Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll

 

Lewis Carroll

Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.  He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought all these tales to life.

His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England.  Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂

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Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors.  In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.

In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with  Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.

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It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice.  Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.  And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor.  Some of my favorites:

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.

“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!” 

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”  It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

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Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.

Alice LIddell

Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.

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Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises  on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!

Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.

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At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his  contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery  of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation.  Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.

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“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.

Some Fun Facts:

  • He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
  • As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
  • He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
  • A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
  • In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
  • He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
  • He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
  • Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.

 

Happy Birthday Lewis!

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An Analysis of Alice

 

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I am a huge Lewis Carroll fan.  The Alice stories (In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) are among the best ever written. To my thinking, they are worthy of analyzing and revisiting many times over, always with something new to be discovered.

Because the original work is presented with a good deal of abstract symbolism, readers often misunderstand, or are completely baffled by the text. (Especially if they are trying to decipher it on an adult level.)  Hence, film makers tend to go ‘over the top’, often presenting the story with a lot of bells and whistles that were not included in the original story. (Tim Burton and Disney both did this.)

It is, at its core, a story about questioning authority. Carroll pokes fun at just about every Victorian institution. His attack at  child rearing, for example, is evident in the fate of the baby that turns into a pig.

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He pokes fun at the school system, evident in the ‘reeling and writhing’ classes of the mock turtle. He makes fun of he British monarchy (‘Off with her head’ is a reference to its once frequent be-headings.)

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The War of the Roses is also mocked, with the servants painting roses from white to red (representing York and Lancaster dynasties.) The court system is criticized in the Knave of Hearts’ trial. There is a message about being controlled by schedules in the rabbit’s obsession with his watch and the idea of ‘beating time’.

The Alice books show a test of one’s ability to adapt. Alice finds herself in the strangest of circumstances and tries her best to fit in. In the end she discovers the Wonderland creatures are ‘nothing but a pack of cards’ and thus no better than she herself. (Lower than she herself actually…)

As in any quest for knowledge, and as is frequently the experience of one ‘growing up’, Alice often becomes ‘too big’ for her own surroundings.

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She may be terrified at the changes within her own mind and body – frequently the experience of adolescents and young adults. And yet, as the frog footmen, the lizards and rabbits scurry about, Alice is aware of their silliness, much in the same way an enlightened being becomes aware of the triviality of the world.

Perhaps most importantly, the books teach self actualization. Alice is frustrated, but in the end she realizes her nuanced opinions have some validity. Her experience is just as important as anyone  else’s.

No wonder Wonderland became so popular!  First published in 1865, it has never been out of print. The first fans of the Alice books included Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde.  The Alice books are also reportedly the most quoted books in the English language, right up there with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

Carroll was among the first to use a dream sequence in a novel — a technique that became more popular with the work of Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century. Today dream sequence in film is almost passe’. We have seen it a hundred times, and it is frequently uses as a cliffhanger, or to ‘trick’ the viewer.  But back then it was certainly innovative.

Ironically, although Carroll is frequently accused of drug use, the kinds of drugs they associate him with were not discovered until much later. For example, ‘magic mushrooms’ were discovered in 1955, and LSD was first synthesized in 1938, which I guess proves that Carroll had a brilliant imagination.

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So, forget Tim Burton and all other fabrications. Here I give you a movie which is actually very close in sentiment to the Real Alice!

This 1972 film, directed by William Sterling, captures the intent of Lewis Carroll. Using most of the book’s original dialogue, script writing owes credit to Carroll as well as Sterling. The talented cast includes Fiona Fullerton, Dudley Moore and Peter Sellers.

Although the film is lacking in super-duper mind blowing special effects (it was, after all, made in 1972 on a limited budget) it nonetheless does a great job of capturing Carroll’s  ideas.

Running time is about 1 hour 30 minutes. Hope you get a chance to watch it!

 

 

Alice’s Journey

 

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The white rabbit looked at me with pink eyes, the color of clouds at dusk.  I became curiouser and curiouser as I watched him from my garden. The rabbit hopped fast, but not  fast enough to  get away from me, for I was quick on my feet.

They will tell you the rabbit pulled a watch out of his coat pocket and began to fret about the time, exclaiming “Oh my ears and whiskers, I shall be late!”  This could not be further from the truth. Everyone knows a rabbit will never carry a watch. They are timeless animals.  Nor will they wear a coat, as they have ample fur of their own.

