Thoughts about Alice In Wonderland

Sometime in mid-December I decided that I wanted to become a more rounded person in my reading habits. My entire life I have tended to pick a genre of storytelling, specific series, or even dedicate my reading efforts towards one author. Ultimately, these habits lead me into a frenzied state of reading where my entire life begins to fade away, but they don’t push me as a writer. This habit doesn’t force me to explore new writing styles, it doesn’t force me to expand my taste.

That’s why, sometime between December and the New Year I decided it was time for me to start a reading pattern. I was going to start reading a personal/professional development book and balance this pattern with some fictional reading. Initially, I thought the fictional book was going to be my favorite realm of reading, sci-fi, but I decided to up the ante and instead of focusing on sci-fi I would instead focus on exploring the world of classically great authors. This first lead me to visit a childhood favorite story, The Jungle Book

Sometime after finishing The Jungle Books Michelle and I were having a movie night searching the Netflix archives and stumbled on the newest interpretation of Lewis Carrol’s creation starring Johnny Depp in Alice: Through the Looking Glass. After a lifetime of hearing Alice references, I have never actually read the books. This was a perfect opportunity for me to visit these classics and finally understand the source of my favorite quote: “I’m late!”

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A quick trip to the NC State library placed in my possession A Norton Critical Third Edition of Alice in Wonderland which contained Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, and several letters, journal entries, and various interpretations of Lewis Carrol’s work.

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Initially, I found the book to be highly amusing between the eloquent use of puns, flow of the writing, and creative imagination of Lewis Carroll. However, his writing style was never able to sweep me into the world of Alice; I never became lost in Wonderland. The book would leave me with a smile at the end of each chapter, but it never became an obsession of my heart and soul. After finishing the book and reflecting upon the story (almost a month past) I have come up with three reasons for my overall disengagement with  the story.

Reason 1) There was never a plot to the story.

I fully realize that the story was never intended to have a plot. In fact, Alice in Wonderland came into existence because Alice Liddell requested that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) compile the stories he would recite to her into a unified manuscript. After doing this, Lewis Carroll then decided to publish these stories. He even addresses the lack of a plot when writing a letter,

“As to the meaning of the Snark? I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them: So a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant.” -pg 270

After reading this letter, I was reminded of a passage near the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when she is witness the trial of the Hatter. During the trial, numerous witnesses have been called for testimony, but as Alice continuously points out none of the testimony is actual evidence. It almost makes me wonder if Lewis Carroll is directly addressing criticism’s such as mine through the voice of Alice in this scene,

“‘If any one of them can explain it,’ said Alice…’I’ll give him sixpence. I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it'” -pg 93

Clearly, I have lost my inner-child and the ability to simply appreciate the wild and creative imaginative genius of Lewis Carroll.

Reason 2) Purposeful Misinterpretation of Words Between Characters

Everyone can appreciate a pun. In fact, I am a very big supporter of puns. I am also a very big fan of using the most precise language possible, as any successful scientist can ensure you is an essential skill. However, throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass Lewis Carroll purposefully takes these to the extreme. The first example occurred shortly after Alice meets the Hatter during tea,

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least -at least I mean what I say-that’s the same thing you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” -pg 53

In the above passage the Hatter is demonstrating the importance of correct grammar and precise language. We have all seen the meme’s that highlight the same things with punctuation in sentence and while these are amusing, an entire book written with these jokes can become increasingly dense.

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Classic Punctuation Meme

But, it wasn’t until well after Alice’s tea with the hatter and her numerous adventures that the real reason for my dislike of Lewis Carroll’s word play hit me: The entire book read like an argument between two people disagreeing on the fundamental definition of a word or purposefully using the wrong word with the same sound. This scene between Alice and the two queens from Through the Looking Glass should clarify what I am referring to,

“Here,” the Red Queen began again, “Can you answer useful questions?” she said. “How is bread made?”

“I know that!” Alice cried eagerly. “You take some flour-”

“Where do you pick the flower?” the White Queen asked: “In a garden or in the hedges?”

“Well it isn’t picked at all,” Alice explained: “it’s ground-” -pg 193

Reason 3) Perceived Reality

When I reached the end of Through the Looking Glass there was true joy in my heart for the last few pages. This happens with any book, you gain a feeling of accomplishment and betterment. You think, ‘I read that great (or awful) book and have become a better person!’ But, sometimes as you are reading the end of said book the author adds a line to steal that moment away from you.

Lewis Carroll stole my moment at the end of Through the Looking Glass.

“Now, kitty, let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question my dear…You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course-but then I was part of his dream, too!” -pg 207

This entire chapter, entitled Which Dreamed It?, left me flabbergasted at the end. Throughout the book’s entirety I knew Carroll was playing with the concept of reality and perception, but addressing it at the end was too much for me to handle. It reminded me of attending Philosophy Club meetings at Aquinas College turn from discussions about sensible subjects into arguments about perceived reality.

