goes nuts and logic goes haywire as well as highwire”. The curiouser and curiouser world down the rabbit hole. An “epic of a nonsense world that absolutely refuses to acknowledge its lunacy”.

Read Craven’s lovely piece, and celebrate Alice’s 150 by reading Alices Adventures in Wonderland again. Here it is, complete with the iconic John Tenniel illustrations.

Alice In Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland at 150: the wonderful world of Lewis Carroll

Peter Craven, The Australian, September 26th 2015

It’s 150 years since Lewis Carroll published Alices Adventures in Wonderland, that absolute bedrock on which our English-speaking civilisation is based. The story about the little girl who goes tumbling down a rabbit hole to discover herself in a topsy-turvy world where caterpillars smoke hookahs, Cheshire cats evaporate except for their smiles and queens scream “Off with her head” is the essence of British comedy, of Anglo-Saxon stuff and nonsense.

It anticipates Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde and Saki, it is the table of the law from which the Goons and Monty Python take their basic idiom of absurdity, it is the great source of nonsense high and low.

Yes, but Alices Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel Through the Looking-Glass are also an extraordinary dreamscape, an enchanted world.

With Carroll, the high dream and the poetry are in the nonsense and it’s part of his genius to have taken a vision of narrative and language that might, with just a twist, have become modernist and abstract, and given it to the Anglo-Saxon world as a children’s story as old and deep as lullabies and the world of sleep where every dream comes and every burble can seem like babble.

If you want an obvious example of the pure linguistic inventiveness of this world (where language goes nuts and logic goes haywire as well as highwire) take the lines Alice reads early on in Through the Looking-Glass.

“ ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe. // Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

Anyone who has glanced at James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, with its multiple puns across languages, all contained within a lilting Irish brogue that highlights the Anglo-Saxon backbone of English, will be reminded of Jabberwocky (“Eins within a space and a wearywide space it wast ere wohned a Mookse; “Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan!”).

Anyone who has encountered the sheer melodic strangeness, the luxuriance and defamiliarising effect of the proto-modernist poetry of the greatest poetic innovator of the Victorian age, Gerard Manley Hopkins, will see another kind of parallel. “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn Falcon …”

Carroll had been there before them. Except that in reducing English — English verse in this case — to pure sonic nonsense and suggestion, he was doing do so facetiously.

In France they had the symbolist movement and the poet Mallarme declaring “Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces”, so that language was being used to give us the rustle and shadow of a world through its ghostly glide, as in the poetry of TS Eliot (who translated these effects back into English) where the yellow fog in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is like a spectral cat.

But take a step back to the origin of this extraordinary children’s story. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a young Oxford don, a brilliant mathematician, is rowing along the river and is telling a story to the 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her two sisters. And for all the pleasure of the rowing and the messing about in boats, the true captivation is the story Dodgson is telling about the wonderland that opens up when a girl like Alice goes down that rabbit hole, into the curiouser and curiouser world where she grows big, grows small, and everything seems animated by some principle of distortion yet still seems gravely itself at every point. His friend in the boat asks the man who will eventually take the nom de plume Lewis Carroll if he’s just extemporising these wacko stories. “Oh yes, I am just making it up as I go along,” the storyteller says.

And then Alice Liddell says would Mr Dodgson write down this story and give it to her as a present. And so 18 months later he wrote it up for her and gave it to her with his illustrations.

Then in 1865 the expanded version appeared from Macmillan with the illustrations by John Tenniel, later supplemented by Through the Looking-Glass, to haunt the world as a romance of the 19th-century dreamworld ever since.

No one has ever known what focus of obsession or wonderment drew Dodgson to Alice Liddell. Simon Winchester has written a book, The Alice Behind Wonderland, about the photographs Dodgson took of Alice from the time she was six. The celibate clergyman obviously took a delight in the young child, but why shouldn’t he? There’s no evidence his feeling for her was anything but chaste.

Still, relations with Alice’s family — her classicist father Henry Liddell was co-author of what’s still the standard dictionary of classical Greek — did not stay close and there’s the suggestive fact that some pages were torn from Carroll’s diary. Alice did not attend Carroll’s funeral in 1898. She married in 1880 and had a long life. She was forced by neediness to sell her Lewis Carroll collection and in 1932 she came to New York to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the author, the man who 70 years earlier had turned her into the heroine of his dream story. She was mobbed, she apologised to the people of America for not signing their books, her own manuscript had been bought by an American.

Before she left on that trip she had signed a copy for the six-year-old Elizabeth, the girl who would become the Queen. At the end of World War II, the ­librarian of congress brought the manuscript to London and gave it back to the people of Britain. It was accepted on their behalf by the archbishop of Canterbury with appropriate solemnity. This underlined the common inheritance of English-speaking people in this extraordinary and iridescent story that had become the greatest folktale of the age.

It is a remarkable thing to create a modern fairy story that also embodies, through a spirit of comedy and enchantment at its most delirious, the deeper culture of a civilisation. Alice in Wonderland succeeds in doing this partly because Alice is such a credible girl.

Carroll is so good at inhabiting a child’s-eye view of the world without ever making Alice mawkish or mushy or infantile. She is in her own terms shrewd, practical, alert, full of energy and imagination and a desire to know what’s going on, however bizarre and uncanny it may be.

And the style in which Carroll couches his epic of a nonsense world that absolutely refuses to acknowledge its lunacy (and nor should it) is a masterpiece of plain elegance and precision.

She was looking about for some way of escape, and wondering whether she could get away without being seen, when she noticed a curious appearance in the air: it puzzled her very much at first, but, after watching it a minute or two, she made it out to be a grin, and she said to herself ‘‘It’s the Cheshire Cat: now I shall have somebody to talk to.’’

‘‘How are you getting on?’’ said the Cat, as soon as there was mouth enough for it to speak with.

