by David Carroll
First Appeared in Burnt Toast#7, 1991
Let's forget all about sex and violence for a while, and just talk about Lewis Carroll, the man and his creations. Don't worry, we'll get back to the sex and violence later.
Like his most famous creation, the man didn't actually exist, but was the pseudonym of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), a shy man prone to stutter, seemingly only comfortable in the presence of young girls, whom he loved and spent much of his life devoted to.
And while it is his children's literature he is remembered for, he was known at the time for more then just this field. Among his talents were mathematics, invention (including a Nyctograph, a device to record, Braille-like, any thoughts during the night without getting out of bed), word and chess puzzles and had remarkable skill with the camera when the craft was in its infancy, having his work shown at London's annual Photographic Exhibition. He was a devout member of the Church of England, ordained a Deacon though seldom preaching because of his stammer. And he had an affinity for Tuesdays.
As Martin Gardner describes him he is 'a fussy, prim, fastidious, cranky, kind, gentle bachelor whose life was sexless, uneventful and happy'.
And what made him happiest of all was the entertaining of young girls. As he once wrote "I am fond of children (except boys)", though this fondness for children also did not extend to American girls, he met one once and was most off-put by her rudeness. This affinity (which was not sexual despite some habits which seem so from our view-point, such as his preference for the models of his photographs to be naked) may be due to him being the eldest of eleven children, helping in the up-bringing of his family, especially once their mother died, when the youngest was still five.
Corresponding by letter to children all over the world he made each a treasure-trove of puzzles and wit. He included poems with hidden messages, usually the particular girl's name, and many variations of jokes, riddles, and tricks such as letters unreadable without magnifying glasses, or written in strange shapes. He would offer his friends 10,000,000 kisses, or 4 3/4 kisses, or a two-millionth part of a kiss. But he also had many personal friends to entertain, with his magic shows and paper pistols and all, and one of the most special to him was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, Alice Pleasance Liddell.
They would spend many afternoons on the lake together, with the Alice's two sisters, and Dodgson would tell them wonderful stories to while away the hours. Delighted by these stories, the three kept asking him to write his stories down, and he finally agreed, writing the first draft of Alice's Adventures Under Ground and presenting it to the young girl as a Christmas present.
Then, expanding the book from 18,000 to 35,000 words, choosing the non de plume Lewis Carroll (adapted from the latinized form of Charles Lutwidge -- Carolus Ludovicus) and employing a noted Punch cartoonist Sir John Tenniel to illustrate the work, he gave his visions of Wonderland to the children of the world.
The name was changed to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and was released in 1865, followed in 1872 by Through the Looking-Glass.
The two books, plunging Alice into a bizarre fantasy world of inversions and twist-ed reality, became a classic.
And deservedly so, because they are very clever stories, not only containing the adventures of a young girl, but many brilliant, and subtle, mathematical twists, word plays, political caricatures and in-jokes for the three sisters to whom the stories were originally told. And whilst Alice was the heroine (incidentally, the Alice of Tenniel's drawings is not the Alice, who had short, dark hair) the three also had a joint role as the three sisters who lived in the treacle well, the names being puns or distortions of the originals, for example Lacie for Alice (an anagram).
In fact one of the disadvantages of the book to modern readers is that a lot of the jokes simply pass them by, children especially can no longer appreciate the books in quite the same way as the other 'children's classics' like The Wizard of Oz. And while there is still much to delight older readers, an annotated version is, I can tell you, extremely useful.
The novels have also been made into several plays, (the first as early as 1887) and movies, though the ones that I have seen appear to be mere shallow interpretations, con-taining the adventures and characters, but severely down-playing the jokes and twists that are an integral part of the original's strength. Still, a friend of mine has theorised that without Disney's animated version the novels would be all but unknown today (I'm not sure I personally agree, but it's an interesting theory).
But the two Alice novels are by no means Lewis Carroll's only contribution to the literature of the period. My copy of his complete works extends to close to a thousand pages, and contains two other novels, his lengthy poem The Hunting of the Snark, a book of mathematical puzzles, each hidden within a short story (or knot, as they were called) and two other collections of poetry, one nonsensical, the other serious.
The Hunting of the Snark is his second most popular work (and his second-most famous poem, the first being, of course, Jabberwocky), and famous for being written backwards, the last line thought up first.
It's a brilliant piece of comic verse, concerning itself with an ill-equipped hunting expedition:
This was charming, no doubt; but they shortly found outand the problems they encounter till the fateful moment when they confront the Snark.
This poem has also had several interpretations on stage, the recent large-scale musical for a start, which I'm afraid I didn't see but have been told is very enjoyable. My own experience is of a wonderful little play called Boojum!, written by a pair of Australians, Peter and Martin Wesley-Smith. A recounting of the Snark-hunting expedition without using the actual poem, it contained many Carrollian references and in-jokes, both to his works and the man himself, and Alice, Lewis Carroll, the Rev. Charles Dodgson, Dum and Dee are only some of the other characters in it.
Back to the real thing, and his two other novels also deserve a mention. They are Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno concluded, in reality one long story in two parts. These were written later by Carroll, who wished to write something for children that would endorse Christian values. The general frame-work of the novel is ingenious, it concerning the adventures of the young fairies of the title, but moving back and forth with a strange pairing into the real world. But despite moments of Carroll's familiar brilliance such things as religious debates and at times sledge-hammer subtle morality lessons become tedious, and while I quite enjoyed the first novel, the second I simply couldn't bring myself to like.
But whatever the quality of some of his lesser known works, what he is best remembered for are more then proof of his genius. Enjoyed by the children of his generation, and the fantasists and mathematicians of ours. This truly eccentric man has left a legacy of pleasure to us all.
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