My journey was one of impulse and instinct. For better or worse,  I followed the pink eyed creature.

White rabbit

They will tell you I slid down a rabbit hole.  This, of course is a dimensional impossibility! Have you ever SEEN a rabbit hole? Have you ever tried to get so much as one FOOT down a rabbit hole?  Oh no.  What happened was, I ran after the rabbit until we came upon a vast lavender field.   It was there that the space craft  landed.

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The space craft was beautiful!  Cylinder shaped, dazzling as the sun at noontide, so bright I could barely look upon it.  A staircase descended from its door .  When the white  rabbit hopped up the steps, I simply followed.  I was young then, you see. I had  a habit of acting without thinking.   It did not occur to me where this journey would lead.

When I got on board  I walked down a long hallway to a room that seemed to be made  of blue sky.  A man in a top hat was hosting a tea party.  At his table were seated  the most peculiar characters;  a king and queen, a March Hare and a duchess who carried a pink flamingo beneath her arm. The man in the  hat  invited me to sit down.  I’ll admit I had a bit of trouble with the gravity at first…

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He poured me a cup of steaming tea,  which I drank immediately  (for I knew  it would be rude to refuse his hospitality.)  I then became sleepy and the room  began to sway.  The top hat man grew tall, his  hat protruding high out of his head.  His face contorted like a reflection in a fun house mirror. I  heard laughter. The queen’s tiara  shattered and  she screamed “Off with her head!”  I knew she could not possibly be speaking of  me, for I could barely FEEL my own head and  surely there was nothing  to cut off!

After that I remember little.  At one point I lay naked  upon an operating table. The top hat man smiled, and I imagined him as a cat with a huge grin. He said he came from Cheshire. I did not know where that was and wanted to ask him, but he simply disappeared, leaving only his grin behind.  Next thing I knew I felt a speculum being stuck inside me, cold steel against my vagina.   “The eggs, the eggs!” someone shouted. “Get her eggs!”  That was fine and well with me, for I had plenty of eggs.  I knew I would produce hundreds of thousands in my lifetime and  I could certainly spare a few for whatever was their cause.  After that I must have fallen asleep.

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When I awoke I was fully clothed. The space craft spun in its orbit  and I looked out the window where a thousand stars streamed like glittering diamonds in the darkness.  The Duchess sat next to me, her pointy chin on my shoulder. She handed me her pink flamingo.  I asked where we were headed. The Duchess smiled calmly, pointed  to a marbled  sphere and assured me I would like it.

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When we landed I descended the staircase, still following the rabbit.  The Duchess  however, was wrong .  I did not like this place!  Not one bit. We had apparently landed in the middle of a war zone, every man armed with weaponry. Land mines  exploded like fiery  traps, blowing  human bodies to a confetti of blood and bone. Children wailed in the streets and men hobbled, many of them missing limbs. I asked what was this horrible place, but the rabbit could only twinkle his pink eyes.

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I felt my stomach lurch and I vomited, barely missing the poor rabbit who hovered beneath me.  When I could stand it no longer the rabbit led me to another part of this world but I did not like this part either.  There I saw only  death and disease;  bodies rife with plagues and cancers and malnutrition.  I could not bear to look upon it, and the rabbit led me to yet another place. Here  were tall skyscrapers and inside, dark boardrooms where men  sprawled in leather chairs.  They drank champagne and spoke a language I did not understand but I remember their words: ‘market’ and  ‘bailout’  and ‘Wall Street’ and ‘junk bonds’.   These people were evil and when I could tolerate their presence no longer the rabbit lead me back to the space craft.

Top Hat and the Duchess welcomed me.  I wanted only to return to my home, to planet Wonderland.    Top Hat smiled.  “You have done your task well, Alice,”  he said.  “The hybrids from your eggs will be hatched  some time in the 21st century. With  the DNA of Wonderland within them, these beings will be  pure, void of greed and malice.  Your hybrids will be the only hope for that planet they call  Earth.  Without your hybrids the civilization  will surely destroy itself.”

The journey back to Wonderland  was quick. I bid Top Hat and the Duchess goodbye, kissing them on both cheeks. I then followed the rabbit off the space craft and back to my own garden.  I was glad to be home.

After that, I developed a  strange penchant for  drinking tea. My faithful rabbit never leaves my side. Recently I have heard word from the Duchess. It seems my eggs have yet to hatch.

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This post is in response to the Daily Prompt Journey