Enduring, Endearing Nonsense of Fairy Tales


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.