How Lewis Carroll Built a World Where Nothing Needs to Make Sense
Erin Morgenstern on Why We Return to Alice
There is a photograph of Alice Pleasance Liddell, taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) circa 1858, in which she sits sideways in a chair, her arm wrapped around its back, her face in profile staring off out of frame during what was likely a rather long time to sit for a photograph. She has short dark hair and dark eyes and wears a lace-trimmed dress and a serious expression. She bears little resemblance to the ubiquitous Tenniel illustrations, but she is the first, the original, Alice. On a boat trip near Oxford in 1862, Wonderland was spun out of summer air for her and her sisters.
I first encountered Alice and her Wonderland as a child through adaptations and re-imaginings. It was years before I read the books properly. I watched and re-watched animated versions and live-action fantasias (the 1985 TV miniseries aired when I was Alice-aged and left a vivid, sometimes disturbing impression). I was always fascinated, even when I didn’t understand, and the lack of understanding made it even more fascinating. I was mesmerized by talking flowers and rabbit-sized pocket watches. I recall being confused by the Walrus and the Carpenter, wondering how and why anyone would eat oysters but now of course I understand that oysters are delicious.
I don’t remember when I first saw that particular photograph of Alice Liddell but it changed something about my relationship with Wonderland, seeing this real girl who was the real inspiration for such an extraordinary story captured on film. I wonder often about that girl who became a piece of modern myth, about that boat trip and those sisters who requested a story, for what a tale they received.
The photograph is dark and moody; it shows its age. There are scratches and lines and other small marks marring the image. It fades off into shadow at the corners, Alice set against an amorphous background, the edges out-of-focus. The Alice in the photograph seems to belong to a different flavor of Wonderland, one with a less saturated color scheme and deeper shadows. That photograph was the turning point in discovering my personal version of Wonderland, because Wonderland can be seen through innumerable lenses and some of them are brighter than others. Each reader paints their own version as they read these pages. There is vibrant detail here but there is also room left for the reader to fill out the world, to shift it toward a personal aesthetic. My Wonderland leans monochromatic, all light and shadow with occasional pops of red.
Alice is a presence that drifts by like a ghost or a half-forgotten dream. I have spent a lot of time with her over the years. She seeps into my writing in ways both subtle and blatant. There is a bottle of honeyed grapefruit gin sitting on my bar, with a handwritten label that reads “Drink Me.” I have several Alice-inspired perfumes, including an ode to the Mouse’s Long and Sad Tale composed of vanilla and amber and sweet pea and sandalwood, so occasionally it even smells like Wonderland around here.
Wonderland is everywhere. Over time these tales have imbued themselves into the world, familiar in their own peculiar, well-worn brand of strange. That White Rabbit carries the story with it even when it appears as a symbol or a song or a tattoo on a shoulder.
These stories are woven into the fabric of so many of our fictions, leaving pawprints and tea-stains and whimsy in their wake, yet going back to the original texts always leads to more discoveries, more details to catch in imagination nets like bread-and-butterflies.
But for all the pop culture familiarity, in my personal opinion the texts themselves are the best version of the stories. There is more on these pages than could be adapted into any medium, so many small moments and plays on words, tiny details and minuscule cakes. The Mouse’s aforementioned Sad Tale is both a tale and a tail. The book versions remain the quintessential iteration of these stories that love words and text and are so delightfully aware of themselves as stories being told.
Every time I read the books, I am struck by something that hadn’t captured my attention the same way in previous readings. On this most recent re-reading, I noticed anew how often Alice interferes with pencils belonging to other characters, and I was particularly caught by the question of what does the flame of a candle look like after the candle is blown out? There are treasures to be found in these pages, glimmering, whether it is your first time reading, or fifth, or fiftieth.
No matter how familiar these stories may be, that white rabbit might lead you somewhere unexpected, if only you will follow.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There are two distinct books, though when they are translated into other mediums they are often blended together.
The first book is a boat ride, gliding over waters from one unique encounter to the next determined by its own whims and wonders. The second book is a chess game, regimented and structured in squares and precise movements. It has a set goal to achieve on its board.
