In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, there are among the nonsense some very lucid thoughts and not-so-subtle political commentary. Chapter VII “The Unicorn and the Lion” is an excellent example of these allusions. The footnotes explain the correlation of the nursery rhyme and its link to the ongoing conflict between the English and Scottish kingdoms within Great Britain, and as the scene plays out in the story, it further reinforces this link.
Historically, there has been a division between the English and Scottish kingdoms, even after they united in the early 1700s. The rhyme presented in Looking-Glass uses the symbols of the Lion – from the English coat of arms – and the Unicorn – found on the Scottish coat of arms – in constant conflict:
“The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown:
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.” (Carroll, 198)
The rhyme speaks to the political relationship between the two kingdoms and their infighting. In Looking-Glass, Carroll’s Lion and Unicorn – who the artist Tenniel caricaturizes as Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli respectively – have been fighting for quite a while. The king, upon hearing from his messengers, goes to watch.
“The King was evidently very uncomfortable at having to sit down between the two great creatures; but there was no other place for him… the poor King was nearly shaking [the crown] off his head, he trembled so much… he was very nervous, and his voice quite quivered.” (Carroll, 202)
Interestingly, the notes state that the caricatures were principally Tenniel – who was a political cartoonist – and Carroll may not have even intended this association. However, as the situation develops, and as the two fighters take their rest, the King becomes increasingly afraid of the two bestial titans:
Considering whether Carroll was involved, the scene can be interpreted as a commentary on how the British monarch was becoming increasingly caught between the struggles of Parliament; the well-known political feud of Disraeli and Gladstone becomes then the reason the King is frightened by the battle. This would effectively “implicate” Carroll in the politics of the scene.
The whole point of this post then, is to suggest that the nonsense in Through the Looking-Glass may not be as much nonsense as the reader is led to believe.