A few months ago I began a contributing assignment for a Facebook writer’s group I belong to, and decided almost straightaway to re-post here on the blog for others to read the entries as well. Unfortunately, time often got in the way and I’ve since done several, perhaps five or six, without the additional postings. No worries, we can catch up or meander along, as we like!
Last night as I finished writing this most recent one, I decided to take the few moments it would require to get it going once and for all. And so here I present you first, the inimitable Lewis Carroll.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
You know Lewis Carroll and the journey his Alice took through Wonderland and, subsequently, in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, in which Alice moves through the story and countryside as a chess pawn, advancing from square to square by crossings on the terrain she follows. The stories’ main character is inspired by Alice Liddell, with whose family Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was acquainted. Their relationship and later years are magnificently explored in Anne Clark’s The Real Alice, which I read as a teen and highly recommend. Also worth checking out is Martin Gardner’s fantastic The Annotated Alice—especially the bit about looking glass milk, which fascinated me to no end as a child.
Some interesting tidbits about Through the Looking Glass and chess may be found here.
However, Charles Dodgson was much more than a quirky children’s author. He was also a mathematician and logician, artist and Anglican cleric who served as a don at Oxford University. In his time the art of photography was in its infancy, and Dodgson was a keen practitioner, later running a successful studio that produced about 3,000 images, though many have been lost.
Dodgson taught mathematics at Christ Church College and, like today’s learners, many of the students were accustomed to blocking the possibility that they could do well in mathematics. He created fun ideas and games to help make the material less dense and dull, as well as syllogisms to aid in the study of logic. As the page linked here states, knowing about his scholarly achievements helps us to better understand his most famous works. (Do explore the whole page, but in particular the syzygies on bottom right, last image but one.)
From childhood, even before I fully understood what I was absorbing into my brain, I found Dodgson’s life and career to be fascinating and filled with worlds of information from nearly every discipline. Dodgson was also an artist and he inspired me to give the form a serious study, so for one year I focused utterly and completely on drawing.
I didn’t come out in the end a renowned artiste, but the experience did open for me many doors I hadn’t yet explored, exercised my brain in ways that enabled me to think using varied patterns, and exposed me, via a great deal of linkage, to many more creative ideas and people, all of which immensely enriched my life. As a lover of words, I took special delight in his nonsense verse; “portmanteau words”; literal use of phrases and idioms and poetry. One of my favorites was “Jabberwocky”:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
Dodgson was close friends with Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother to poet Christina Rossetti, also previously written about in these pages. George MacDonald, Scottish author and poet, was so enthusiastic about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that Dodgson decided to submit it for publication, and since its release in 1865 it has never been out of print. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died in 1898, just short of his 66th birthday.
It was many years following his death that the myths about Dodgson’s disinterest in women and deviant eye for girl children arose, perhaps partially exacerbated by his family’s suppression of his letters and journals, as they depicted relationships with adult females that would have been considered scandalous at the time, and the family wished to preserve his reputation. The accusations of pedophilia, too, ignore Victorian perceptions and habits and uphold an insistence upon viewing Dodgson via our 21st century lens. This isn’t to say that pedophilia was acceptable to Victorians, but rather that child nudity was perceived as a symbol of innocence and not erotica or pornographic. As stated in an essay where this debate is discussed, the accusations perhaps say more about the accusing society—ours—than Dodgson, especially given the modern sexualization of children.
Whether just for fun or a more serious study, try your hand at a few of Carroll’s puzzles at this page, which starts with another brief but fantastic bio of the author and contains a word on the puzzling question presented by Lewis Carroll, which has never been answered with complete certainty! A succinct summary of how the Alice books came to be, with some fascinating background, tells more here.
I can’t say enough about the two books mentioned in the first paragraph, and further study of this fascinating and genius man and his wonderful works, which keep us actively guessing and pondering, and probably always will.