When I was an Undergrad I despised pointless discussions about unanswerable problems and apparently almost four years after graduation I still have the same feelings.

Did I miss the point of Alice in Wonderland?

After reading this book (which includes letters, diary entries, and critiques of Lewis Carroll) I am left with a conclusion and a question.

First, I found the book amusing, but I did not enjoy it.

Second, I am left wondering if I missed the point of Alice in Wonderland? Perhaps even asking such a question reveals my lack of comprehension about Lewis Carroll’s great work.

How about you, what are your thoughts about Alice in Wonderland?

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Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Edited by: Donald J. Gray

Published: 2013 by W. W. Norton and Company, New York

 

My Thoughts About Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books

            When I was a child, some of my favorite movies were from Disney and the magical world that only Disney could create. There was this indescribable enchanting allure of the pauper street-rat; who won the heart of the princess with the aid of a flying carpet, a genie, and his companion Abu. Then there was the love born between a woman and man turned beast. The compassion and forgiveness that Belle’s love taught the Beast, freed him from his tormented soul with the assistance of talking dishware and furniture. Such stories easily captured the imagination of a young boy.

            But, my third favorite Disney tale was a much simpler story. It was a story driven not by love between man and woman, but by man’s love of nature and unwillingness to leave the jungle. Disney’s Mowgli (1967) enraptured my soul as I saw a boy lounging in the jungle with his friends Bagheera and Baloo. Yet, fate would not allow Mowgli to quietly dwell in the Jungle as a fabled archrival, Shere Khan, returned to the jungle. Shere Khan’s return caused Bagheera to insist Mowgli rejoin the man-pack. This results in a series of adventures where Mowgli survives the hypnotic coils of Kaa, the swinging apes of King Louie, and finally a climaxed battle with the dreaded Shere Khan.

            This child’s story from 1967 mesmerized me and stole my imagination as I ran in the woods behind my home creating my own adventures in the jungle. Then, in 2016, Disney recreated the fabled stories of Mowgli in a new production of The Jungle Book. The new version was a much darker telling of Mowgli’s adventures in the jungle. Shere Khan is shown as the malicious killer of man who will stop at nothing to murder the man-cub who escaped him so many years ago. In this telling, we witness Mowgli’s transition from a boy running from danger into a man, the master of the jungle who triumphs over Shere Khan with his cunning and power of the red flower.

            After I had watched Disney’s latest version of the Jungle Book I began to note the differences between the two stories. There was also a poem, the Law of the Jungle, I heard in the opening credits that contained segments I had seen around NC State’s campus,

“The strength of the wolf is the pack,

And the strength of the pack is the wolf.”

Clearly, I needed to visit the campus library and read the original Jungle Book story. When I first picked up the book, I was surprised. I had expected a short children’s novel consisting of Mowgli’s adventures throughout the jungle, but I actually discovered that the Jungle Book was a collection of short stories written by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). The version I read was published in 2005 and interpreted by Alev Lytle Croutier and contained both The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book.

            The most striking differences between Kipling’s original Jungle Books and Disney’s rendition of the Jungle Book was Mowgli’s relationship with the python Kaa. Disney portrays Kaa as a hypnotic foe who attempts to eat Mowgli, but, in fact, Kaa is sought out by Bagheera and Baloo to rescue Mowgli from the Monkey-People (read Kaa’s Hunting for the full plot). After his rescuing, Mowgli and Kaa become life-long friends; Mowgli even reaches out to Kaa requesting his great wisdom to help the Free People (the Wolfpack who adopted Mowgli) defeat the invading dholes (read Red Dog for the full story).

            There is one resonating theme between Kipling’s version and Disney’s telling of The Jungle Book. In all three versions, as Mowgli’s adventures conclude and he becomes a man there is a force that drives Mowgli from the jungle. Disney portrays Mowgli being driven by a sense of wonder to the man village, a growing sense of curiosity for those creatures who are like him, but different. And, in true Disney fashion, a maiden of the village is used to help lure Mowgli from the jungle.

 However, Kipling shows Mowgli leaving for a different reason. After a lifetime of happiness in the Jungle, Mowgli can no longer find pleasure and contentment simply by being in the jungle. His heart begins to yearn for something more that Mowgli cannot describe, but Kipling names the force through the voice of Akela. Who, as he lay on his death bed after battling the dhole, prophesizes, “Mowgli will drive Mowgli. Go back to thy people. Go to man.” This line reminded me of a lesson I learned at Aquinas in a Theology class. I was reminded of the Great Chain of Being. Simply, that man cannot exist in the jungle surrounded by beast pursuing the simplicities of life; man is called to a higher purpose and he must set aside his delusions to answer this higher call. In Mowgli’s case, this meant leaving the jungle behind to rejoin the man-pack.