LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Looking-Glass Chess

The Looking-Glass world that Alice enters in Through the Looking-Glass (And What Alice Found There) is undoubtedly a creation from the logical mind of Charles Dodgson. It is described as having “a number of tiny little brooks running straight across it from side to side, and the ground between was divided up into squares by a number of little green hedges, that reached from brook to brook.” This description is obviously a chessboard, which is a theme throughout the story. Alice encounters all of the pieces in the chess game that help her, a pawn, to reach the other side of the board and become a queen herself within 11 moves.

Being a thorough man, Dodgson included a picture of the chessboard in the Looking-Glass world of the moves that are made in the story in the exact order they take place.

Looking-Glass Chess

 

Alice begins her journey upon meeting the Red Queen at the forefront of the white piece’s side of the chessboard, who then allows her to be a pawn for the white team. The Red Queen tells Alice, “you’re in the Second Square to begin with: when you get to the Eighth Square you’ll be a Queen.” In the above picture we can see Alice begins as a pawn in the second square for move number one. Next, Alice “ran down the hill and jumped over the first of the six little brooks,” which puts her in the Third Square. After this sentence, we see three rows of asterisks, which are used throughout the story to signify that Alice has moved into the next square.

Alice then rides an unusual railway that jumps across a brook, sending Alice into the Fourth square, which is the home of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. After their discourse and poems she meets the White Queen, and she follows after her across a brook, which takes her into the Fifth Square. To her astonishment, the queen becomes a sheep, and the surroundings become a small shop of goods. She suddenly realizes she’s on a boat and rows through this square. At the end, she’s in the small shop again and she jumps across a small brook in the shop into the Sixth Square.

In the Sixth Square, Alice has a pedantic lesson with Humpty Dumpty, who teaches her the imaginative aspect of language. Leaving him, she meets the White King and his soldiers and encounter a problem regarding Plum Pudding and a group of strange animals. After leaving the Lion and Unicorn behind, Alice enters the the Seventh Square.

In the Seventh Square,  Alice is almost taken by the Red Knight. However, The White Knight comes to her aid, takes the Red Knight, and accompanies Alice to the edge of the Eight Square.

At this point, Alice jumps across the final brook and suddenly is crowned a queen. This is not the end of the game though.

Alice then attends her own coronation dinner. The Red Queen and all other attendants aggravate Alice to the point where she throws a tantrum. In her fury, Alice grabs the Red Queen and shakes her, taking the piece and winning the game.

Thus, in eleven total moves, Alice moves across the chessboard as a pawn and becomes a queen. She then takes the Red Queen and wins the game. The only issue, which even Dodgson confesses, is that the sides take their turns out of order. However, the actual moves can be mapped out and recorded as Alice journeys across the Looking-Glass world. Such a complex scheme truly proves Dodgson to be a logic-loving and mathematical genius because one can read this novel through the distant view of a chessboard.

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Humpty Dumpty’s Meta-Narrative

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As per our discussion in class, Lewis Carroll–through the agent of his characters–was able to insert a philosophy of language and literary comprehension. Humpty Dumpty most explicitly demonstrates this throughout his interaction with Alice, when she reveals her confusion and the difficulty of understanding the poem “Jabberwocky” presents her. Humpty Dumpty swiftly informs her that he deconstruct the ambiguity of the words (and of course goes on to translate an entire stanza).

Humpty Dumpty is actually discussing the linguistic side to Alice’s encounter with the surreal. Her wonderland/looking-glass world does exist under the same conditions as “the real world,” therefore, the semantics and pragmatics of language there would not follow the same rules.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master      that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

I brought up the point that perhaps Carroll was trying to illustrate that meaning is subjective to the individual, and that when reading the text, the reader should also be applying their own meaning, unadulterated by others opinions. Carroll deliberately wrote “Jabberwocky” to be an interactive work, so that readers wouldn’t be subjected to a poem that already had an abundant amount of interpretations (which it still does), but by using nonsensical words instead, no one could fully claim they knew what the intended meaning was.

The conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty also address the connection between language and reality. Throughout Alice’s adventure, she confronts the problem of existence and the true nature of things as a result of the altered label she is no longer familiar with. Conceptually she is able to conjure an image of whatever is being discussed, but she is consistently disoriented by the skewed definitions, and the arbitrary nature of the conversations she finds herself participating in.

Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice that he makes up the definitions of the words he uses, which would indicate a complete irrelevancy to any message he was trying to convey–except the message Carroll is conveying through Dumpty, which is (in part) an understanding of human expression through language.

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The Shifting World of Through the Looking Glass

What is life but a dream?

Much like its predecessor, Through the Looking Glass showcases Lewis Carroll’s love for seemingly nonsensical characters, dialogue exchanges, and world. However, it can be argued that the world showcased in the sequel surpasses the original world of Wonderland in its  non-linearity and bizarre occurrences. One of the biggest differences between Wonderland and the world within the looking glass is the completely random shifts in settings that pop up in the sequel. Carroll purposely sets up a setting and a set of characters only to change them completely without notice. The motif can be in interpreted several ways, but I believe Carroll included this odd device to reinforce the idea that real life can be as nonsensical and random as the looking glass world.

A peek into the bizarre carriage scene.

The first major example of this motif occurs in chapter 3 when Alice inexplicably goes from running down a hill to being thrust inside a carriage and being badgered for not having a ticket. She undergoes bullying from the carriage guard  and its passengers, has her thoughts read by everyone on the carriage, and is scrutinized under microscopes. I think Carroll potentially included this encounter to showcase the way situations sometimes deprives people completely of their preparedness. The complete tonal shift reinforces this idea, with the tone first being curious and whimsical to anxious and troubled. The prevalent sense of helplessness Alice experiences in the carriage, particularly the insults aimed at her from the characters, also adds to this stark tonal shift. Although seemingly random, I think Carroll possessed a method to his madness through complete scene changes.

Alice and her kitten, the ear to her muse.

Although many of the scene changes in the novel represent a shift from tranquility (at least what can be considered tranquil in the world) to chaos, the final setting change at the end represents a stark departure from this trend. When Alice becomes queen, a nonsensical and disastrous dinner is held in her honor. At the climax of this dinner, Alice awakens and learns the entire ordeal was a dream. I think this shift at the end directly links to the poem that ends the story, which’s final line states “Life, what is it but a dream?”  (line 21). This particular shift gives the reader an interesting insight into Carroll’s opinion on life in a very melancholy yet philosophical line. When Alice awakens, she attributes figures in her life (such as her cats) to to characters in her dream and recounts the dream to one of her kittens. Her desire to make sense of the dream and remember all the details could indicate a desire to return to the looking glass world. This relates to the sadly nostalgic tone of Carroll’s poem, which sounds like he experienced life as a dream and perhaps mournfully misses it. This could sum up a huge theme of the book, which emphasizes attaining happiness no matter the circumstances, even if it’s achieved through a dream.

Carroll’s employment of drastic scene changes represents both the positives and negatives of the randomness of life. Although I may not agree with his feelings regarding happiness and its pursuit, I find his weaving of nonsense with philosophical themes quite admirable as a writer.

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Nothing Gold Can Stay

  

