On a lazy afternoon in 1862, an Oxford mathematician rowed his guests up the Thames river. As he did, he spun tales of fantasy, comedy and terror. The day was July 4, a moment W. H. Auden proclaimed “as memorable in the history of literature as it is in American history.” A bit much, I think, but the poet can be forgiven his burble. For the Oxonian was Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, and one of the passengers was the 10-year-old Alice Pleasance Liddell, soon to be the heroine of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”
The Alice books had the leaping congruities of dreams. They were filled with puns and riddles (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”), intemperate rulers and articulate unicorns, funny verse and absurd adventures. They became instant classics. Today we still compare ourselves to Alice, who had to run to stand in place; and we use the word “chortle,” which Carroll invented.
Alas, in the manner of classics, the books also became the subject of disquisitions, psychoanalyses, and Ph.D. theses. By the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birth in 1932, G. K. Chesterton lamented: “Poor, poor little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others. Alice is now not only a schoolgirl but a schoolmistress. The holiday is over and Dodgson is again a don.”
The further we moved from the 19th Century, the worse things seemed to get for Alice. Walt Disney flattened and candified her adventures. The drug culture made much of the mushroom that caused her to expand and diminish. Freudians thought they saw lineaments of Humbert Humbert and Lolita in the adoring bachelor and his long-haired little friend. Political scientists found references to everything from imperial skirmishes to theological wars: the Jabberwock, according to one professor, “can only be a fearsome representation of the British view of the Papacy.”
By now Alice might have disappeared into Cliff Notes and the Disney Channel--but for the efforts of Martin Gardner. In 1960 he produced “The Annotated Alice,” a sparkling attempt to rescue Carroll from the academicians, the sexologists and the potheads. In his introduction, Gardner set up the house rules: “We do not have to be told what it means to tumble down a rabbit hole or curl up inside a tiny house with one foot up the chimney.” As he saw it, “The rub is that any work of nonsense abounds with so many inviting symbols that you can start with any assumption you please about the author and easily build up an impressive case for it.”
Gardner subscribed to no theory and belonged to no school. Yet no one was better qualified to glean hidden messages from the Alice books. He was a scholarly columnist for Scientific American, an expert on English literature with more than 20 books in print, an amateur magician; and in earlier years he had been an editor of Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine, a mirth-filled periodical for children.
In “The Annotated Alice,” nothing seems to escape the polymath. Burrowing deep into the narrative, he notes that Carroll’s celebrated comic verses are parodies of now-forgotten verse. Gardner unearths them all. “Speak roughly to your little boy./ And beat him when he sneezes” is a sendup of David Bates’ sentimental “Speak gently! It is better far/ to rule by love than fear.” Robert Southey’s “You are old, father William, the young man cried,/ the few locks which are left you are gray” becomes, in Carroll’s hands, “You are old, father William, the young man said/ And your hair has become very white/ And yet you incessantly stand on your head--/ Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
Inspired Victorian collaborations were as rare as happy Victorian marriages, but there were at least two: W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel. It is impossible to analyze one without the other, as Gardner acknowledges. The celebrated twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, he points out, are enantiomorphs, “mirror-image forms of each other. . . . That Carroll intended this is strongly suggested by Tweedledee’s favorite word, ‘contrariwise,’ and in Tenniel’s illustration, in which they extend right and left hands for a handshake.”
Inversion themes run through both “Alice” books. In the earlier one, Alice is told: “Sentence first--verdict afterwards.” In the later adventure, cake is handed out and then sliced. Why is the author of “Alice” so obsessed with the flip side of life? Because, Gardner believes, “nonsense itself is a sanity-insanity inversion. The ordinary world is turned upside down and backward; it becomes a world in which things go every way except the way they are supposed to.”
Were Carroll’s masterpieces evidence of an inner struggle between rationality and lunacy? Possibly; Gardner acknowledges the narrow restrictions of the Victorian era and the author’s neurotic responses, among them a fascination with arbitrary violence. “Off with his head!” says the Queen of Hearts. Even the benign Humpty Dumpty subtly mentions murder: “One can’t help growing older,” says Alice. Replies Humpty Dumpty, “ One can’t perhaps, but two can.”
Far more important than Carroll’s mental state, however, is his ability to provoke surprise and shock, followed by laughter and delight. In this way he freed himself--and the young, who live with constant repression--from the straight-faced demands of the outside world. Especially school. (Arithmetic, Alice is told, can be broken down into four categories: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision.)
Besides, Gardner points out, even Carroll’s darkest passages are “quite mild compared with those of animated cartoons. . . . It seems unreasonable to suppose all the makers of animated cartoons are sado-masochists; more reasonable to assume they all made the same discovery about what children like to see on the screen. Carroll was a master storyteller, and we should give him credit for the ability to make a similar discovery.”
That discovery, appropriately enough, enjoys a double life in Gardner’s large-format volume. There are the original texts and pictures, and then there are the profuse and amusing commentaries, ranging from chess to botany to farce and back again. After quietly selling more than half a million copies, the hardcover has unaccountably gone out of print.
It remains a model of the genre: The annotated “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Mother Goose,” “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Hobbit,” etc. all tumble from Gardner’s marginalia. You can still find a small--too small, in my view--paperback of the original “The Annotated Alice” (from Dutton/New American Library) if you look hard enough. But as Alice demands, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” There is also “More Annotated Alice” (from Random House), which includes, among other things, the heretofore missing Wasp in a Wig incident.
While you’re looking for the copy that suits you, I can spare you any further anxiety about that riddle of the raven and the desk. Gardner provides the answer “Alice” never did: Poe wrote on both.