ENDURING, ENDEARING NONSENSE

ENDURING, ENDEARING NONSENSE by Andrew
Green Did you read and enjoy Lewis Carroll\'s Alice in
Wonderland books as a child? Or better still, did you have
someone read them to you? Perhaps you discovered them
as an adult or, forbid the thought, maybe you haven\'t
discovered them at all! Those who have journeyed Through
the Looking Glass generally love (or shun) the tales for their
unparalleled sense of nonsense . Public interest in the
books--from the time they were published more than a
century ago--has almost been matched by curiosity about
their author. Many readers are surprised to learn that the
Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and a host of other absurd
and captivating creatures sprung from the mind of Charles
Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy, stammering Oxford mathematics
professor. Dodgson was a deacon in his church, an inventor,
and a noted children\'s photographer. Wonderland, and thus
the seeds of his unanticipated success as a writer, appeared
quite casually one day as he spun an impromptu tale to
amuse the daughters of a colleague during a picnic. One of
these girls was Alice Liddell, who insisted that he write the
story down for her, and who served as the model for the
heroine. Dodgson eventually sought to publish the first book
on the advice of friends who had read and loved the little
handwritten manuscript he had given to Alice Liddell. He
expanded the story considerably and engaged the services
of John Tenniel, one of the best known artists in England, to
provide illustrations. Alice\'s Adventures in Wonderland and
its sequel Through The Looking Glass were enthusiastically
received in their own time, and have since become
landmarks in childrens\' literature. What makes these
nonsense tales so durable? Aside from the immediate appeal
of the characters, their colourful language, and the
sometimes hilarious verse ("Twas brillig, and the slithy
toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe:") the narrative works
on many levels. There is logical structure, in the relationship
of Alice\'s journey to a game of chess. There are problems of
relativity, as in her exchange with the Cheshire Cat: "Would
you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."
There is plenty of fodder for psychoanalysts, Freudian or
otherwise, who have had a field day analyzing the
significance of the myriad dream creatures and Alice\'s
strange transformations. There is even Zen: "And she tried to
fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is
blown out..." Still, why would a rigorous logical thinker like
Dodgson, a disciple of mathematics, wish children to wander
in an unpredictable land of the absurd? Maybe he felt that
everybody, including himself, needed an occasional holiday
from dry mental exercises. But he was no doubt also aware
that nonsense can be instructive all the same. As Alice and
the children who follow her adventures recognize illogical
events, they are acknowledging their capacity for logic, in
the form of what should normally happen. "You\'re a serpent;
[says the Pigeon] and there\'s no use denying it. I suppose
you\'ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!" "I
have tasted eggs, certainly," said Alice... "But little girls eat
eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know." Ethel
Rowell, to whom Dodgson taught logic when she was
young, wrote that she was grateful that he had encouraged
her to "that arduous business of thinking." While Lewis
Carroll\'s Alice books compel us to laugh and to wonder, we
are also easily led, almost in spite of ourselves, to think as
well. FURTHER READING: Lewis Carroll. Alice\'s
Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass,
with an introduction by Morton N. Cohen, Bantam, 1981.
Lewis Carroll: The Wasp in a Wig, A "Suppressed Episode
of Through the Looking-Glass, Notes by Martin Gardner,
Macmillan London Ltd, 1977. Anne Clark: The Real Alice,
Michael Joseph Ltd, 1981. Raymond Smullyan: Alice in
Puzzleland, William Morrow and Co., 1982.

Category: Book Reports