There have been very few books in the history of literature that have sparked as much interest and controversy as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Alice through the Looking Glass”. Modern minds have looked for conspiracy theories and inappropriate behaviour in the books and in Lewis Carroll himself. Let’s look into this and see what we can unearth as regards Carroll and his books.
He was born Charles Ludwidge Dodgson January 25th 1832 in Daresbury near Warrington in Cheshire. His father was a cleric in the Church of England who went on to become Bishop of Richmond. Charles was the eldest of eleven children. He never married and in fact only three of his siblings did. He had a pronounced stammer which plagued him all his life.
Charles was expected to enter the clergy as his father had, but for some reason never did- though he stayed at his residence at Christ Church Oxford for the rest of his life as a Deacon. He obtained first class honours in Mathematics and became a lecturer in that subject. Despite being rather shy he counted many of the leading artists and writers of the time as his friends. He knew the Pre-Raphaelite painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Arthur Hughes and was particularly friendly with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also knew the Victorian fantasy writer George McDonald and it was McDonald’s children who urged him to publish Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Another close friend was the actress Ellen Terry.
The inspiration for the Alice books was said to be Alice Liddell who lived close to Dodgson’s residence. He formed a close relationship with Alice and her sisters and it was during a trip down the river Isis, which is the name of the Thames when flowing through Oxford, that the idea of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was born. At the time Alice was ten, her sister Edith eight and Lorina thirteen. Also present was Charles’s friend, the Reverend Robinson Duckworth. The relationship ended when Alice was twelve. Dodgson was a meticulous diary writer and pages for a certain period have been torn out, presumably by a member of his family. Speculation about the rift are various. It is said that he may have proposed marriage to Alice but others say it was to Lorina or their governess. The Liddell’s mother, who was very upper class, would have regarded Charles as an inappropriate match for her daughters, though proposals to girls of that age were common then. John Ruskin, the art critic, fell in love with a twelve-year-old girl. This was more romantic than sexual, as mind sets were different then.
Dodgson was a keen photographer and photographed most of his friends and their children. It is a few of these pictures of children, some nude, that have caused raised eyebrows in modern society by people who don’t know the context. In fact, at the time such photographs and paintings were commonplace as children were regarded as innocent and asexual; it would have horrified Charles to see or photograph an adult woman as he was a devout Christian in many ways and the form of a grown woman would be regarded as far too sensual. At the time nude pictures of children even appeared on greetings cards. These images of children were regarded as expressing innocence. When the children were photographed their parents were always present and had given consent-but in today’s society we are so much bombarded with sexuality that we see things differently and have generally lost the ability to be aware of innocence in anything, so we see things that were never there.
I watched a documentary entitled “The Initiation of Alice in Wonderland” by Philip Gardner and Brian Allan which suggested that Charles had connections with the Theosophical Society and the Society for Psychical research. I have come across his interest in Psychic matters in other books and films but never his interest in Theosophy, so I keep an open mind about that. Certainly, the Alice books would not have been influenced by any association with the Theosophical Society as they were both published before its formation; but this doesn’t preclude his involvement with other esoteric groups around at the time or reading Theosophical literature independently later in his life. The film suggested that “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was about the initiation process. For example, why did she go underground rather than enter Wonderland above ground? In fact, an early incarnation of the book was titled “Alice’s Adventures Underground.”
A candidate for initiation in ancient Greece or Egypt would spend some time underground and, as HP Blavatsky states, would have to face trials ‘passed the telling’. Certainly, Alice has such trials and her conceptions of time and space are transformed so that at one point she says “I can’t go back to yesterday, I was a different person then.” This may represent an alteration of consciousness. Again, modern interpreters have tried to link this with the taking of some kind of drug, but this would be out of character completely for Dodgson. In “Alice through the Looking Glass” she goes through a series of chess moves from a pawn to a queen and this seems to be the culmination of her experiences, but of course it is all but a dream within a dream and, as in Alice in Wonderland, she suddenly realises that the soldiers are just playing cards, so in Through the Looking Glass, she awakens from her dream to find herself back amongst her kittens as she was at the commencement. So, all her experiences, good and bad, were an illusion, a Maya. In Through the Looking Glass she meets the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee and, during the course of their conversation, they try to convince her that she is not real, she is just a dream in the mind of the Red King. It’s like Chuang Tzu’s saying “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” Alice holds firm against all these assaults on her consciousness and comes out triumphant in the end.
I think this is the basis of the Alice stories if looked at in a certain way. She is confronted by a series of bizarre characters and events and has to maintain equilibrium through all of them; this is the real test. She is a symbol of innocence triumphing against events that try to usurp it. It can be related to all the great quests in mythology and fairy tale. Hercules, Jason, Odysseus and countless others overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve their goals, but they used mainly brute force to do this. Alice uses her wits to outfox the opponents and a refusal to be part of the chaos and ‘nonsense’ that goes on around her. She is at times like the ‘eye of the storm’ attempting to keep or regain her equilibrium constantly. In this is a great lesson for us all whether it was consciously or subconsciously meant by Lewis Carroll when he wrote the book. Perhaps his feeling for Alice created this desire to see her protected and to come out victorious through the trials of life.
So rather than being a muscle-bound male hero using physical force to fight his way passed many adversaries, Alice merely uses the weapon of innocence. This gives us insights into ways to solve certain problems without the use of violence. Much can be learned from these books whether or not the insights were conscious or unconscious by Dodgson.
Certainly, this tale has captured the collective imagination of society and spawned numerous films, TV adaptations and books inspired by the character of Alice. There must be some reason that the stories are so enduring and have been the source of so much discussion. Ostensibly written for children it is actually adults who have shown as much, if not more, interest and Alice is certainly an iconic and archetypal figure in world literature being the third most quoted after the Bible and Shakespeare. I believe she appeals to a certain part of our psyche that craves to see the world as a Wonderland and she is that part of us that wishes to return to innocence away from the complexities of society that cause so much stress and worry.
This world in which we simply cannot seem to get on with each other needs to re-become a Garden of Eden or a Wonderland. To read such tales as the “Alice” books and other fairy tales and mythology need not be an escape from the world but perchance they give us a way to look at the world afresh and give us ideas and ideals to reshape society in a positive way. Modern films mainly portray a ‘dystopian’ future where war and death are predominant. But if we can learn the lessons that Alice and others show us, if we can intuitively understand then a Golden Age of Light and Love may not be such a distant dream.
The singer Judie Tzuke wrote a beautiful song entitled “Wonderland” in which she says:
Well we all are searching for our little piece of the great illusion, that elusive beast
Just a little romance in an ugly world
Who do I think I’m kidding?
There’s no written word
We keep our secrets
Shut down the pain
Hide the strain
If we all believe in Wonderland why do we make it such a hell?
If we all believe in Wonderland how come it’s lies we tell?
Do we still believe in miracles? If we can only find the key
Could it be there’s a Wonderland?
Please, God, there has to be.
Charles Ludwidge Dodgson passed on the 14th January 1898 but his legacy still lives on.