Alice's Adventures In Wonderland...Fact, Fiction And Fantasy

by AnomalousArtist

Over the years Lewis Carroll's classic children's story has been loved, hated and misunderstood. Is "Alice" all just nonsense or is there more to the story?

In 1865 Charles Dodgson, a reverend at prestigious Christ Church in Oxford, went on an outing with his friend Robinson Duckworth and three young girls, the Liddell sisters, daughters of the Dean of Christ Church.

By enthusiastic request Dodgson, who would later write under the pseudonym "Lewis Carroll," dictated a fanciful story of a young girl (named--possibly--after his favorite of the three Liddell girls, Alice) who followed a rabbit down a tunnel and had amazing adventures underground.

The story proved to be popular with the Liddell girls and led to Dodgson eventually writing the tale out in manuscript form. The resulting book, and its sequel "Through The Looking Glass," with brilliant, darkly satirical illustrations by political cartoonist John R. Tenniel, was an instant classic that has never gone out of the public vernacular in over 100 years. The book has been translated into dozens of languages, adapted for stage, radio, television and film and has inspired countless writers to follow in the steps of Dodgson/Carroll and his themes.

Cheshire Cat
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1) Was Charles Dodgson A Pedophile?

While there is no way of knowing exactly what goes on in the secret recesses of another person's mind, and Dodgson certainly was fond of the young Liddell girls to a degree that may have been considered less than healthy by someone, somewhere, Dodgson was an upstanding member of the highly visible Christ Church community.  While he maintained a chaste existence his life was a fairly open book at the school where he lived and worked and there are no indications that he ever abused his position as a Reverend.  He wasn't married because Dons COULDN'T be married, an edict that didn't change until close to the end of Dodgson's years at the school, where he lived until his demise.

For years people have tried to make a case that Dodgson's photographs of the Liddell children in various stages of undress are proof that his intentions were somehow corrupt.  To that I might counter that anyone who looks at the pictures of the girls, which are tasteful and artistic, and sees something other than a depiction of beautiful children, might want to look into his or her own heart and examine the thoughts found there. 

The truth is, the parents of the Liddell girls were aware of everything Dodgson photographed and gave their consent to the pictures; the parents were even present when the pictures were taken, and were quite proud of them, by most accounts.  In the absence of anything secret going on, and it seems there is no evidence to suggest there was anything of the kind, it's unlikely Dodgson had any thoughts of "foul play" in mind. 

Again, what went on in his brain is unprovable; we know that what went on in his pictures and his volumes of writing (Hunting Of The Snark, Sylvie And Bruno to name just two) doesn't hint at anything unacceptable or indecent.  By today's standards the pictures of the girls may seem somehow shocking or inappropriate; the photographs were taken many, many years ago and the context of them is lost.  Dodgson took photos of all sorts of things and all ages of people of both sexes, but for some reason his portraits of the young girls is what gets the most notoriety.

Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church, Oxford
Meadow outside Christ Church
Meadow outside Christ Church
Dining Hall, Christ Church
Dining Hall, Christ Church

2) Did Charles Dodgson Create "Alice" While On Drugs?

Again, considering Dodgson was a public figure in the most public religious school in Oxford, it is unlikely he was going home and "tripping out" before writing as some have suggested.  The first connections to drugs in the "Alice" adventures probably came when Disney's 1950s film was rediscovered in the pot-fueled 1960s by a generation of hippies. 

There are drug references in Alice galore if you look for them (magic mushrooms, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, strange visions) just as there are such things anywhere a person might look if he or she tries hard enough; again I might caution that a person who sees drug messages everywhere might want to do some introspection.

The truth is, most people assume that "Alice" is drug-fueled because they simply don't "get" the book and have never researched it properly.  On the surface, out of context, it seems like a "wild" account of a stream-of-consciousness head-trip.  Things that would have made a lot of sense at the time make no sense now because the context is missing, as has been the case with other books throughout history. 

I think it's unfair and demeaning to brush aside Dodgson's dry, witty, book which is almost more satire than nonsense and operates with a scientific attention to wry detail, simply because it doesn't make "sense" to some modern readers.  Dodgson was a mathematician, a genius at word play, a charismatic debater and raconteur...nowhere is there evidence that he was a "stoner" too. 

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3) Some Examples

 

The scope of details based in Oxford and the people who dwelled there in Dodgson's two "Alice" books is far beyond the scope of a small article...for the definitive word on the subject I would turn an interested reader to the annotated version of Alice, where individual characters, episodes and sometimes isolated words are examined in rich detail and rooted out for their meaning and "logic" (the book even answers the question posed--but not answered--by The Mad Hatter, "Why is a raven like a writing desk...?"--one belated answer from a scholar amounts to "Poe wrote on both" but that's beside the point!)

What can be safely said is that most of the characters, and ALL of the illustrations, are rooted in people, places and things that were commonplace to kids of the Victorian era, specifically the kids the book was written for. 

