Lewis Carroll’s Alice

Alice in WonderlandThe second week’s reading assignment for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World was Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865: University of Adelaide, with Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations; Project Gutenberg, with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872: University of Adelaide, with Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations; Project Gutenberg, no illustrations).

I first read these books as a kid, in a well annotated edition featuring, I believe, the translation by Henri Parisot.  At any rate, I still remember the first verse of Jabberwocky:

Il était grilheure; les slictueux toves
Gyraient sur l’alloinde et vriblaient
Tout flivoreux vaguaint les borogoves
Les verchons fourgus bourniflaient.

This is the first work that made me realise how complex an enterprise translating from one language to another can be.  Until then, I assumed that words were objective entities, there was a correct label for everything, and translating merely meant grabbing the proper label from another shelf — German, English or Chinese.  Alice gave me a glimpse into the complexities of language.  I was particularly surprised and delighted by Humpty Dumpty’s relationship with words.  My love of language is still untarnished decades later!

Anyhow, here is my 300-word essay, with the numbered references listed below.  I also added hyperlinks to relevant illustrations, for your enjoyment.

Mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) gave us Alice in Wonderland, two volumes filled with mathematical, logic, and cryptographic challenges. While some obscure jokes only made sense to residents of Oxford, or even only to the Liddells, Carroll presented different levels of challenges for readers, from ones that children would be able to catch, all the way up to difficult ones meant for Carroll’s academic peers. [1] [2]

Carroll initially planned on illustrating Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland himself, but could not achieve the quality he desired.  Instead, he approached prominent artist John Tenniel; securing his talent for Alice was a great success for Carroll. [1] [3] Carroll’s instructions for the images went into unusual detail, and Tenniel in return influenced the form and content of the book. [1] [3] [4]

We might overlook certain puzzles and clues were it not for Tenniel’s illustrations, for example the presence of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as the White King’s messengers in Chapters 5 and 7 of Through the Looking-Glass, or the White Knight’s luggage in Chapter 8, connecting to other parts of the books. [1]  The Hare and Hatter‘s presence clear up what some have called a mystery: why did Carroll not show any bishops in his chess game? [1] [5] The answer: Hatter and Hare, the mad messengers, are these bishops. In all Germanic languages except English and Icelandic, this chess piece is actually called a runner or messenger; in some Romance languages like French and Romanian, it is called a fool or madman.

Showing bishops in Wonderland might have offended some readers, calling them mad doubly so. But Tenniel’s illustrations slyly make the multilingual joke visible. Carroll’s Wonderland is a disconcerting place; Tenniel’s illustrations provide clues provide us with sign posts on the path.


[1] Martin Gardner, Introduction and notes to The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, 2000.  http://pdfcast.org/pdf/alice-in-wonderland

[2] Melanie Bayley, March 7, 2010, “Algebra in Wonderland,” in: New York Times. http://www.massline.org/ScottH/science/MathOfAliceInWonderland-100308.pdf

[3] Edward Wakeling, 2008.   John Tenniel (1820-1914).   http://www.wakeling.demon.co.uk/page10-Tenniel.htm

[4] Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, 1989.  The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (Rev. C. L. Dodgson). http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11483

[5] Isaac Asimov, 1974. “The Curious Omission,” in: Tales of the Black Widowers. http://www.ebooktrove.com/Asimov, Isaac/Asimov, Isaac – Black Widowers 01 – Tales of the Black Widow.pdf

Edit: One typo marked out with strikethrough.


6 thoughts on “Lewis Carroll’s Alice

  1. I had two reviewers accusing me of plagiarism — I challenge anyone to find the slightest plagiarism in anything I ever do. On the contrary, I was very pleased with finding something that was not not a conclusion any of my sources had come to, but that was well supported with the information available. There is not even a single quote in my text. AND I provided links to all sources so all they had to do was a text search! Oh, I’m incandescent with rage about these two.

    “peer 3 → You have used entirely too many footnotes for a short essay like this. It makes me suspect you have taken other people’s ideas instead of writing your own. […] These are not your own ideas. In the future, come up with your own theory and examples in the text, then use other sources only to back up your thesis.”

    “peer 4 → The ideas in the essay are clearly expressed. However, too many of the sentences are direct quotations from reference books.”

    (As for the essay itself, I felt it was a little sparse for me because I concentrated on a small point, so no argument with the 4 I received.)

  2. This is really interesting. I hadn’t seen the French version and of course it would be difficult in any other language than English. The Jabberwocky is a poem that I use in English language teaching. I ask my students to identify verbs, nouns and adjectives. This helps them with English sentence structure. Knowing the words lithe and slimy help to immediately identify what slithy indicates.
    Great essay.

      1. Hello – neither. I teach adults as a second language. My learners are all business men and women who need English for international operations.

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