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Sunday, 19 July 2015

☵ The Essential Alice - Paavo's Pix

Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass' in film and print.


I was ten when I first came across Lewis Carroll's 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'.  It was the illustration by John Tenniel, the first and most classic Alice illustrator, that got my attention.  It showed a dark space, something between a wood and a garden, complete with sundial, around which foraged pigs and badgers - typical woodland animals, only these were a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar - the badgers had incredible twined noses like lengths of string, and the pigs had prehensile noses like English tapirs. I could imagine just such creatures in some corner of a British wood.

The poem which accompanied them, 'Jabberwocky' was equally strange and familiar.  ''Twas brillig and the slithy toves', I read, imagining they were real but very rare words. And indeed Humpty Dumpty, later in the book, explains the poem's meaning to Alice:
"Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy'. 'Lithe' is the same as 'active'. You see it's like a portmanteau--there are two meanings packed up into one word."
And then:
`Well, 'toves' are something like badgers--they're something like lizards--and they're something like corkscrews. [...] "also they make their nests under sun-dials--also they live on cheese.`
Humpty Dumpty by Tenniel
These two quotes sum up 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'.  They are children's books which are not afraid to use language.  They are books, which, as I said, mix familiar, very English settings and creatures into something unfamiliar - then feed them back to us in familiar form.  And they are books which invert childhood and adulthood.  Alice is in fact the only real adult in the two books, in a world where the adults themselves are as nonsensical, wilful and difficult as children.

When visiting the Duchess in 'Alice in Wonderland', Alice observes
`I didn't know that Cheshire cats always grinned; in fact, I didn't know that cats could grin.'
[...]`You don't know much,' said the Duchess; `and that's a fact.'
In 'Through the Looking Glass', she finds herself sharing an improbable rowing boat with an irascible sheep. After being ordered to 'feather!' once too often, she protests:
'Why do you say "Feather" so often?' [...] 'I'm not a bird!'
'You are,' said the Sheep: "you're a little goose.''
Such typical Wonderland and Looking Glass 'logic' is impossible to argue against.  It also demonstrates Carroll's love of wordplay.
Jabberwocky by Tenniel

I mentioned John Tenniel at the start of this blog.  Alice would be nothing without Tenniel.  His illustrations perfectly capture Carroll's mix of local landscape, adult caricature, and the strangely familiar.  The best ones have that same collation of English woodland and comforting darkness that I first saw in the 'Jabberwocky' picture. The image of Alice and the sheep in the boat is another favourite - they could be drifting through an overgrown garden; the window of the shop they have just left fading like the real world; and the sheep itself, like all Carroll's adult characters, simply impervious to Alice or the reader.

Many illustrators have tried their hand since at depicting Alice.  None have come close.  Many directors have attempted Alice on film.  To my mind, only two have pulled it off.  The first, Jonathan Miller, directed 'Alice in Wonderland' with an all-star British cast in 1966.  His version has that classic English garden feel to it, and is populated by a motley assortment of odd but stuffy Victorian characters - Wilfrid Brambell's almost aggressively fidgety White Rabbit is a highlight, as is Stratford Johns, as the Duchess.  The familiar strangeness of the whole film is underpinned by Ravi Shankar's soundtrack on sitar - surely a byword for the otherworldly in Victorian England.

The second director is the less-known Czech surreal animator, Jan Švankmajer.  His 'Alice', filmed in 1988, captures the dream logic and suggested darkness of the books.  Alice herself veers inexplicably between real life girl and porcelain doll.  The White Rabbit is a menacing being that continually leaks sawdust from its chest.  The Caterpillar is a sock which speaks to Alice through false teeth.  The action takes place within a kind of cabinet of curiosities - a claustrophobic world of interior rooms, memento mori and animated children's playthings.

If you want to observe the spirit of Alice on film, these are the ones to watch.  Better still, read the books and rediscover a lost alternate England, the beauty and comedy of language, and the dark reflected logic of the dream world.


Paavo Shaman
(BooksChatter contributor)

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