To paraphrase E.B. White, you can dissect a joke like a frog but it has the same lethal effect. So break out the formaldehyde, I guess, because this week I’ve been catching up on the classics, namely this annotated set of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice adventures (both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, with the bonus Wasp in a Wig). Martin Gardner apparently managed to fit time into his busy schedule of writing, stage magic, mathematics and generally being an awesome polymath to also be one of the world’s leading Alice scholars. This is the third edition of his annotations; the first set came out in 1960, the second in 1990, and this one in 1999, incorporating all the elements of the first two plus a little extra bonus material. This is also going to be the last edition, since Gardner passed away in May of last year. I may actually have more to say about Gardner at some point, since he was a pretty cool guy, but at this point I’ll just say that if you have any interest in recreational mathematics, his articles for Scientific American are a necessity.
Anyway. It’s commonly known that these works were written by Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of Charles L. Dodgson, and that he was inspired to write them after a boat outing with one Alice Liddell and her sisters (although he later disputed that he wrote them for any one person). In daily life Dodgson was a professor of mathematics at Oxford who gave uninspiring lectures. It was under his pseudonym that he penned the humorous and logically wonky works that have made him famous. In his personal life he had a fixation on young girls which was somewhere between questionable and criminal (we’ll never know for sure and his biographers disagree), so reading these works and some of the included excerpts from letters he wrote to other young girls can be slightly unnerving, as a modern reader knowing about his proclivities you’re always wondering in the back of your mind what he was thinking when he was composing that stuff.
The other thing you think when reading this book is that these little girls were pretty goddamn smart, since the whole thing is packed to the rim with multi-lingual puns, satires of poetry from the 1500s on up, and various concepts from calculus to chess that aren’t necessarily that obvious or that elementary. But of course the average little girl in England in the 1860s was probably mucking out a pig sty or working twelve hour shifts in a match factory, so this probably wasn’t intended for just everyone. In fact it was filled with a bunch of in-jokes and subtle references to Oxford and people that Dodgson personally knew, as well as a bunch of contemporary references that will fly right over the head of a modern reader. The really amazing thing is that it became a classic with so much of the content becoming inaccessible with time.
For instance, I was especially surprised to find that each of the nonsense poems is a direct satire of some other poem, typically moralizing and sanctimonious verse that would have been in common use for educating Victorian children and which they would have been intimately familiar with. Gardner’s annotations are especially helpful there, since he tracks down and reprints the originals that are being mocked. This side-by-side comparison demonstrates that these are pretty barbed takedowns, so I’m sure that it was much appreciated by the target audience.
Perhaps my own reading is impoverished, but I’d never read these all the way though before. I had a collection of children’s stories inherited from my mother which contain an abridged version of Through the Looking-Glass, and although I did like some of the verse, I didn’t really appreciate the Victorian prose and a lot of the dream logic went over my head. Now that I’m an adult, I can appreciate it a lot better. Nonetheless, I have the same feeling about it that I’ve had whenever I’ve encountered Carroll’s work, namely that he has a lot of hits and a lot of misses, can’t necessarily tell the difference, and seems to be trying way too hard either way. Am I saying that his work is not droll and amusing? And that the situations are not terribly absurd and over-italicised? Not in the least. This is some good stuff, that’s why it’s still around after all this time, but it’s certainly the product of another era and a pretty strange dude.
The annotations are, as I said above, very useful in understanding the cultural milieu, and Garner mostly sticks to the verifiable facts and references as opposed to throwing in the raft of Freudian and Jungian psychological analyses that some critics have (apparently) written about these books, although I guess with a hookah-smoking three inch caterpillar it makes sense that people would want to. If you do want to read that kind of thing there are a bunch of useful reference indexes in the back, as well as a list of all the film, television and theatrical adaptations over the years, including a porno adaptation that was made in the 1970s. Nonetheless a lot of the notes are somewhat dry and pedantic, but I’m not going to lie, I live for that sort of thing, so I found it remarkably helpful.
In fact, that bibliography is so long and intimidating that I don’t have too much more to say on the subject, feeling a little small in comparison to what’s already out there and being unlikely to throw in anything that hasn’t already been said. I feel like I’ve plugged a small hole in my missing canon knowledge and would recommend that anyone wanting to do the same to avail themselves of Gardner’s scholarship, that being much easier than looking up poetry from the 1500s yourself.