Happy birthday to Lewis Carroll and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, two wonderful artists whose work has been celebrated long past their lifetimes. It’s interesting that two artists I have so much interest in have birthdays on the same day, which I never knew, just like in my last double-artist tribute to Bradbury and Debussy, another author and composer duo. 🙂 However, I have much to say about both artists, so this time, I will split up the birthday posts and just focus on the author for today.
According to The Literature Network: “Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on 27 January 1832 at the parsonage in Daresbury, Cheshire County, England…His stories for children remain the most popular, but not only was Carroll a prolific author of highly original fiction he also wrote essays, political pamphlets, short stories, poetry, and mathematical textbooks.”
My relationship with Lewis Carroll over the years has been interesting. Like most people in my generation, I daresay, my first exposure to him was through Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland movie.
It was…goodish. I watched it several times as a kid, but it was never one of my favorites. My next introduction was during a voluntary lunchtime reading circle (Junior Great Books) in elementary school that Kara, Lindsey, and I did together. We read a long excerpt from the book, but none of us really enjoyed it. It was really, really silly–absurd. And aren’t kids supposed to like absurd things? We were missing something.
Then, a couple of years ago, Disney and Tim Burton came out with a live-action sequel:
I LOVED it! This was everything I thought Alice in Wonderland should be: majestic, sweeping, epic, passionate, dark, soul-searching. The danger and stakes were more real, with the terrifying Jabberwocky brought to life:
And oh, the Strong Female Character that was Alice in a FULL SUIT OF ARMOR…
I loved it so much, in fact, that I decided to give the book another go.
Immediately, I was hit again by the overwhelming absurdity of it all. There really is no better word to describe it. It’s silly, yes, but in such a satirical way that it’s a wonder to me that it’s considered a children’s book at all. I realized I had to read only a few pages at a time at most, because while it was funny, every single word was part of a joke with a two-fold–at the least–meaning. Never before had I read something so dense in humor. I am still stalled partway through Through the Looking Glass, which it seems Disney also incorporated into its animated movie.
Besides the layers of humor, though, I uncovered something else in my adult reading of the book: that those emotional and epic elements I loved so much in the sequel movie were still present in the original, still ripe kernels wrapped in complex prose. It is one case–maybe the ONLY case–where I find the language is in danger of distracting from the story.
However, considering the Alice stories were originally oral, told to entertain some friends’ children during afternoon outings, perhaps the language itself is meant to entertain as much as the story. It seems that children often delight in riddles and tricks, so the turns-of-phrase rampant on each page remind us adults to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, even if we do recognize deeper commentaries on life and society. The Alice stories continue to be a hallmark of English literature and cinema–spreading to worldwide art–constantly inspiring new books (like the Splintered trilogy, the second of which I listed in my post on the most-anticipated books of January 2014),
…movies, TV shows (like ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland), video games (like American McGee’s Alice), songs, etc. It’s hard to imagine many other texts that have inspired such a creative response. There’s some magic that resonates through the centuries with Carroll’s Alice, and just like we can derive different meanings throughout our own years, surely, we have done the same collectively in our culture. However, if we strip it down, we can still find those basic elements of adventure and wonder that are so exciting to people of any age.