The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it.

“No room! No room!” they cried out when they saw Alice coming.

“There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.

“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.” (Carroll 69-70)

“This is the stupidest tea party I have ever been to!” (Carroll 78)

One of my favorite stories has become Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I first met Alice a few summers ago when I learned I would be reading Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There with my eighth graders. Naturally, I thought Alice and I might need to become better acquainted. Sixth months later, I adapted both novels for the stage (with a greater emphasis on Wonderland and a few beloved scenes and characters from Looking-Glass), using Martin Gardner’s annotated version.

As fun as the story is now with its colorful characters and wry humor, it’s probably important to note that, as a child, I did not like the story of Alice, which I had been exposed to through the wonderful world of Disney. A moody caterpillar smoking a hookah, temperamental flowers trying to drown Alice as though she were a weed, and a manipulative Queen brandishing flamingos and shouting, “Off with her head!” affected me much in the same way as the headmaster’s little girl when she saw our production of the story: almost midway through, you could hear sobs and a little voice crying, “I don’t like it!” as he carried her out of the theatre. (I did still keep my job. The directors on the other hand…[1])

I don’t disagree with a father carrying his little girl out of the theatre to rescue her from the Mad Hatter or March Hare (or even the Dormouse), and neither do I think that there is something defective in a child (like myself[2]) being so disturbed by Carroll’s Wonderland as to not be able to fully enter it until a later time, no matter what the White Rabbit says. (I tend to side with the Hatter on that one.[3]) In fact, it seems precisely part of a correct response. Let me back up a bit.

I could provide an analysis proving that the reasons for the insanity of Carroll’s world is its strict adherence to the rules of logic. (And I think I’d have Mr. Chesterton to back me up.[4]) But instead I think I’ll engage Mr. Jack Lewis, who made a very good point about fairy stories[5] and children:

And I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St. George, or any bright champion in armour, is a far better comfort than the police. (Lewis 60-61)

Of course Lewis isn’t arguing that we shouldn’t protect children, rather, he’s questioning what exactly it is we need to shelter them from in considering the stories we share with them as well as how to strengthen them to face real evil and call upon real hope through the world of stories. Children[6] should be trained to identify things that are unpleasant, scary, illogical, disturbing, and down-right evil as well as things that are lovely, noble, orderly, admirable, and good.[7] Something in us should (eventually) be able to identify with Alice in her mayhem and love for what is sensible, and also in her sense of wonder, and even her realization that “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (124)

At the beginning of my adaptation of Alice, I included a quote I had recently read in Orthodoxy[8] that helps illustrate this point:

In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining about the dullness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the center is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of today discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world. (Chesterton 29-30)

What frustrates Alice also frightens and frustrates us, just as it also raises our curiosity and leads us to adventures we might not have otherwise encountered—or prepared us for ones we might have otherwise not been ready to encounter.

You see, lately, my world has seemed a bit chaotic. It seems I’ve been offered things that aren’t even there, asked riddles for which there are no answer, and even if I stamp my feet and protest, “This is the stupidest tea party I’ve ever been to!” (Carroll 78), it seems to make no difference. And then I start to wonder if the Cheshire cat’s words might be true:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” (66)

While I’m sure my hurly burly has been nothing compared to some, especially as of late, it still exists, and sometimes this little girl needs her Heavenly Father to carry her out of theatre a for a few minutes.

And then sometimes, He doesn’t. More next time.

 

Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Annotated with an Introduction by Martin Gardner. W&W Norton and Company, 2000.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. Moody Publishers, 2009.

Lewis, C.S. On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature. Harper Collins, 1982.

John Tenniel illustration obtained from https://illustratorslounge.com/editorial/alices-adventures-in-wonderland-john-tenniel

[1] …actually kept theirs, too, though the actors were expelled. Okay, just kidding!

[2] I should probably confess that the little girl was about two or three, and I was, well, let’s just say the story creeped me out well past the age of eight, and I wouldn’t have anything to do with it until that summer the headmaster recommended adding Looking-Glass to our list, and mostly because I didn’t want him to think I was chicken. (So it’s ultimately his fault anyway. Perhaps one day his daughter will read this and know the truth.)

[3] It’s always six o’clock tea time anyway.

[4]“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (34) and “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.” (30)

[5] Forgive me, Tollers. I realize you do not acknowledge Alice as a true fairy story. But this is my blog, and you, alas, dear sir, are spending a few more years in purgatory before ascending with Dante’s Beatrice to the Celestial Realm.

[6] And the rest of us, for children’s stories aren’t only for children. Just ask my friends in the Bibliography.

[7] I’m reminded of Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (ESV)

[8] Okay, so Chesterton wiggled his big self in anyhow.

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