Friday, January 18, 2008

Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Through the Looking Glass
The Hunting of the Snark
by Lewis Carroll
Recommended Age: 8+

One of the inspirations for L. Frank Baum's Oz series and many other stories is this classic pair of nonsense fairy tales by Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name, Lewis Carroll). His immortal writings were inspired by his friendship with a colleague's daughter, named Alice of course, who liked to listen to stories just like this. Full of puns, talking animals, animated objects, magical incidents, surreal imagery and a sort of teasing tall-tale humor, they follow the adventures of a little English girl who (in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) follows a fussily dressed white rabbit down a hole into a land of dreamlike absurdity, magic, and danger that has made generations of youngsters squirm with happiness.

Later, in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice passes into the mysterious country on the other side of the mirror, where the movements of the strange people she meets correspond to the moves of pieces on a chessboard.

To summarize what happens would be, on the one hand, to take away a multitude of surprises, and on the other hand, to repeat a lot of stuff you probably already know from school plays, television, and your own reading or hearing the book read aloud. If you don't already know what happens, I wouldn't want to spoil it. And anyway, no plot summary could possibly make sense, because the whole point of the story is to amuse children (of all ages) with witty nonsense.

However, I can point out that there is a bit of fun with magic that causes Alice to grow to incredible size, then shrink down again. And there are conversations with mice and birds, lobsters and caterpillars, a Gryphon, a Mock Turtle, a March Hare, a Cheshire Cat, a Mad Hatter, and a very bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts. There are patently absurd poems and songs, delivered with the silliest degree of seriousness, and finally there is a trial that ends with Alice awakening from her dream. Here you can find the origin of such English expressions as "Curioser and curioser" and irreverent parodies of the moralistic poems English children used to have to learn by heart. And that's just the first book.

I like Through the Looking Glass even better. Here you encounter the mother of all nonsense poems, "Jabberwocky," where I think Carroll coined the words "galumphing" and "chortled." Here also is the classic song of Tweedledee and Tweedledum (my father often used to wake me up in the morning with a quote from this poem: "The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things..."). Then again, there is Humpty Dumpty with his striking ideas on how to use words (including another memorable coinage, "unbirthday") and yet another mindblowingly weird poem. And we encounter the amazing concept that unicorns find it hard to believe in children. Plus there are other songs, riddles, poems, and cracked sums like "divide a cake by a knife and what do you get." It simply sparkles with ingenuity.

Finally, I want to recommend Carroll's great narrative nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, which is divided into eight "fits" and illustrated by classic drawings that have been used as patterns for party costumes by generations of fans. With mock-tragic drama and wit, Carroll tickles the ribs with a bizarre cast of characters - the bellman, broker, billiard-marker, barrister, banker, and beaver - who, we are repeatedly told, "sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care; they pursued it with forks and hope; they threatened its life with a railway-share; they charmed it with smiles and soap." What are they seeking? The elusive Snark, of course! It's a clever little story, full of absurdity and puns and coined words that somehow get across what they mean, and it has a preface by the author, which is worth the price of the whole book. If you're looking for a wild and funny sketch for a drama club or readers' theatre, get this little book!

And don't you dare miss out on the classic illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, whose images are inseparably connected with the Wonderlands Carroll created.

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