When True Genius Requires a Little Explanation

February 2, 2016

Some books are a hit for a day; some dominate the bestseller lists for a season.  One or two books can be considered touchstones for the decade but very few make it to true classic status.  But there is a work of fiction that seems like it never leaves the public consciousness.  In 150 years it has never been out of print, but it’s been adapted into almost two dozen films, five comic books, countless plays and electronic media and it’s probably the most quoted work of fiction in literature.  People either love it or hate it but everyone who reads knows there’s something special about Alice and her Adventures In Wonderland.  They linger in the mind.

The joke of it is, this book has been loved and read for so long that a lot of the material Lewis Carroll referred to in this classic (and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass,) is no longer available to the regular reader.  We follow the serious-minded Alice through her nonsensical adventures and admire the imagination and poetry in the story so much we accept it without thoroughly understanding it.  So, I suggest you take the journey one more time and re-read Lewis Carroll’s stories again… but read them through The Annotated Alice to gain new insights into the stories.  As a matter of fact, it could be argued that if you haven’t read the “Annotated Alice”, you haven’t really read Alice at all.

Anyone with a fancy for the Victorian Age or a memory for those innumerable adaptations can tell you something of Alice.  She’s the sensible, English child that falls down a rabbit-hole and into a world where animals argue,  nursery rhymes come to life and sentient armies of chess pieces and playing cards go to war with one another.  Unfortunately, (or not) sense doesn’t stand a chance in such a whimsical universe and Alice’s reliable memory for poetry often goes astray.  But did you know that Alice’s recited poems were clever parodies of then well-known verses?  Since the original and Carroll’s satire have entered public domain, I can present both of them here:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.
“How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
“How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!”

Carroll doesn’t just imitate someone else’s poem here; he subverts and satirizes it.  Instead of saluting the industrious insect with her “tidy” habits (anyone who remembers that honey is the product of bee spit will take issue with adjectives like “tidy) Carroll praises the lazy, malevolent crocodile that lies in the mud and snaps any unwary fish that swim into his open mouth.  By dropping the sugared “morals” that permeated children’s stories at the time and upsetting the expectations, Carroll did more that write a story that would entertain children; he wrote one of the first children’s stories that didn’t condescend to its audience.  Annotated Alice’s source material helps us understand the quantum leap Carroll made in children’s literature when he wrote down these tales.

The footnotes in The Annotated Alice are necessary and as engrossing as those created by David Foster Wallace. (a writer whose footnotes any tangent-minded reader could happily dwell in) and can be read separately if you are familiar with the original text.  Here is where you will find the origins of the Cheshire Cat and why Alice had reason to doubt the taste of Looking-Glass Milk.  But the greatest “extra” is the re-printing of “The Wasp in a Wig” a chapter originally written for (and then removed from) The Looking Glass.  For Alice-fans, this is a boon worthy of the White Knight.

Lewis Carroll wasn’t always a happy man, nor will his memory ever be untainted by controversy.  (Any unmarried man more comfortable with female children than adults will be viewed with a skeptic’s eye.)  But he did respect the minds of children when he came up with these famous tales and he may have been the first writer to do so.  For this, he deserves respect and his stories deserve understanding.  So, pick up The Annotated Alice and look up some of your favorite references.  Or follow the Red King’s directive:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

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