Decoding Alice in Wonderland

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland DecodedIt is tempting to suggest author David Day’s lush new book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded is the final word on the mysteries and secrets behind Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s fantasy, but alas, it would be an over-reach. Surely others will follow, perhaps even Day himself will extend his research to a sequel.

Aside from the difficulties of probing the motives of a man dead more than 125 years, there comes the question of interpretation, which is more like opinion than it is fact. Looking back 150 years at possible explanations for a reference or a character sometimes involves guesswork.

But even from its original publication, people knew there was more to Alice than a simple children’s tale replete with frivolous nonsense. As Day explains, Carroll himself acknowledged some of the references and metaphors. But there remain others for be dug out of the text like opals from the Australian bedrock. Day is a superb, if sometimes eccentric, prospector.

In an interview in the National Post, it notes,

Day also argues that the book was meant to give a classical education to someone like Alice, who, as a girl, wouldn’t be able to attend Oxford. Every character in Wonderland then becomes an allusion to a scholar or to a figure in Greek mythology; a reference to mathematical concept or to a famous work of art; or, quite frequently, a combination of all of the above.

It is fun, in a conspiracy-theory sort of way, to entertain hidden references to ancient gods, myths and mysteries, but as Sigmund Freud allegedly said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Those of you old enough to remember the Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods books know how quickly such egregious assumptions can be discredited and ridiculed.

Still, Day’s effort is not to be dismissed: his arguments and theories are well explained and generally compelling. It is, to date, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging peek behind the Alice curtain, and certainly most elegantly published version (the full-colour hardcover is gorgeous). It took the author almost two decades to research and write.

And it’s a good social biography of Carroll and his milieu, although it helps if you know something about the Victorian era, the British Empire, the impact of Darwin, and the social and political attitudes of the day.

But don’t lose track of the prime reason Carroll wrote the book: to entertain, delight and (possibly) educate children. Let’s not rub off all the innocence and the magic by too much analysis. As The Telegraph noted of the original book:

Future generations may see other hidden meanings. In a tale this rich, it seems highly likely they will. But for children the story itself, with its universal theme of an innocent youngster attempting to make sense of a strange adult world, is enough.

If Day is to suffer any criticism it might be that he stopped with Wonderland, and did not pursue the story into Through the Looking Glass – as did his predecessor, Martin Gardner. Gardner’s 1960 book, The Annotated Alice, was the first modern attempt to explain the Alice stories in terms of Carroll’s own life, his environment, his puns, references and related political and social history of his times.

Day borrows liberally from Gardner, but adds more. Much more, in fact. He fills almost 300 pages of content for the one book, where Gardner’ hardcover edition of similar size fills 350 for both.

Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in January, 1832. He passed away almost exactly 66 years later, in January, 1898. His most famous work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was published in 1865, 150 years before Day’s analysis. The sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, was published in 1871.

A piece on the British Library site notes some of the reasons authors have been drawn to the book and have tried for the past century to unravel its mysteries:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is in many ways a compendium of puzzles and games linked by a narrative (its 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, is in fact based on a game of chess), and puzzles provide a useful way for thinking about the two sides of the author of the Alice books. It is easy to assume that Charles Dodgson fascination with the kind of logic behind puzzles was closely related to his professional life as a mathematician. Thinking again about the personal nature of Alice and Dodgson’s propensity to conceal insider references behind disguises however, suggests other reasons why he would have been attracted to creating puzzles.

So it’s been long seen as a puzzle to be solved. It later adds,

Many jokes and even more references to people, places, topical debates, and objects from his personal life are conveyed through images, including himself as the Dodo. His understanding of the attractions of images and the support they give to young readers is particularly apparent in The Nursery Alice (1890), for which Carroll required larger, coloured versions of Tenniel’s illustrations.

Wonderland is actually based on an earlier story Carroll wrote and illustrated for the young Alice Liddell in 1864, called Alice’s Adventures Underground. It was a private gift and kept by her until 1928. Then it was sold at auction to a private bidder, and did not become public until 1948.

Liddell died in 1933, the same year the first serious analysis of the book was published. Martin Gardner’s analysis, The Annotated Alice, was first published in 1960 and revised in 1999 in a definitive edition (he also wrote The Annotated Snark, about Carroll’s 1876 poem, The Hunting of the Snark). In the mid-late 60s, the hippie drug culture added its own interpretations to the story. In the 1980s through to the new millennium, computer games provided a new look, as well as expansions on the story.

A story in The Telegraph offers a brief chronology of how our attitudes towards Alice and its author have changed:

Professor Will Brooker of Kingston University London, author of Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, says each generation has interpreted the text in ways that reflect their contemporary culture.
“In the 1930s it was psychoanalysis, in the 1960s it was psychedelia, and in the 1990s paedophilia,” he says. “The 1930s was when people started to take what was originally conceived as a pleasant, delightful, nonsense children’s story and thinking there must be something deeper than what’s on the surface – a Freudian interpretation.
Then, in the 1960s people assumed Carroll must have been on the same drugs they were on because the story seemed to tally with their experiences of LSD and cannabis. They thought he was speaking their language.”
Listen to the words of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and it’s hard to disagree. “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small…” Surely Carroll had turned on, tuned in and dropped out?
The 1990s then arrived, and moral panic over paedophilia gripped society. Consequently Carroll’s relationship with the real-life Alice – the daughter of a friend, on whom the book was based – came under fresh scrutiny.

And today we have a different view, one that seems to blend a little of all those that went before, but also looks for new depth, new secrets, new explanations. I doubt there will ever be definitive answers to all the questions.

A one-hour CBC special aired last year looked at Day and his subject. The CBC website notes how widespread Alice has become, well outside the narrow Victorian culture where it was born:

After the Bible and Shakespeare, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the most widely-quoted book in the Western world. It has been translated into at least 174 languages.

What’s important when reading Day is not just his explanations and insights, but that he revitalizes interest in the original (you get to read it as you read his decoding). Sparking interest in reading a classic is always welcome.

Alice long seemed to have become a caricature, especially post-Disney. Tim Burton’s delightful 2010 adaptation is only one in a long line of films, theatrical and TV shows, and even ballets that began production in 1903! Entertaining as they may be, they often make us lose site of Carroll’s own work. Day helps restore the balance.

Quoted in Maclean’s magazine, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of the recent Carroll biography, The Story of Alice, said,

There is no one story, or even genre, that can give us all the answers about Alice and him. What we have are the books, masterpieces in their complexity, serious and funny, with a playful surface lying over a desperate yearning for logic and order. For 150 years, Alice has been a blank screen onto which we project all we want to throw at her.

Day’s book is not without its critics. On the Alice-in-Wonderland net, one reviewer commented, while recommending the book,

The problem with the ‘Alice’ books is that you can link them to virtually anything. Day does not succeed in convincing me that his findings are more likely sources of inspiration than any other pieces with similarities.
Also, he undermines the credibility of his theories by linking one character or event to many different sources. It is very unlikely that Carroll actually had all of them in mind when writing the story.

And I agree somewhat. Yet if Day offers what are to me some wild notions at times, he balances them with sound insights and explanations in others. It’s well worth reading if nothing more than to get your mind working – and to remind you of just how wonderful the original book still is.

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