"Humpy Dumpty" is depicted as an "egghead," i.e., stuffy college Don dispensing unwanted advice while sitting atop an Oxford wall in one of Tenniel's illustrations.  So too the Caterpillar is likely a depiction of a stuffy, philosophizing Don.

A Professor Bartholomew Price, known as the "Bat," was always talking above everyone's heads and had a distinct interest in astronomy and so was gently made the subject of mirth in Dodgson/Carroll's parody poem, "Twinkle twinkle little bat/ How I wonder what you're at/  Up above the world you fly/ Like a tea-tray in the sky!"

A depiction of a holy healing well in a stained glass window in a church in Binsley was the inspiration for a story in the "Mad Tea Party" sequence where Alice is told the tale of girls living at the bottom of a treacle well; the "secret" is that "treacle" in a medieval sense meant holy healing water rather than a sugary concoction as it is suggested in the silly story told by the Dormouse.   The actual well had been cleared around the time of Dodgson's writing and so he has Alice admit that while she finds the story ridiculous it MIGHT be possible...

In "Through The Looking Glass" a prickly governess named Miss Prickett (the Liddell girls nicknamed her Pricks) became the Red Queen (and was labeled "one of the 'thorny' kind"). 

Alice observed, during a walk up Leckhampton Hill above Gloucestershire that the land below appeared to be laid out "like a large chessboard." 

Dodgson admitted that he put himself in "Looking Glass" as the kindly, befuddled White Knight who helps Alice along to her Queenship before giving the knight gives her a sentimental good-bye.  Dodgson was becoming aware of the passing of time and the fact that the girls he adored were growing up and moving on; the moment in the book is a love letter to the children he loved so much:  "...wave your handkerchief when you get to that turn in the road!  I think it'll encourage me, you see," the Knight says.

"Wool And Water"
"Wool And Water"
The "Sheep Shop" in Oxford
The "Sheep Shop" in Oxford
Alice "stretched"
Alice "stretched"
Fireplace in Christ Church
Fireplace in Christ Church

4) So What DOES It All Mean?

The two "Alice" books, as with most of Carroll's literary works, are rich in wordplay, wit, satire and nonsense...but like all great writing it isn't without precedence; as "weird" as things get--and they do get strange sometimes, most all the episodes are based in clever takes on current events and witty twists on local knowledge, locations and people.  It's possible that enjoyment of the books actually may depend on NOT knowing any of the references, as it is intended for children; as a kid I liked the books specifically because they DIDN'T seem to make much sense, but I also liked them for giving me a glimpse into the mannered, orderly world of Victorian England that the stories presented. 

I also, like many kids, appreciated the droll, wicked British sense of humor shared even by Oxford Dons of the day (Those poor oysters in the "Walrus And Carpenter" poem!)

I'm dismayed whenever movies are made of "Alice" and present the adaptation as a free-for-all of wild imagery and meaningless, disconnected episodes or--worse--when those who adapt the work try to impose some form of standard "plotline" onto things.  Alice is best as a work of imagination enjoyed by an individual...it's the same with any dream...you can't describe it to someone who wasn't there. Fortunately Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson, had plenty of imagination and cerebral skill to spare and took us most of the way with him. Fans have been devouring his books ever since, and may continue to do so for another hundred years or more.  Here's hoping they appreciate Dodgson's brilliant works for what they are and "contrariwise," as a "Carroll" character might say, do NOT appreciate them for something they AREN'T. 

Could this be it...?

Some insist Carroll was sitting under a tree at Worcester College, Oxford, when he saw a rabbit scamper into the tunnel made of foliage in front of him, pictured
The "real" rabbit hole...?
The "real" rabbit hole...?
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Updated: 07/20/2013, AnomalousArtist
 
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AnomalousArtist on 07/24/2013

Ha ha, sigh indeed.

MaggiePowell on 07/24/2013

We "studied" Alice in High School... nothing puts a person off a book quicker than studying it.
What I remember most is the teacher adding questions to the exam that were taken from the lyrics of the Jefferson Airplane song to try to help along those who didn't want to read. Sigh

AnomalousArtist on 07/21/2013

Thanks for the comment...yeah, sometimes finding the "meaning" of something helps understand it, sometimes it ruins the enjoyment of it, doesn't it?

AnomalousArtist on 07/21/2013

Thank you!

AnomalousArtist on 07/21/2013

Yikes! That sounds really unpleasant, sorry to hear it! I actually have a problem recognizing faces that's somewhat similar...but NOT accompanied by migraines...fascinating...

Ragtimelil on 07/21/2013

Very interesting. I didn't know about all the suspicions of Lewis Carroll or Charles Dodgson. Not too surprising. People look for hidden meanings everywhere. I always just enjoyed the books as a fantasy.

MikeRobbers on 07/21/2013

Interesting and well written article! Many thanks.

JoHarrington on 07/21/2013

I've also heard it suggested that Lewis Carroll suffered from classic migraines. I have these too and the Cheshire Cat grin certainly fits perfectly into what you see. I can look at a person and everything but their eyes has disappeared, or their nose, or... well, their smile.

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