One story begins outdoors on a bright, hot, daisy-chain afternoon and the other commences cozily inside by a November fireplace, snow kissing the window panes, the bonfire being prepared outside as the titular looking-glass looms over the mantel.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was improvised in its original form, told on a boat ride for the entertainment of Alice Liddell and her sisters on a summer afternoon. (Charles Dodgson was a colleague of the girls’ father at Oxford.) The three sisters appear in the opening poem as Prima (Lorina), Secunda (Alice), and Tertia (Edith), requesting the story. (Alice is the one who insists “there must be nonsense in it.”) And while the spontaneous tale was revised and changed for publication, the winding, current-driven feeling remains. Alice’s journey through Wonderland flows and moves from one encounter to another. (The Mad Tea Party does not appear in the original manuscript that was first handwritten as Alice’s Adventures Under-Ground, nor does the Cheshire Cat.)
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There was written several years after the success of the first book and it is quite literally a game of chess. The moves are listed and illustrated in the preface and ensue in the events of the story, moving Alice from pawn to queen. The looking-glass theme of reflections persists throughout and there is a touch more logic to its nonsense. It is, at times, more philosophical than Wonderland, even forcing Alice to insist on her own existence.
They are complementary texts but they are their own worlds. Many adaptations take bits of Looking-Glass and transpose them into Wonderland where they do not necessarily feel out of place but the Looking-Glass is clearly their natural habitat. In particular the Tweedles Dum and Dee are obvious mirror image looking-glass creatures.
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is often overlooked, including the latter half of its title. We talk about “Alice in Wonderland” (truncating the first book’s title as well); the second book is included but left implied, even though it is just as memorable and fantastical an adventure, with its own charms and characters.
The two books feel almost like mirror versions of themselves. For every commonality there is a difference, not opposites but reflections and refractions of each other. And while they are distinct and separate, there are many elements of Looking-Glass that call back to Wonderland, and in some ways the end of the sequel functions as an almost-resolution to all of these adventures.
Alice’s encounter with the White Knight feels like a farewell, a remembrance of adventures past, an awareness of a story nearing a close. Alice almost has her crown but before we make that final chess move we pause here at sunset for a wistful, melancholy song that may or may not bring a tear to the eye.
Our narrator tells us that after her journey through the looking-glass Alice remembered the White Knight most clearly. Of all the things she encountered there, after she has conversed with flowers and witnessed a queen turn into sheep and met a unicorn, the White Knight and his song remain clearest in her memory—even, as the narrator tells us, years later, as if it had been only yesterday.
The narrator of these books, who we can suppose is the author (though they appear to be transcribing events that actually happened to Alice) speaks often to the reader, in parenthetical asides (I do love a parenthetical aside, don’t you?) and helpful remarks (If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture). This creates a more intimate exchange between story-teller and story-reader. Reading this pair of books is a personal thing and the books themselves are aware of it, aware of the individual reader and what you will bring to the experience.There is something here that can speak to any reader and every reader.
The very last line of Through the Looking-Glass is a question, posed from narrator to reader. This is a story that cares what you think and knows that what you think may differ from what I think or any other reader might think. That is one of the beauties of Alice. Your Alice is yours. Mine is mine. She is all of us together, tumbling head over feet, grasping at an empty jar of orange marmalade. The line between dreamed and dreamer will always be blurred here.
Many questions will remain: How is a raven like a writing desk? What does the flame of a candle look like after the candle is blown out? These are books filled with more questions than answers, more puzzles than solutions, more curiosities than explanations. And that is precisely as it should be.
For why on earth would you try to make sense of a book with so much nonsense in it? Let it be what it is. Revel in the lack of sense. Let yourself be buoyed by its current without concerning yourself with where it might be taking you or what it all might mean.
There is something here that can speak to any reader and every reader. There is a timeless universality to these experiences and these objects and these characters interwoven with the distinct markings of the time and the place they were written in. (My favorite distinct time and place fact that is often lost in time: hatters of that era cured their felt with mercury, which could result in mercury poisoning, thus the Mad Hatter. Also, the tag on his hat is a price tag; that detail went over my head for quite a while when I was young.)
We all need to wonder at something, in this world or another.
Any reader might relate to feeling bewildered or confused or not knowing which way to go or who to believe, listening to people talk in circles and the only one who seems to want to help is a cat. Alice is both curious and stubborn, excellent qualities for a girl of seven (seven and one half exactly in Through the Looking-Glass…) thrown into extraordinary circumstances and dealing with the nonsensical world around her. Sometimes the world does not make sense and still we continue on in our stubborn curiosity.
From ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND AND THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS published by arrangement with Berkley/Signet Classics, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 1960. Introduction Copyright © 2022, Erin Morgenstern.