Enduring, Endearing Nonsense


Green Did you read and enjoy Lewis Carroll's Alice in

Wonderland books as a child? Or better still, did you have

someone read them to you? Perhaps you discovered them

as an adult or, forbid the thought, maybe you haven't

discovered them at all! Those who have journeyed Through

the Looking Glass generally love (or shun) the tales for their

unparalleled sense of nonsense . Public interest in the

books--from the time they were published more than a

century ago--has almost been matched by curiosity about

their author. Many readers are surprised to learn that the

Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and a host of other absurd

and captivating creatures sprung from the mind of Charles

Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy, stammering Oxford mathematics

professor. Dodgson was a deacon in his church, an inventor,

and a noted children's photographer. Wonderland, and thus

the seeds of his unanticipated success as a writer, appeared

quite casually one day as he spun an impromptu tale to

amuse the daughters of a colleague during a picnic. One of

these girls was Alice Liddell, who insisted that he write the

story down for her, and who served as the model for the

heroine. Dodgson eventually sought to publish the first book

on the advice of friends who had read and loved the little

handwritten manuscript he had given to Alice Liddell. He

expanded the story considerably and engaged the services

of John Tenniel, one of the best known artists in England, to

provide illustrations. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and

its sequel Through The Looking Glass were enthusiastically

received in their own time, and have since become

landmarks in childrens' literature. What makes these

nonsense tales so durable? Aside from the immediate appeal

of the characters, their colourful language, and the

sometimes hilarious verse ("Twas brillig, and the slithy

toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe:") the narrative works

on many levels. There is logical structure, in the relationship

of Alice's journey to a game of chess. There are problems of

relativity, as in her exchange with the Cheshire Cat: "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."

There is plenty of fodder for psychoanalysts, Freudian or

otherwise, who have had a field day analyzing the

significance of the myriad dream creatures and Alice's

strange transformations. There is even Zen: "And she tried to

fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is

blown out..." Still, why would a rigorous logical thinker like

Dodgson, a disciple of mathematics, wish children to wander

in an unpredictable land of the absurd? Maybe he felt that

everybody, including himself, needed an occasional holiday

from dry mental exercises. But he was no doubt also aware

that nonsense can be instructive all the same. As Alice and

the children who follow her adventures recognize illogical

events, they are acknowledging their capacity for logic, in

the form of what should normally happen. "You're a serpent;

[says the Pigeon] and there's no use denying it. I suppose

you'll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!" "I

have tasted eggs, certainly," said Alice... "But little girls eat

eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know." Ethel

Rowell, to whom Dodgson taught logic when she was

young, wrote that she was grateful that he had encouraged

her to "that arduous business of thinking." While Lewis

Carroll's Alice books compel us to laugh and to wonder, we

are also easily led, almost in spite of ourselves, to think as

well. FURTHER READING: Lewis Carroll. Alice's

Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass,

with an introduction by Morton N. Cohen, Bantam, 1981.

Lewis Carroll: The Wasp in a Wig, A "Suppressed Episode

of Through the Looking-Glass, Notes by Martin Gardner,

Macmillan London Ltd, 1977. Anne Clark: The Real Alice,

Michael Joseph Ltd, 1981. Raymond Smullyan: Alice in

Puzzleland, William Morrow and Co., 1982.