ENDURING, ENDEARING NONSENSE
Or better still, did you have someone read them to you? Perhaps you
discovered them as an adult or, forbid the thought, maybe you haven’t
discovered them at all! Those who have journeyed Through the Looking Glass
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy, stammering Oxford mathematics professor.
Dodgson was a deacon in his church, an inventor, and a noted children’s
photographer. Wonderland, and thus the seeds of his unanticipated success as
a writer, appeared quite casually one day as he spun an impromptu tale to
amuse the daughters of a colleague during a picnic. One of these girls was
served as the model for the heroine.
who had read and loved the little handwritten manuscript he had given to
Alice Liddell. He expanded the story considerably and engaged the services
illustrations. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through The
since become landmarks in childrens’ literature.
What makes these nonsense tales so durable? Aside from the immediate appeal
verse (”Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe:”)
relationship of Alice’s journey to a game of chess. There are problems of
relativity, as in her exchange with the Cheshire Cat:
There is plenty of fodder for psychoanalysts, Freudian or otherwise, who have
Alice’s strange transformations. There is even Zen: “And she tried to fancy
Still, why would a rigorous logical thinker like Dodgson, a disciple of
mathematics, wish children to wander in an unpredictable land of the absurd?
Maybe he felt that everybody, including himself, needed an occasional holiday
from dry mental exercises. But he was no doubt also aware that nonsense can
adventures recognize illogical events, they are acknowledging their capacity
“You’re a serpent; [says the Pigeon] and there’s no use denying it. I
suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!”
“I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice… “But little girls eat eggs
quite as much as serpents do, you know.”
Ethel Rowell, to whom Dodgson taught logic when she was young, wrote that she
was grateful that he had encouraged her to “that arduous business of
thinking.” While Lewis Carroll’s Alice books compel us to laugh and to
wonder, we are also easily led, almost in spite of ourselves, to think as
Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass,
Lewis Carroll: The Wasp in a Wig, A “Suppressed Episode of Through the
Raymond Smullyan: Alice in Puzzleland, William Morrow and Co., 1982.