… cheekily purloined from Mary Patterson Thornburg’s blog (click to see original posting) on the influence of Alice and her creator Lewis Carroll still going strong in the 21st century.
It’s been a long, long time since I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass – so long that I remember very little about them. I was a different person then, after all: a child not much older than Alice Liddell was when, at age ten, she first heard about her adventures as described in the imagination of a family friend, the Oxford cleric and mathematician Charles Dodgson. But I still have those books – the very same books, with their weird and beautiful Tenniel illustrations, which were a birthday gift from my great-aunt.
Like most of Auntie May’s gifts, the books were a bit too old for me when I was seven. The only parts that really sparked my interest were the pictures, and I remember that I found them… unsettling. In fact, the picture of the Jabberwock was so scary that I actively avoided seeing it again for about four years.
This week’s New Yorker brought a wonderful essay by Anthony Lane, entitled “Go Ask Alice,” on Lewis Carroll and his famous books (HTTP://WWW.NEWYORKER.COM/MAGAZINE/2015/06/08/GO-ASK-ALICE-A-CRITIC-AT-LARGE-LANE).
One of the points of Lane’s discussion is the influence of the Alice books on popular culture, not only in Lewis Carroll’s time but also in our own – which may seem surprising, considering what we ordinarily think of as the vast difference between ourselves and our 1865 Victorian counterparts. But popular awareness of what might be called the Alice metaphors – everything from falling down a rabbit hole to a slowly disappearing Cheshire cat – suggests that there may be more similarities than would ordinarily occur to us. Lane points out several, as in pop music, including songs I recognize by John Lennon and 21st-century songs I’ve never heard of. One likeness that occurs to me, which Lane alludes to only lightly – maybe only in his essay’s title – is the propensity of a lot of people in both times to seek altered states of consciousness as a cure either for what ails them or for what ails the world.
Despite my having mostly forgotten what was between the covers of Carroll’s books, I wasn’t only making an obvious allusion when I wrote, in The Kura, about Alyssha’s adventures in “Underland” and her visits to her father, Charlie Dodson (nudge, nudge), in Indiana. I knew that the differences between Alice’s real world and what she found on the other side of the rabbit-hole were at once striking and fantastic, and at the same time (as seen through a “looking-glass,” maybe) not very great at all. At age eleven I certainly didn’t understand much of Lewis Carroll’s irony or very much of his wordplay. But I think I knew even then what purpose these things served, which is the same purpose served by all fictional journeys through rabbit holes and mirrors, to other planets and universes, into imaginary pasts and fantastic futures. These journeys allow us to look at our everyday, familiar world through fantasy. To me, that’s always the purpose of good fantasy – not to provide an escape, but to give us a platform for seeing our own worlds and realities from a new perspective.
As one of Sandra Cisneros’s narrators says, the age of eleven contains inside of it all the ages up to eleven. If that goes on working into one’s seventies, chances are I still contain the eleven-year-old who finally took another look at those stories that Carroll’s (and Tenniel’s) Jabberwock scared me away from at seven. So maybe, if I find those Alice books and give them another read, I’ll be able to bring my adult experience and that child’s sense of wonder and play together. I’m looking forward to that adventure.