July 15, 2012


How Alice Got to Wonderland (Ted Gioia, Conceptual Fiction)

Those tracing the history of this now famous work 
typically focus on the catalytic role of the young real-
life Alice, ten year old Alice Liddell, in inspiring the 
story. But I have a different opinion, and see the other 
adult, the forgotten Reverend Duckworth--a talented 
singer, who was then a fellow at my alma mater Trinity
College, Oxford--playing the decisive role in shaping 
the peculiar character of Alice in Wonderland. In 
Duckworth's account of the day, he provides these 
important details:  "I rowed stroke and he rowed 
bow...and the story was actually composed and spoken 
over my shoulder for the benefit of Alice Liddell."

And why is this important?  This unusual setting for 
literary invention helps us understand why Carroll's 
narrative has the distinct flavor of a tale aimed 
simultaneously at children and adults. As readers of
this classic are aware (and even more so, readers of 
Martin Gardner's marvelous annotated version of the 
work), this book is much more than an amusing story 
for young children, but a multilayered work filled with 
many things--allusions, puns, philosophical specu-
lation and humorous asides--far more suited to an 
audience of grownups.  These coexist with the fantastic
fairy tale elements that no doubt delighted the Liddell 
sisters.  So give the fine Reverend his due for forcing 
his friend to extemporize in a manner suited to both 
young and old.

Carroll was neither the first nor the last to instill adult 
concerns into stories for children--other bearers of 
tales, from Aesop to Lemony Snicket have done the 
same.  But Carroll is the preeminent master of this 
distinctive breed of fictive multivalence, mixing in 
wildly different elements in a provocative manner that 
anticipates postmodern narrative techniques, even
while understanding the demands of composing stories 
for younger readers.  This balancing act, never easy, 
would be beyond many celebrated authors who write 
with skill and success for either adults or children, but 
would be flummoxed trying to do both at the same time.

The memorable characters--the Queen of Hearts, the 
Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and 
others--provide much of the magic here.  They are the 
parts of this story most often remembered and 
discussed...and most easily transferred to other media 
via the book's numerous adaptations.  Of these, there 
are no shortage: Carroll's work has inspired films, 
cartoons, video games, graphic novels, stage 
productions, operas, radio broadcasts, and theme park 
rides.  But the real essence of Carroll's achievement, 
namely his unique mixture of the playful, profound
and paradoxical, is far less easy to transplant into other
formats.  For this reason, even those who think they
are intimately familiar with the story of Alice from 
these adaptations are likely to be surprised and 
delighted when they first encounter Carroll's book.   

This in itself offers a valuable lesson.  In our day and 
age, many are inclined to see a story on the printed
page as one-dimensional, as inevitably falling short of 
the technologically-enhanced tales shown on the
screen, turbocharged with special effects, 3D, and
all the other advances that Carroll--himself a devoted 
photographer fascinated with the visual image--could 
never have anticipated.  Yet with this particular story 
the roles are reversed.  When grappling with Alice in 
Wonderland, the movie or computer screen is the flat, 
undifferentiated surface, while the printed page takes on 
extraordinary depth, conveying a plenitude of meanings
and marvels that cannot be "enhanced" or even 
replicated by the most advanced digital tools.

And that may be the greatest wonder of Wonderland.
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Posted by at July 15, 2012 7:38 AM

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