Adventures with Alice

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)

The start of classes has me thinking about some favourite books. This term, I’m teaching a class in British fantasy. We’re starting the course with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, but I’m also thinking about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Beggar Maid is the most infamous of the photographs Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell. The Liddell children, daughters to Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church at Oxford University, accompanied Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robinson Duckworth on a day of boating in July 1862.
Lewis amused his companions by telling them the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground. You can read Lewis’s account of the day in his diary entry of 4 July 1862. Carroll had known the Liddell children since 1856. While critics have had cause to question the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell in the last one hundred-fifty years, no one can deny the impact of the fictional Alice and her adventures on popular culture.
I’ve always had something of a problem with Alice. I never particularly liked the book, but I didn’t know why. So, I started teaching it. I found plenty to discuss with students about Alice—the way she navigates Wonderland, the impossible and chaotic geography of the place, and the mad creatures she meets along the way.
Many critics identify Alice’s Adventures as marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. One of the best introductions to this period of children’s books is, still, I think, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Carpenter brings the same slightly quirky, yet probing spirit to his examination of this period as he does to his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and his book about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
Whatever else Alice does when she appears in 1865, she changes the way we read and understand kid’s books. I resist calling Alice’s Adventures a fantasy—the book is many things, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s absurd, it’s chaotic, it’s nonsensical, and the book is coloured by desire, appetite, and bizarre anxieties. Like Carroll himself and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the book is a puzzle.
IN the summer of 2018, my eldest daughter and I had the chance to visit the Alice in Wonderland Exhibit in Melbourne. The exhibit included photographs, puppets, costumes, film sets, and almost every way in which Alice has entered the popular imagination in the last hundred years. It was astounding, strange, disconcerting, and a little overwhelming. More than anything else, the exhibit reinforced for me the puzzle that is Alice and her adventures down the rabbit-hole.

Remembering Oxford

I’m about to begin Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust. Like The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s imaginary Oxford. Every fall, I seem to revisit Oxford, if not in the flesh, then through my favourite books and authors.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both worked and lived in Oxford for most of their adult lives. My first visit to Oxford had my daughter and me arriving late on a rainy August evening, wandering up and down the High street and looking for the Porter’s lodge to Magdalen College. You can read about that trip here and here. Enjoy!

Photo taken on a trip to Oxford, August, 2015.

New Fiction, Sort Of

Submitting to literary journals means a couple of things: you get rejected a lot, and you will often receive email news and updates from those same journals who have rejected your work. Having said that, I also get email from those journals who have accepted my fiction and nonfiction. One of those is daCunha.
Last year, daCunha published “And Tears Fell No More,” my first attempt at a robot story. I hope to write many more. The journal requires a subscription, so I’ve never made the story available. However, I was please the other day to read an email from daCunha to say “And Tears Fell No More” is available free for the month of September. Check out the story, and check out daCunha—they’re an interesting journal with much to offer.

Anne, Continued

When I posted the link to Eastern Iowa Review’s call for Anne submissions last week, I thought that would be it. Apparently not. August is going to contain more Anne than I expected.
Eastern Iowa Review is already publishing pieces on Anne. Here are two samples:
Lily MacKenzie’s short story, “The Dollhouse,”
And
Marilyn Kriete’s essay, “Anne Shirley Revisited.”
These are two examples of ways to write about Anne. However, and as always, I would encourage #AnneFans to explore their love for this character in as many ways as possible: how you met her, why you love her. I’m one of those people who discovered Anne as an adult, which you can read more about here.
As a reader and a teacher, I never grow tired of hearing stories from students who encounter particular books or characters for the first time. Especially as a young reader, such encounters can be overwhelming. It’s like discovering a whole world just outside your window you didn’t know was there. C. S. Lewis understood this experience more than most:
“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more moth-balls?” she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hands. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold, “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
(Lewis, C. S. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. “Lucy Looks into a Wardrobe.”)
Lucy’s first encounter with Narnia captures for me the experience of discovering a new character or book for the first time. And there have been many over the years: Anne, Bilbo, Ged, Meg Murray, Will Stanton, Marlo, Ishmael, Emma Woodhouse, Pip, and the Wart, all characters who have enriched my life more than I can measure.