Monday, June 20, 2011

Once Upon A Time Challenge Post V

Carroll, Lewis. Notes by Martin Gardner. The Annotated Alice: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. New York: Signet, 1963.

In his Introduction to this, now classic in its own right, edition of Carroll's two classic children's stories, Gardner quotes G.K. Chesterton (writing in 1932, Carroll's 100th birthday year):

'Poor, poor, little Alice!' bemoaned G.K. '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 [Charles] Dodgson [a.k.a. Lewis Carroll] is again a don. There will be lots and lots of examination papers with questions like, (1) What do you know of the following: mimsy, gimble, haddocks' eyes, treacle-wells, beautiful soup? (2) Record all the moves in the chess game in Through the Looking Glass and give diagram. (3) Outline the practical policy of the White Knight for dealing with the social problem of green whiskers. (4) Distinguish between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.' (i.)

(One more reason to admire) Chesterton, I'm sure, back when he wrote that, thought he was being facetious -- although not completely so. He was right about the Alice books becoming part of the canon of children's literature, and, as such, being turned into something completely disagreeable, instead of the great fun that they are. Thank God I was never forced to study Carroll's masterpieces when I was in school, never had to endure their ruination in that way. Sad to say, Chesterton probably got it absolutely right with his facetious questions (I can see unimaginative teachers of today reading that Introduction and jotting them down for their own exams), judging from the types of textbook and quiz questions I remember destroying the likes of Saki, Mark Twain, and Charlotte Brontë when I was in school. I'm almost tempted to do an online search for "Lewis Carroll's Alice and study questions," but I'm afraid the results would be too depressing.

Now, having said all that, I will say that reading this annotated edition with all its wonderful notes and explanations, which some might argue add a prosaic element that puts a damper on the poetic whimsy (and I wouldn't necessarily disagree), actually made the works even more fun for me. True, it might be more enjoyable just to read "Jabberwocky" without all the definitions and explanations, to puzzle out one's own meaning. True, also, that some of the notes on the logic actually confused me (someone whose only success ever, as far as standardized testing is concerned, was on the old logic section of the GRE) more than Lewis's characters did. And, of course, to read so often in the notes about all of Carroll's "child-friends" can't help but add a certain sort of creepiness to the tales for 21st-century readers. No matter how innocent Gardner (and many more recent scholars) would have us believe Charles Dodgson was, that he was a product of his era, fascinated with little girls and their beauty, not lusting after them in Humbert-Humbert fashion, I'm sorry, but befriending only young girls (not boys) and wanting to sketch and photograph them nude just doesn't sit well with this reader.

Still, Gardner's notes add a certain charm and fascination in and of themselves (especially now that they're 50+ years -- the hardcover edition of the book was originally published in 1960 -- old, a bit antiquated in their own right). He definitely helps to clarify some concepts, and he defines many words that would be completely lost on contemporary readers (especially American ones). Also, it's interesting to note how much more has evolved in our culture since Gardner decided to help enlighten us. It's hard, for instance, for someone my age, who doesn't remember an era when Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," the anthem to drug use, didn't exist, to accept the fact that Gardner couldn't have noted it when addressing works influenced by Alice, because it would be seven years before its release, and it would be another eleven years before the release of the anti-drug Y.A. classic based on lyrics from the song, Go Ask Alice.

What I remember about this book from my childhood (for some reason, with the exception of some illustrated Disney versions, the hardcover of this annotated edition is the only one of the original I think we had in the house when I was a child. I can remember just skipping all the "annoying notes" when I read it as a child. When I was in high school -- an "adult" reader now -- I read it notes and all for the first time) was that I preferred Through the Looking Glass to Alice in Wonderland. I hate to say it, but there was a part of me that thought Alice was a bit silly, particularly so when in Wonderland.