Alice waited till the eyes appeared, and then nodded. ‘‘It’s no use speaking to it,’’ she thought, ‘‘till its ears have come, or at least one of them.’’ In another minute the whole head appeared, and then Alice put down her flamingo, and began an account of the game, feeling very glad she had someone to listen to her. The Cat seemed to think that there was enough of it now in sight, and no more of it appeared.

The removal of the sublime Cheshire Cat is naturally enough — at the axe-happy queen’s instigation — to be by execution. But, of course, the cat starts his fading-away trick and the ­executioner is mightily unamused: “The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn’t going to begin at his time of life.’’

Alice can be read with a fair amount of ease by anybody. It’s in a fresh, idiomatic, racy style that avoids the rich ponderous quality of a lot of grand Victorian prose, so that it can in fact — like Huckleberry Finn and decidedly unlike Moby-Dick (which is no children’s book, whatever they used to imagine) — be read when you’re nine years old. And should be.

But Alice in Wonderland is likely to take every child’s fancy and the main thing is probably to encourage kids — perhaps particularly boys — that they are not too old for it. And the trick there is probably the simple one of convincing them it’s very funny and very weird.

And that’s true. It is bottomlessly funny and sad and wise, and if it’s a kids’ book, even a little kids’ book, it is so with an extraordinary clairvoyant intensity of vision, pitiless and naked to the wildness and poignancy of the world.

Listen to the sublime and solemn description of the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon as they delineate a dance of lobsters with Alice trying not to disclose the fact that she thinks of things from the sea as essentially things to eat:

‘‘You may not have lived much under the sea — ’’ (“I haven’t,’’ said Alice) — ‘‘and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster — ’’ (Alice began to say ‘‘I once tasted — ’’ but checked herself hastily, and said ‘‘No, never’’) ‘‘ — so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster Quadrille is!’’

‘‘No, indeed,’’ said Alice. ‘‘What sort of a dance is it?’’

‘‘Why,’’ said the Gryphon, ‘‘you first form into a line along the sea-shore — ’’

‘‘Two lines!’’ cried the Mock Turtle. ‘‘Seals, turtles, salmon, and so on; then, when you’ve cleared all the jelly-fish out of the way — ’’

“That generally takes some time,’’ interrupted the Gryphon.

‘‘ — you advance twice — ’’

There’s a wonderful understatement that is the medium for releasing the book’s enchantment and delirium. Even though Carroll knows all about the pure suggestiveness of language, as in Jabberwocky, he needs — and effortlessly conjures up — a windowpane prose that has all the necessary clarity and transparency for the wackiness of what is to transpire at every point.

It’s the quality you get in one of the greatest small-scale 20th-century masterpieces about the dreamlike and impossible: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the story about how Gregor Samsa wakes up to discover that he has turned into a giant insect. It’s the story of Kafka where he is closest to the technique of classic realism, where he is at his sharpest and most Flaubert-like.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of literature (and everything else), said that a probable impossibility was to be preferred to an improbable possibility.

This simply means that something like A Midsummers Night Dream, with its fairies and asses’ heads, is better, it is more real as writing, than a bad soap opera where something that could happen, but wasn’t likely, takes centrestage with a complete lack of believability.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are full of the high logic and precise realism of the impossibility, and what makes the impossibility so real is that the never less than intellectual Carroll gives his narrative the precision of dream. So the grumpy duchess can be nursing an actual pig. And so we can get all the realistic semi-intellectualised dialogue of Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

“I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum: “but it isn’t so, nohow.”

“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “ if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

“I was thinking,” Alice said very politely, “ which is the best way out of this wood: it’s getting so dark. Would you tell me, please?”

But the fat little men only looked at each other and grinned.

Was there ever a more vivid portrait of two all but interchangeable dumb-arse clever boys?

A close cousin is Humpty Dumpty who knows everything about words and how to jump hoops through them, logically and super logically: “ ‘When I use a word,’’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ”

And this very intellectual idiot gives a very precise impersonation of a literary critic by undertaking to produce an analysis of Jabberwocky.

This aspect of Alice in Wonderland is inexhaustible because its brilliance is in its silliness and vice-versa. The Goons and Monty Python have nothing on it because its wit and its disdain for intelligence are part and parcel of the same thing, and the Wonderland frame is wonderful because it allows the surrealism of what transpires to have an absolutely ordinary rainbow of actuality.

It’s a bit dazzling just how much realism Carroll packs into his evocation of the surreal through the eyes of an innocent and practical child. There’s something so silly and so dazzlingly profound in the fight between the Lion and the Unicorn towards the end of the Looking-Glass section and then the King’s description of his messenger.

“ ‘Not at all,’ said the King. ‘He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger — and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he’s happy. His name is Haigha.’ (He pronounced it so as to rhyme with ‘mayor’.)’’

Anglo-Saxon attitudes — who but Lewis Carroll could act them out? The whole book is an enchanted circus of Anglo-Saxon attitudes, but it is also the broadest and most panoramic of comic spectacles.

There’s even the apparition of a White Knight who has the poignancy, the tragicomic absurdity of Cervantes’s Don Quixote in miniature. He flits, he flutters, he indicates his great frailty.

So there are even tears in this strange book of the world that is made up of so many animated jokes, yet the walking jokes and paradoxes have human faces and shapes and possibilities, however glancing, of real feeling, and destiny.

Alice in Wonderland is a book of the deepest kind of magic. It is compounded of poetry and logic and it believes in neither. It is a work of wisdom and a work of madness. It is hilarious and there is a sense in which it is a place where all our memories begin, or seem to.

It’s marvellous that it’s turned 150 and everyone has an excuse to read it again.

Peter Craven is one of Australia’s best known critics and cultural commentators.