It has been many years since I last visited Wonderland. I’ve only ever been there via the written word, all of the film adaptations seem to have passed me by. And so this reading surprised me. It was both familiar and un-, a return to somewhere I’ve been, a return to somewhere I didn’t recognize. While episodes such as the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the homicidal Queen screaming “Off with their heads!” and the Mad Hatter’s endless tea party are so familiar as to have become recognizable pop culture, I was surprised both at how much I remembered of the Pig and Pepper chapter and yet the episodes with the Mock Turtle and the Griffin not at all.
That word, “episodes.” Although the action flows from one scene seamlessly–if sometimes incongruously–into the next, just as in a dream, it seems to be composed of episodes: the caucus race, the tea party, the croquet party, the trial, and so forth. There is not really a through plot line, it is Alice’s “adventures,” and adventures must always be unexpected. But Alice proves they need not always have a motive. (The closest we get to a motivation is Alice’s desire to enter a beautiful garden, but once that is accomplished we still have plenty of book left.)
It is a dream story–explicitly so–and so both nonsense and perfectly sensible in the way that all good dreams are. The delightfully odd mind that this must have sprung from! It is, I can tell, even without the annotations in the copy I read,* that these characters, these references must have meant something to the “original” Alice, Alice Liddell–surely she must have played croquet and with playing cards, knew the proper manners for tea, and had overheard talk of such mysterious things as “caucus races.” Even the poems Carroll parodies that are now largely forgotten (well, I do know “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) would likely have been familiar to her, perhaps learned for her lessons; recitation seems such a common occurrence here!
I was most surprised by the humor. Doubtless the jokes and puns passed my fourth-grade self by. It is meant to be a bit silly too, I think. Now that I have reread it, I have no desire to try to impart some sense, some greater meaning to it, for I am not convinced that any is intended. Perhaps as some scholars think, there are references to historical figures or perhaps it is full of symbolism and greater meaning. But I find that I am quite content to take it as it is, to let my inner child simply meet it with delight.
*The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Introduction and Notes by Martin Gardner, 2000 ed. I have mixed feeling about annotated editions. Sometimes such notes are useful, other times they are merely distractions. Although sometimes interesting, here I thought they too often went on too long (no, I don’t care about the 1933 film version, I’m interested in the text) or into unnecessary deviations. The context provided and the reprinting of the rhymes Carroll was parodying could be useful, however.