LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Politics and Nonsense

on February 21, 2013 12:37pm

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.

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One response to “Politics and Nonsense

  1. After reading this blog post I literally wanted to jump out of my chair and yell out “Eureka!” I absolutely agree with you in your analysis of Carroll’s poem “The Unicorn and the Lion.” Victorian Era England was an extremely hostile environment, but in a quiet manner. The entire era is defined by government corruption, shady dealings, and political coups which made it very difficult to speak publicly against the crown. To counteract this blatant nonsense Carroll adheres to the proverb “Fight fire with fire,” and uses nonsense to convey his beliefs. As a writer this author understood that words would be essential in overturning such widespread disarray: however, speaking out against the government would surely result in his untimely demise. Therefore, Carroll hid his messages inside of carefully worded nonsense so that he could never be accused of dissenting against the political machine. Another such example can be found in his piece Alice In Wonderland. Early in the novel there is a scene where a mix match of animals indulge in a caucus race, which ultimately leads to them running in circles to nowhere without a winner. This is without a doubt a veiled critic of the English political system. The animals represent English politicians and the race is their attempts to push their personal agendas through government. Carroll is suggesting that politicians do much of the same: in that, they accomplish essentially nothing and simply put on a grand show. Behind his seemingly innocent childish nonsense lies a pointed political message that permeates much of his writing.

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