Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Books: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

'If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
'That they could get it clear?'
'I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

Without my ever knowing it, Lewis Carroll has been my greatest poetic influence. I had always blamed my propensity for silly rhymes on Dr. Seuss, but I've now been set aright, after reading this positively delightful pair of volumes.

I've little mind for psychedelic (eat me), Freudian(down the hole), or Marxist (off with her head!) readings, though there isn't anything wrong with argument for its own sake, so long as one doesn't take oneself too seriously. Alice takes herself rather seriously, but the characters she finds in Wonderland and Looking Glass World take themselves even more seriously.

The characters I like, particularly the Hatter (in situ of a never-ending teatime), and the wordplay is quite fun, if simpler than I expected, punning with homophones and parts of speech (when asked whether she sees anyone coming down the road, Alice responds, "Nobody," and her interlocutor remarks on the keenness of her eyesight, as he can't see this Nobody. This gag evolves when the messenger arrives and is asked whom he passed on the road. He replies, "Nobody," but when he is chided for being so slow, he replies, "Nobody is faster than I," leaving his superior to challenge how he could have passed Nobody if Nobody is faster.)

My favorite parts, though, are the poems (except Jabberwocky), which rhyme and tell silly stories and are most often bastardizations of other rhymes (e.g. Twinkle twinkle little bat/how I wonder where you're at). The Walrus and the Carpenter, quoted above, is the best, and tells the story of how a Walrus and Carpenter trick four Oysters into becoming their meal. Carroll's meter is near-always perfect (and the one time it isn't, during the last line of Humpty Dumpty, Alice remarks that the line is too long), and he fits dialogue into his rhymes with natural, easeful rhythm. Jabberwocky, of course, seems meaningless, and is therefore not as fun, although it is quite redeemed when it is translated for Alice by Humpty Dumpty ('Twas brillig and the slithy toves: "brillig" means four o'clock; "slithy" means 'lithe and slimy'; "toves" are "something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews.")

Additionally, I had the luck of getting an illustrated copy from the library, and the book oughtn't be read without the illustrations, for, as Alice says at the beginning, what's the point of reading a book without any pictures or dialogue?

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