A surrealist masterpiece for children – and its abiding influence (Column: Bookends XXVIII)

By Vikas Datta (08:56)

What do James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, H.H. Munro ‘Saki’, Salvador Dali, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Aerosmith, Walt Disney and Tim Burton have in common? Some of their most famous creations have been inspired by characters of a supremely enduring work of literature with an impromptu origin.

No one could have imagined that a nonsense tale spun on a lazy summer day by a mathematics teacher to entertain three young girls on a boating trip over a century and a half ago would go on to become one of the most well-known literary works ever. Or that it would have continuing influence, across not only the genre of fantasy but various media and be adapted to teach about subjects ranging from grammar, orchestras, quantum mechanics as well as attacking contemporary politics and economics.

Discerning readers will by now have identified the work in question, but those who might not have, could need more hints. Where have you read about entering a fantastic land after falling in a rabbit hole, or through a mirror, meeting characters like the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the King and Queen of Hearts, the Jabberwock, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, attended the Mad Tea Party, and a trial to find who stole the tarts? In Lewis Caroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There” (1871).

The appeal of these two books, by Oxford academic and cleric Charles Luttwidge Dodgson who took the pen name Carroll for them, can be gauged by the fact that they have never been out of print ever since their first appearance, while being translated into nearly 100 languages – Nabokov was the second to translate it into Russian.

As mentioned, they were born out of the tale recited on that boating trip in May or July 1862, which so entranced its audience – Alice,10, and her sisters Lorina, 13, and Edith, 8, the three young daughters of then Oxford varsity vice chancellor Henry Liddell, especially Alice that she requested he write it down for her. Dodgson complied, beginning the very next day. A month later, he told her the plot while on another boating trip and in November that year he began writing in earnest.

Dodgson was thorough in his work, researching the natural history of the animals featured and taking the opinion of other children before he presented Alice a 15,500 word plus hand-written manuscript in November 1864. Even then, he was busy on a more comprehensive work for publication, expanding the work to 27,500 words by adding the episodes featuring the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea Party. It was published in November 1865, with illustrations by John Teniel, the long-time cartoonist with the Punch magazine (and the first from the field to be knighted for his work). “Through the Looking Glass..” appeared six years later.

The stories’ plots are too well-known to repeat but to remember they are not merely an escapist fantasy, but like any classic work, can connote or symbolise different things to different people. Literary experts have detected plentiful allusions to Victorian political and academic matters, most of which is now long forgotten, as well as bountiful examples of word play and puns while mathematicians have teased out various mathematical and logical references and concepts in the narrative, and chess experts a new problem as outlined in “Through the Looking Glass.” And then the distorted worlds seen in a dream came at a time when Sigmund Freud was not even 10 years old!

Alice’s adventures also mark a paradigmatic shift in children’s literature. Not only was it the first example of a children’s book which seeks to entertain rather than teach morals, but the way she enters fantasy worlds has inspired almost every subsequent heroine of the genre – Dorothy into the land of Oz, Wendy (Peter Pan) into Neverland, and the Pevensie siblings in the C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Alice’s adventures have been extensively retold, parodied or have influenced other works, not to mention being adapted into other media – films (Disney’s cartoon and Burton’s live action one being the most famous) , TV and radio shows, opera, plays, paintings, music, comics and manga, video games, and even advertising. Apart from the eponymous heroine, several characters have been used in other stories – the Cheshire Cat in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series for one.

The work has inspired a dozen paintings by Dali, as well as Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” (“Alicious, twinstreams twinestraines, through alluring glass or alas in jumboland?”). And then there is Lennon’s “I am a Walrus”, Aerosmith’s “Sunshine” or Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” as well as Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic “White Rabbit” or Pink Floyd’s “Country Song”.

Not bad for a bored but determined girl who followed a nervous rabbit moaning he was getting late?

(24.08.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)


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