"The truest kind of happiness, the only kind that is really worth having, the happiness of making others happy too!"
So writes Lewis Carroll in a letter to all child-readers of his first Alice book on Christmas of 1871. Having captivated over a century's worth since with his now classic stories of whimsy and nonsense, the shy, stammering Christ Church lecturer must surely be experiencing (posthumously, of course) this "truest kind"-in spades.
It seems that Lewis Carroll is witnessing a rebirth in Canada, what with the publication of Stephanie Bolster's 1998 Governor General award-winning White Stone: The Alice Poems, and Alberto Manguel's elegantly erudite collection of literary essays, Into the Looking-Glass Wood. The rebirth is a timely one, for 1998 was the centenary of the author's death.
To commemorate it, Macmillan has produced a gorgeous, and weighty, edition in which both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass appear together for the first time. It contains full-colour versions of the original black and white illustrations by Sir John Tenniel that have become an inseparable part of the books and an integral part of our own visual imagination. In 1911, Macmillan had commissioned Harry Theaker to create eight colour plates for each book from Tenniel's drawings, and now Diz Wallis has coloured the remaining illustrations in Theaker's style. The final product is bound to appeal to a whole new generation of children, and should take their appreciative parents along on an enjoyable, nostalgic journey back down the rabbit hole.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) was an author, mathematician, and photographer who had quite a fondness for little girls. He would come up with all sorts of games and puzzles with which to amuse them. But for one girl in particular, Alice Liddell, he wrote his famous two works, renowned for their rich veins of satire, parody, masterfully inverted logic, and suggestive symbolism. These very characteristics which delighted the children also proved popular among adult readers-from proponents of surrealism to Freudians-who have found much therein to mine for their own purposes.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is the fanciful and witty tale of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole when she follows an elegantly attired White Rabbit muttering, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!", as he glances at his pocket watch. She enters a strange world in which everything occurs with fantastic illogicality. She become a giantess or pygmy by nibbling alternate sides of a magic mushroom. She has a series of remarkable adventures during which all the finer social institutions-such as school, government, and the courts-are mocked. She encounters eccentric characters, like the Cheshire-Cat whose smile persists even after his physical body fades away, and the dour-faced Duchess who throws out her howling baby (who turns out to be a small pig). She has a crazy tea-party with the March Hare, the Hatter, and the Dormouse. She plays a game of croquet in which the balls are hedgehogs and the mallets flamingoes with the Queen of Hearts who is fond of executions. She is a sprouting-out-of-control witness at the trial of the Knave of Hearts who is accused of stealing the tarts clean away.
Through the Looking-Glass (1872) is its sequel. It portrays the experiences of the young girl who, curious about that magical world behind the mirror, climbs through the glass. Not surprisingly, everything is in reverse. The brooks and hedges divide the land into a checkerboard, and Alice finds herself a white pawn in a fantastical game of chess that constitutes the bulk of the story. On her trip to the eighth square, where she becomes a Queen, she meets talking flowers, looking-glass insects, a man in a white paper suit, nursery-rhyme characters like Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, not to mention the ever contrary Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.
What is so enduringly modern about these stories is the sophistication of the language games that Carroll plays. In expression and thought-content, the language totally belies the moniker of nonsense that has been consistently applied to it, even by the author himself. Through the Looking-Glass, for example, foregrounds the performative capacity of language and the power of the propositional mode of the creative imagination to be actualized. Alice declares, "how nice it would be if we could only get through into the Looking-glass House... Let's pretend there's a way of getting through... and certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist". Or there is Humpty Dumpty's insistence on how names cannot be empty signifiers:
"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "my name means the shape I am-and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."
The tiny companion volume of famous poems from the Alice works offers the interested reader a hint of other types of language games played by Carroll. The editors show how the poems are actually parodies of the familiar, tedious, and stuffily moralizing poems that Victorian children were forced to read by informatively juxtaposing Carroll's version next to the original target verse. As well, they point out, for example, that the famous tail poem in Alice is the best-known example of figurative verse (a poem type-set to look like the thing it is describing). A marvellous and unthreatening way to introduce children to some pretty sophisticated versification.
The only critique I have regards the paucity of editorial intervention: after 100 years, such an aesthetically stunning, commemorative tome deserves a biography of this fascinating author and a sketch of the rich history of the ways in which the works have been interpreted and have impacted on generations of readers.
Alicia Sloboda is a Toronto writer.