Reading the two this go-round, I still prefer Looking Glass. I don't know if it's because Wonderland has become a story that is practically a cliché at this point, with the Queen of Hearts constantly yelling "Off with his/her head!" and the grinning Cheshire Cat, whereas Looking Glass ("Jabberwocky" and all) is still quite fresh or if it's more than that. I suspect the latter. Looking Glass is more complicated and clever. This isn't to say that Wonderland isn't chock full of brilliant wordplay and nonsense (boy, do I love wordplay, and Carroll was certainly a Master, someone to bow down to in his ability to arrange and rearrange words and their meanings to tickle the funny bone. Don't tell me math and English don't mix. This mathematician proved, without a doubt, that the two walk around beautifully, hand-in-hand), but (just like the little girl Alice Liddell, by the time the second book was published), Looking Glass's wordplay and nonsense seems a little more mature, so does the way the story plays with logic. You need look no further than the games featured in each: the characters in Wonderland are playing croquet, a fairly straightforward game. Those inside the looking glass play chess, a far more sophisticated pastime. Then again, my preference, then and now, may have nothing to do with maturity and sophistication. Perhaps I just prefer an imaginary world (a dreamland, if you will) entered through a mirror (and all that that entails) to one entered falling down a rabbit hole.

I didn't find Alice silly this go-round, the way I found her as a child. Actually, I like the brave way she stands up to the crazy characters and the way she defends herself and her understanding of concepts, even when she's completely confused. I also found there are certain characters I'd forgotten whom I just adored this go-round, like the Dormouse (probably envy on my part more than anything else, because there have been many nights in my life when I so wished I could "sleep when I breathe") and the Gryphon (how on earth could I have forgotten the Gryphon?) -- so perfect in being so much like all those annoying people in life who pooh-pooh and disdain our precious obsessions.

I was happy to have read this book so soon after reading the Terry Pratchett I also read for this challenge. Pratchett owes much to Carroll, both writing parody and satire with a healthy dose of nonsense, while playing with math, logic, and science. I couldn't help wondering what "The Annotated Collected Works of Terry Pratchett" might look like (besides, of course, taking up more room on the bookshelf than the old Encyclopaedia Britannica used to do). I am sure there is much when I read Pratchett that goes over my head, just as there would be much in the Alice books that would do so without Gardner's helpful notes. And speaking of influences, I also couldn't help thinking it's about time for another read of The Phantom Tollbooth, a modern classic that certainly owes much to Alice. This year marks its 50th anniversary, definitely a good year to read it.

Another thing I noted while reading this book is how influenced my childhood was not only by the Alice stories, but also by the illustrations. When I was a child, we had an oversized coloring book full of John Tenniel's Alice illustrations. My mother, once my older sisters had colored them (I think I was too young at the time to have colored them well enough, although I do remember coloring), mounted and shellacked some of them and hung them on our bedroom walls and also in the kitchen, if I remember correctly. I especially remember the one of the White Knight (I'm not sure why. Maybe he hung in my bedroom, or maybe, like Alice, he just impressed me most). His style, even if I'd never seen the Alice illustrations, would have been extremely familiar to me nonetheless, as we also had large collections of old Punch cartoons in our house growing up, many of which were his.

I'll end by saying I had fantastic dreams on the nights when I read this book right before falling asleep. Carroll certainly seemed to have a direct connection to the Land of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (despite the fact it didn't yet exist when he was writing). Of course, a good Jungian would tell you that he just knew exactly how to tap into the collective unconscious. I prefer to think of it as another land, a Wonderland, full of disappearing cats, disagreeable queens, and Humpty Dumpty himself. I wouldn't want to live there, but it's a great place to visit.


Stefanie said...

I like Through the Looking Glass better too. It just has so much more going for it. It is good you didn't look up study questions. Out of curiosity I used your search string and looked it up on google and yeah, talk about beating the life and fun out of a book!

Carrie#K said...

I won't Google it then but I'm tempted! I loved both of them but I have to say, seeing "1960's" and "antiquated" in the same sentence - denial! denial!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, oh, I am so glad I didn't bother with the Google search. "So much more going for it" is exactly how I'd describe Through the Looking Glass.

Carrie, I'm in denial, too: I had to remind myself over and over that the book was published in 1960, not 1920!

litlove said...

What an interesting book for a reread, because it's such an adult childhood book. You know? So knowingly crazy and so quirkily inhabited by childhood fears and anxieties transformed into disconcerting characters. Hmm - makes me almost tempted to read it again myself.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, yes, I know exactly what you mean by an adult childhood book. I appreciated it more as an adult than I did as a child.