There was so much I enjoyed as a child: Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy (I admit it), Grimms’ Fairy Tales (I found Andersen a bit tame), Peter Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tales of King Arthur, The Wind in the Willows. I’m afraid that the Bible doesn’t feature in that list: we weren’t that kind of family. But as to my all-time favourites, there’s no question. It’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. To me these will always be the great masterpieces of children's literature.
Today I was idly thumbing through books in a local charity shop (I know, I know…I’m supposed to be downsizing). To my delight, there for the price of a pint of beer was Alberto Manguel’s collection of essays A Reader on Reading. I’d come across enthusiastic reviews of his book The Library at Night but I’d never read him for myself. I opened the book and off the page leaped one of John Tenniel’s timeless illustrations to Alice, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (What would Alice be without those graphic engravings that so perfectly captured the essence of the books?)
I started reading about the influence Alice had had on Alberto’s childhood, how ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Looking-Glass Land’ became metaphors of his life as a writer and a man. And I thought: yes, that’s me too. Not in a very conscious way, and certainly not understood with the kind of insight with which Manguel writes – at least, in the couple of chapters I’ve read so far. But it prompted me to pay my own tribute to Alice. This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. And there is local interest too, for Lewis Carroll was brought up at Croft-on-Tees at the very gate of County Durham where his father was incumbent of the parish.
What was it about Alice that I responded to as a child? I wrote a blog at Christmas (scroll down to 24 Dec 2014) about the 'Alice' windows at Fenwick's in Newcastle and touched on this. Maybe I loved the elusiveness of the stories, the sense of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ with which Carroll constantly teases his young readers. They seemed to stretch my imagination in ways that made other children’s literature feel wooden by comparison. In a world where nothing is quite what it seems (which happens to be universe we live in), metaphor, analogy and symbolism are everything.
Carroll often touches on the nature of language, most famously when Humpty Dumpty outlines his theory of language in which he decides what words will mean. ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense but it’s also not-nonsense: in its chaotic jumble of sounds, you feel there could be a meaning just over some horizon that it’s your own fault you can’t grasp. And then (and this is where Manguel’s book begins) there is Alice lost in a forest of forgetfulness where nothing has a name. The image is straight out of Dante walking in his dark wood not knowing which way to go, but Carroll makes it entirely his own. I remember feeling chilled when I used to read that chapter in Looking Glass and the sense of relief when we emerged on the other side.
I wrote ‘we’ just then. For yes, this wasn’t just Alice’s adventure. It was mine too – it must have been, or I wouldn’t have felt so implicated in her fortunes. And that seems to me to be what makes great literature. You find yourself drawn into the story so that you become part of it. It’s a commonplace to say that this was what made Jesus’s parables so memorable. Whether it’s the Good Samaritan, the Rich Man and Lazarus or (for me especially) the Prodigal Son, it’s as if you are there. These stories are not about someone else. They are about you.
Perhaps I was already feeling for the themes that I came to explore in adulthood. I read mathematics and philosophy,and then theology at university. Philosophy tutors would sometimes invoke Alice to illustrate key themes: linguistic analysis, ideas, meaning, perception, personal identity, metaphysics and logic are all there but artlessly, as if Carroll was not really aware of what he was doing. The theological dimensions of Alice are less explored but they too would be a fertile field for study, for example transcendence and immanence, the nature and destiny of the human being, the quest for meaning, authenticity and happiness, eschatology or the last things. My wife is an analytic psychotherapist, and thanks to her I can now see in Alice echoes a-plenty of Freud’s ego, super-ego and id, and of Jung’s archetypes.
Maybe Alice’s constant experience of disorientation and reorientation has something to say not only to individuals but also to society. No doubt Alice is a looking-glass in which there are many reflections, but one of them is no doubt his own society going through the painful throes of industrialisation. Perhaps we can see our own collective condition reflected there too. Which is to say that while so much children’s literature feels like a flight away from a complex and often painful reality, Alice takes us right into its heart.
Alberto Manguel ends his introduction with this: ‘In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.’
Looking back, I think this may have been what it did for me. And yet, in a way that was always playful and expectant, as if to say: you will eventually reach that beautiful garden. You will make it to the eighth square of the chessboard. Just persevere to the end. Travel in hope. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ wrote Carroll’s Victorian contemporary Robert Browning. This is Christian hope.