Academic journal article Mythlore

Alice's [Successful] Adventures in Wonderland: An Appreciation of Its One Hundred Fifty Years

Academic journal article Mythlore

Alice's [Successful] Adventures in Wonderland: An Appreciation of Its One Hundred Fifty Years

Article excerpt

One Hundred fifth Years Ago, in 1865, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published--in fact, it was published twice. And it has not been out of print since. A very successful fantasy novel or children's fiction, whichever term one prefers. Or an important first example of nonsense fiction or, following Northrop Frye, a good example of the type of fiction he calls an anatomy. All of this is just to say that the book in several ways is worth celebrating.

However, it is a difficult book to laud on this anniversary for two reasons. First, because some readers mix, in their memories, episodes of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with episodes from its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. Indeed, most stage and film versions of the books deliberately combine them--and so spread the confusion. Second and more importantly, I find some difficulty in deciding how much knowledge about the background of the book will be new to any reader--especially one in the Mythopoeic Society. Some readers probably will be members of the Lewis Carroll Society (established in Great Britain) and/or of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America; others' interests will lie elsewhere, although they have no doubt read the books.

Let me begin most mundanely with a history of how Alice's Adventures in Wonderland came about. "Lewis Carroll" (the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) began his book as a tale told to a small group of children, rather as Tolkien began The Hobbit as a story written and read to his own children. Not all children's books begin as being presented in process to children--C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia famously did not--but the test of holding children's attention may well be helpful in the writing progress.

In the case of Alice's Adventures, it began as an impromptu tale told while three Liddell sisters, Lewis Carroll, and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed down the Isis River from oxford, England, to hold a picnic. Duckworth no doubt was there as a chaperon, since the middle-class or upper-class Victorians did not usually allow their daughters to go off alone with a single gentleman. In this case, Carroll was improvising on the name of the middle girl, Alice. The date was the 4th of July, 1862. Obviously, since this was in England, the 4th of July, as such, had no significance for the picnic. Furthermore, on the 6th of August, Carroll and the three girls and a friend of his, Augustus Vernon Harcourt, went rowing again; Carroll noted in his diary that he had to go on with what he called his "interminable fairy-tale of Alice's Adventures" (qtd. Woolf 159). Alice had asked him to write out the story of her adventures on the first occasion, and he had started writing out a list of the episodes on the next day, while he was in a train going to London. Who knows, there may have been other occasions during July when episodes were told.

As is well known--at least to anyone that looks up the book title in the Wikipedia--some echoes of the experience appear in the book. In Chapter 3, when a group of characters meet Alice, having got out of the pool of her tears, they are made up of a Duck, for Duckworth; a Dodo, for Dodgson; a Lory, for Lorina, the oldest girl; and an Eaglet, for Edith, the youngest. The lorry is a type of parrot, and the dodo, of course, is an extinct, flightless bird, something like a chicken with a large bill. A stuffed dodo was in a museum at Oxford, and no doubt the girls had seen it there. Two other allusions to the girls appear later. At the first of the third chapter, a quarrel between the Lory and Alice has occurred, in which the Lory has said that she is older than Alice and so must know better. It sounds as if there might be a history behind it, for, when this story was told, Lorina Charlotte was 13, Alice Pleasance was 10, and Edith Mary was 8. The third reference in the book is in the seventh chapter, when the Dormouse refers to the three sisters who lived in a well, giving their names as Elsie (LC), Lacie (an anagram for Alice), and Tillie (a shortening of Matilda, Edith's nickname). …

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