  Both Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass Land are enchanting, nonsensical places.  Yet throughout the Alice stories, Carroll hints at the fleeting, temporary nature of their existence.  Nothing in these fantasy worlds is ever permanent.  The rules of logic at play are always changing.  At one moment, it makes perfect sense to knock on a door to a house in order to be let in by the frog footman; in the next, knocking on the door is a ridiculous notion which will get you nowhere at all.  And once one travels through the looking glass, things morph and change at the drop of a hat with no attempt made at an explanation, not even an illogical one.  These occurrences are frustrating to Alice, who is used to the rigid, dependable order of the real world, but she does come to appreciate these lands for what they are.  By the end of her first adventure, she has developed a bit of a soft spot for Wonderland. In the final chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been” (Carroll 142).  In her childlike state of mind, Alice concludes that these dreamlands are really quite wonderful places after all.
As nice as Alice finds these dreamlands to be, Carroll ends each of his stories in the same way- Alice awakens from her dream.  She is not allowed to stay in Wonderland or beyond the looking glass forever; she is forced to return to her day-to-day life.  Carroll too could not remain a permanent inhabitant of Wonderland, nor could the real Alice Liddell.  In the poems which begin and end each tale, readers are exposed to this melancholy truth.
The poem which prefaces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of origin of the story which is about to unfold.  Carroll sets his tale “All in the golden afternoon,” which is a fleeting time.  A golden afternoon calls to mind something lovely and pleasant, bordering on perfection.  But no afternoon lasts forever; each one ends with the setting of the sun and the closing of the day.  Within this brief window of time “grew the tale of Wonderland.”  Carroll is aware of the fact that Wonderland is itself allowed a brief window and so closes the poem by pleading “Alice! A childish story take, / And, with a gentle hand, / Lay it where childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band.”  It is only through the child taking hold of the story and gifting it a place of honor within their memory that it can continue on its golden state.  Within memory, the world cannot touch it and make it less than it was.
In the opening poem of Through the Looking Glass, Carroll tells of “A tale begun in other days, / When summers suns were glowing / … Whose echoes live in memory yet. / Through envious years would say ‘forget.’”  So he feels that the precious tale of Wonderland has been preserved, although “envious years” are urging a maturing child to leave it behind- “Without, the frost, the blinding snow, / The storm-wind’s moody madness- / Within, the firelight’s ruddy glow / And childhood’s nest of gladness.”  The world outside of memory is bombarding the inner child to snuff “the firelight’s ruddy glow.”  But Carroll does not imply that the child surrenders to the attack.  In the poem which closes Through the Looking Glass, he admits that “Long has paled that sunny sky: / Echoes fade and memories die; / Autumn frosts have slain July” but insinuates that the inhabitants of Wonderland have not ceased to exist, for “In a Wonderland they lie, / Dreaming as the days go by, / Dreaming as the summers die / … Ever drifting down the stream- / Lingering in the golden gleam.” Something or someone is still lingering in the soft light of that golden afternoon.  Be that Alice, Carroll, or the reader, it does not matter much.  What matters is only that someone has managed to hold onto that golden quality which slips away so easily.
Many years after the publication of the Alice stories, Robert Frost published a poem, entitled “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

This poem is an embodiment of the essence of the golden afternoon when Wonderland was created.  It was wonderful, but inevitably could not last.  The golden afternoon subsided to evening, just as “dawn goes down to day.”  Presumably, Alice herself was subject to this cycle as well.  She grew up and had to move on or awaken from the nonsensical fantasy lands of Carroll’s invention.  Carroll is not in denial of the demands of reality, but still proposes a solution: to hold onto anything golden, one must tuck it safely away within the protective walls of nostalgic memory.

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Carroll Forever Young

What interested me most about the author Lewis Carroll was this ability to hold onto his own childhood in order to write these tales. I think part of the reason Alice was such a hit with children was because he was a child himself, and therefore knew just how much to engage the child and how much to make him or her think. In a way the “cult” of childhood entrapped Carroll, making him a permanent resident throughout his later years. This mindset of youth allowed him to think both logically and nonsensically, because children have the ability to process both even if they cannot fully understand why yet.

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However, Carroll’s imprisonment in the “cult” of childhood caused controversy amongst adults whom attempted to understand the author more clearly. I myself found questionable the fact that his friendships with young girls would end once they reached the age of fourteen. At first I considered that it was because of his child-like mentality, and once they reached a certain age he stopped being able to relate to them. They would sort of out grow him while he remained a child in his mind. However, reading about how his relationships with young girls affected his writing had me question this theory.

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This is where the “Victorian Child Cult” influences the “Carroll Myth.” The Victorians were under the impression that child nudity was an expression of innocence. Back in Carroll’s time, the fact that he possessed pictures of nude children was not as heavily questioned as it is in more modern times and still is today. It might be a product of change and our generation, but we now see Carroll more so as a questionable man than during his life or even shortly after his passing. Time has caused us to call into question the essence of the Child Cult and caused us to make Lewis out to be the bad guy. The truth is, we may never know the true nature of his relationship’s with young girls, but I do strongly believe that time and modern circumstances have caused us to question to innocence of those relationships more and more.

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